A non-Muslim experience teaching at an Islamic school

Meet Coley Marie who is an American Christian. Coley Marie took on a teaching position at an Islamic school several years ago and much to her surprise, her experiences have helped shape her view on what it really means to be a Muslim.
Coley Marie has been kind enough to share a little bit about her experiences with Verona Collection.

Interviewed by: Marwa Balkar

1. Is there anything specific that peaked your interest in teaching at an
Islamic school?

After teaching in public schools for five years in Maryland, my passion had diminished and I was ready to leave the profession for good. However, before making such a major decision, I figured that I should try out teaching at a private school. Hence, how I began working at an Islamic School back in my hometown in Michigan. I didn’t know much about Islam before accepting a position at my school, but I had always been curious about the religion.  I am now the happiest that I’ve ever been in my teaching career – I’m privileged to work in a context where cultural and religious diversity is celebrated.  My passion for teaching has been revitalized - it was just what I needed in my life.
 
2. Would you encourage other people of different faiths to work at religious
schools that are different than their own beliefs?
If yes, why?

I'll be honest; it took me some time to feel comfortable as a Non-Muslim at my school (I am one of four, by the way). At first, I felt more like a foreign exchange student rather than a teacher. I had to assimilate into a new culture, immerse myself in a new language, and adjust to my new surroundings. I also had reservations about sharing details with others regarding teaching at an Islamic school. In fact, I just recently went public with my workplace after keeping it under wraps for the past five years. As a result of putting my secret out into the universe, I’ve now opened the door for my family, my friends, and even strangers to have an interfaith conversation. This, to me, is the best thing that could have come out of my decision to teach at an Islamic school – I’ve been empowered! That’s why I would encourage open-minded individuals, who are willing to step outside of their comfort zones, to teach at religious schools different than their own - appreciating other religious beliefs is a key element of tolerance. I’ve also learned that Islam and Christianity share a lot of commonalities. For instance, I had no idea that Islam actually recognizes Christ as an important figure. We all can learn something from one another – I’m so honored to be a light for others.


3. Is there anything interesting that you've learned or gained from teaching
at an Islamic school?


I’ve gained an appreciation of Islam and what it stands for in a time when there is such a pervasive anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States and beyond. I’ve built some wonderful relationships with my colleagues, students, and families, and I’ve become a better and more confident person as a result. My experience teaching at an Islamic School has also led me to begin writing for a digital magazine for modern Muslim women called Miss Muslim, which has been such an amazing opportunity! I’ve learned from being a part of this online community that there’s a spectrum in Islam just like there is in Christianity as it does a really great job at dispelling stereotypes about Muslims. It’s certainly been eye-opening for me.

4. Have you faced any discrimination from parents or students for being a Christian teacher at an Islamic school? If yes, how did you break  down that barrier, and what was the outcome?

I’ve never once felt discriminated against or judged by any of my colleagues, students, or parents. In fact, I’ve always felt very accepted and embraced by my school family. The parents value my teaching and the relationship that I have with their child, not my religious background.  In a way, we’re all kind of intrigued by each other.  This past December, I participated in the "A Day in Her Hijab" event in order to show my solidarity with the Muslim community. The moment my students finally saw me in a hijab for the first time was incredibly powerful. It allowed them to know that despite all the hatred and discrimination their religion may face, I am truly on their side.


5. Do you participate in any Islamic holidays or practices?
If yes, which one is your favorite?


I was able to witness my 5th and 6th graders fast for the first time during Ramadan this past May. I was in such awe of my students and felt more spiritually connected to them. After five years of teaching at my school, I finally attended my first Ladies' Iftar at a colleague's home. It was such an unforgettable experience, and I was able to gain more insight and learn more about their traditions and rituals during Ramadan. It was an honor to be a part of such a sacred moment when they broke their fast, and it allowed me to connect with my school family on a deeper level. I plan to attend an Iftar every year now! I’m also learning Arabic from a former student, which has been super challenging for me, to say the least.


6. From your experience of being a teacher at an Islamic school, can you
understand why there is so much animosity toward Muslim communities in
America?


For the many Americans who have no personal experience knowing Muslims as human beings like I do, I can see why they may fear the religion due to the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of Islam in the media post 9/11. Unfortunately, many Americans don’t fully grasp the teachings of Islam; rather they are obtaining their information from biased and fear-eliciting news programs. As a result, they paint Muslims with a very broad brush, which is very unfair.  The Muslims that I know are some of the most insanely beautiful people inside and out, so I take it very personally whenever I hear anti-Muslim sentiments being expressed.


7. Being a non-Muslim who has existed within a Muslim community for a
while, what would you say to someone who fears Islam?


I’d urge a person who fears Islam to turn off the news and take the initiative to learn more about Muslims and Islam from fair and accurate sources. I’d also challenge them to rise above their unfounded fears by taking the time to engage in some dialogue with a Muslim – maybe attend an interfaith event in their community. If only they would look beyond the hijab and stereotypes, they would see that they fully embrace the American values of family, freedom, and opportunity. I’d also tell people that Islam is a religion of peace and Muslims truly have the desire to help make this nation a great and safe place.

6 comments

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Seymour Butts

You need to do more outreach. More outreach, more $$$ and fame.

Saied Ashour

Salam walaikum sister, I love the interview but my question is why did you not invite her to Islam. Surely Allah azawajal has guided her heart to the right direction ameen. Please sister, use your public figure influence to guide our brothers and sisters to the right path. May Allah perserve you and your intentions, and may he keep your public figure status so you may introduce our beautiful deen to the rest of the world.

Diana Alqud

Coley Marie sounds like she could be a very positive role model for the American Muslim community. A major problem of ours is maintaining our identity – and to have someone who is viewed as ‘normal’ in society embrace the religion and stand for its tenets of modesty and character is definitely encouragement. I can be truly at rest when I know that my neighbors do not think it weird that we pray 5 times a day!

Jana

Very beautiful…Ameen

S

*positivity

S

This was a nice & unexpected article. Kudos for the originality and for finding a little bit of positivist out there!

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