Friday, February 28, 2014

Powerful Teaching

I am currently enrolled in a certificate program in adult training and development, at the University of Toronto. Still have a couple of courses left. I took it because I felt that my passion lies in teaching, and that this program would give me the credentials, contacts, and guidance I needed to pursue such a career path. AlhamduliLlah, Allah opened a door for me to complement my academic training with real work experience by working as a teaching assistant for a reputable online Arabic program. 

The challenge for me, as it is perhaps for all instructors, is to keep the students motivated, engaged, and committed. Without a motivated/engaged student, the transfer of knowledge between instructor and student won’t occur. There are so many reasons for lack of motivation/engagement, and here is sample of them:

  • Lack of confidence
  • Fear of being judged
  • Overwhelm from topic or material
  • Intimidation/discouragement by the level and progress of other students
  • Unclear expectations of the program
  • Feeling lost
  • Lack of desire  to be taking the program in the first place
  • Cultural or religious issues with some of the content or delivery
  • Distractions by personal issues
  • Conflicting relationships with another student
  • Etc.
One fundamental practice of effective teaching or training - whether it be in a classroom, madrasah, halaqah, or even at home - that mitigates many of the above issues, is investing time right at the start in establishing a safe learning environment. A learning environment is safe when it is non-threatening, hospitable, supportive, encouraging, trusting, empathetic, synergistic, respectful, focussed, organized. A safe environment, in a nutshell, removes potential barriers to learning that students pre-empt and anticipate. When the instructor devotes time in the beginning to removing those barriers, the student’s path to learning becomes not only easier, but desirable.

So how does the instructor establish a safe environment? The following few suggestions might be unheard of in certain settings, especially in traditional settings of Islamic learning. But these suggestions are what I have been taught, and I have found them to be powerful: 
  • Personally greet each student before the class starts - usually when the students are entering the room. Give each student the gift of your personal attention, letting them know that you’ll be the instructor. One benefit of a personal greeting, is that not only do you get to know the student a little, but you also demonstrate that your are approachable.
  • Express how happy and excited you are to be able to teach.  A positive attitude (just like a negative attitude) is contagious. Express your happiness over the turn-out. Celebrate the diversity of the class by sharing what you learnt about the students during the initial personal greeting. Show that you’re happy to be in the company of each student in the class. And express your passion for the material you’ll be imparting.
  • Introduce yourself, not just about all your past achievements and experiences, but about your shortcomings. Some self-deprecation is important in showing the humanity in you - that you, as an instructor, are just human, and have faults like everyone else. By doing so, you bring yourself down to the students’ level, which is important in building relationships with your students. You can deprecate yourself in a small way - like relating a funny incident earlier in the day, or the challenges you’ve faced in the field.
  • Set ground rules for the class. In fact, ask the class what the ground rules should be, to generate collaboration and participation. Common ground rules include: confidentiality, respect for time, cell phone use policy, leaving problems at home at home, respect for diversity, zero-tolerance for harrassment and discrimination, equitable opportunity for each student to participate, etc. 
  • Outline the schedule and curriculum of the program/course. Let students know what they will get out of the program - what they will achieve. Give them the big picture.
  • Have soft openers (activities) that have some relevance to the content, but also provide a fun way to collaborate with other classmates. Just as it is important to develop the teacher-student relationship, so too is it important to develop the relationships between students. 
Most importantly, be clear that the learning experience is about the learner - not the teacher. Teaching is not about putting on a show and impressing the students. It’s not about elevating the teacher in the eye’s of his/her students. Teaching is about elevating and empowering the student - about passing on the torch of knowledge to others. It’s about being that one candle that is used to flicker a whole class of dormant candles.


“It is He Who has sent amongst the Unlettered an apostle from among themselves, to rehearse to them His Signs, to sanctify them, and to instruct them in Scripture and Wisdom,- although they had been, before, in manifest error.” [62:2]

The descriptions left behind about the Prophet illustrate that the environment he created around him was more than just safe - it was welcoming, informal, open, homely. Children would climb on him during prayer. His wives would communicate openly with him. People would as him the most private of questions, such as the man who asked how to make tayammum after having a wet dream (Bukhari, Muslim). There was an incident where a woman felt comfortable enough to directly ask for the Prophet’s hand in marriage (Bukhari). Another woman openly questioned the Prophet about why the Quran addressed men but not women (directly). A young man asked the Prophet , in public, for permission to commit adultery (Ahmad).

And there are many other incidents that, when pondered upon, will leave any man speechless at how people could feel so comfortable in the presence of the Best of Creation . This, of course, doesn’t negate the state of reverence, awe, and obedience the companions had toward the Prophet . May Allah grant you and I the honour experiencing the sweet, warm, beautiful company of the Prophet in paradise. 


  1. Ameen! A great read. I've always underestimated how much the teacher has to do/prepare for their class. But I personally found the ones that created the extra "safe learning environment" really helped the students to excel. Congrats on teaching Arabic online!

  2. JazakAllah for your comments. I agree that a safe learning environment makes learning a lot more easier.

  3. Beautiful, mashaAllah! I'm going to bookmark this as a reminder for myself inshaAllah. JazakAllah khair!

    1. AlhamduliLlah. Always happy when people feel they are benefitting.