We cannot settle for mediocrity when it comes to educating our children
By Sufia Azmat
The Islamic school where I taught, and where my children studied, was the nation’s best Islamic school. Or so I thought when I was a young parent and a novice teacher. I continued to believe this for several years, based on my limited experience with Islamic schools — the ones my children attended in Pakistan and Illinois, and the one my niece and nephew attended in the same state. Only after I began attending the ISNA Education Forum in Chicago and interacting with educators from around the country did I realize that my school was only one of the best in the U.S. Even then, I didn’t fully grasp what “the best” meant.
Over the past decade, I’ve visited 50+ Islamic schools in the U.S. and several in Canada, Dubai and Turkiye. I’ve been to schools with as few as 25 students to schools with 800 students, where classes are held in a small house with the backyard serving as the playground and where classrooms are a set of temporary modular units, to schools whose buildings are renovated churches or old public-school buildings from the 1950s. I’ve also been to schools in beautiful new buildings that rival the country’s best secular private schools. But schools cannot be judged by their outer appearances.
I’m often asked, “Which is the best Islamic school?” My response comes in the form of questions. First, how do we define “best school”? Is it the school with the largest and/or newest building or the one with the greatest number of students? Surely if the school’s enrollment is high, it must be the best one. Or is it the one with the smallest teacher-to-student ratio, whose students have the highest average standardized test scores or whose graduates matriculate to the country’s best colleges?
Maybe it’s the one whose students graduate having memorized the most Quran, or the one that’s been around the longest, whose teachers are all certified or have PhDs, or the one with the highest tuition?
Most parents can understand and relate to such questions, as those are the questions that seem, at first glance, to be the right ones to ask. But after having conducted a deep dive into school assessment and having served on accreditation review teams for both Muslim and non-Muslim schools, I began to ask other questions.
Is the best school the one that has transparent two-way communication with parents, where students are happiest based on anonymous survey responses, the school which has the lowest staff turnover rate or where teachers are respected and their feedback valued? Or is it the school that keeps its promises, holds itself to high standards and is always trying to improve its programs by continuous self-assessment, whose board members hold themselves accountable to themselves and their communities and safeguard the mission they have been entrusted with?
Or maybe it’s the school whose teachers treat their students with compassion, which has a discipline philosophy instead of a discipline policy, whose administrators are open to admitting that they don’t have all the answers and thus can make and learn from their mistakes? Are the best schools located in Muslim-majority countries?
Identifying the factors that make a school successful is a journey that I continue to map out. Gathering in beautiful Istanbul during October 2022 with educators from all over the world to formally establish the Global Association of Islamic Schools (https://gais.network) was a humbling experience, and one that filled me with hope – hope that sorely needed sustenance after the past few years of the world experiencing physical and social ills.
I was humbled upon hearing the success stories of the attending educators who are doing so much with so little and in the most inhospitable places. I was taken aback upon hearing one participant talk about how his schools couldn’t even mention that their mission included teaching anything about Islam. They must fly under the radar, lest the ruling political party shut down his schools. And here I’d been waxing lyrical about the importance of having a clear mission statement and aligning programs to the school’s mission.
I was also humbled upon hearing from Shazia Mirza about the Manzil Educational Organization which teaches students from Karachi’s marginalized areas. Without the Manzil Team, these children would be spending their time playing on cargo tracks in Raiti Lines and similar areas.
The encounter that filled me with the most hope was a session conducted by Salatu Sule. My friend — and I’m honored to call her that — shared pictures of her students at Nigeria’s New Horizons College. With a presentation titled “Helping Students Learn How to Think Like Muslims,” she proudly showed us slides of her students engaged in learning and creating. One of her slides contained the quote:
We come from Allah and we will return to Him.
Between these two points is the space we call life.
Our whole life is a ‘journey from Allah to Allah’.
Within that space is our ‘residence for a while’
and ‘provisions’ for the journey from Allah to Allah.
Education should serve the purpose of helping us
maintain sound hearts on this journey,
preserve our fitrah.
Sule’s teaching framework forms the basis for the students’ pro-community work, guiding them to choose how to give value to their communities. Her team observed that drawing seemed to give space for deeper reflection on the content, ultimately leading to some students asking deep questions. She shared student sketches from the lesson on the fall of Iblis.
The love and care her voice displayed when she showed us the pictures of the girls huddled around one computer or sitting on the floor and writing and drawing in composition notebooks was everything a parent could ask for in their child’s teacher. She shared pictures of the boys creating ottomans with old truck tires brought in from the streets and of girls making floor cushions based on their own flourishing creativity. They were learning skills that would help them earn a living once they graduated. To have a teacher like Sule would mean that her school was the BEST one for my child!
The reality is that there’s no best school and that there IS one best school for every family! It’s incumbent upon us to make schools the best schools for our children. We, as parents, grandparents or just Muslims who care about our ummah’s future, must step up. Why are we satisfied with mediocre quality when it comes to educating our children? Why do we save up and buy the best tech gadgets and the nicest cars and spend on lavish social events — yes, I’m talking to you who just hosted a wedding — while we neglect our children’s upbringing and education, one of our most important God-given duties?
Find a school and make it the best one. Do your part and ask questions. Become involved in your child’s education. Ask school leaders to work toward accreditation, for going through this process improves a school in every area. We can’t spend our whole life chasing after the best. Rather, we must take what is given to us and make it the best!
Sufia Azmat is executive director of the Council of Islamic Schools in North America, and a steering committee member of the Global Association of Islamic Schools.