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Muslim teacher bridges gap to share culture and diversity at South Carroll

Just before 9 a.m. Hena Shami herded a group of almost 10 students out of her classroom as the break between classes ended at South Carroll High School.

The remaining 10 students stayed for an advisory period with their new chemistry teacher, a 26-year-old Muslim born in Maryland from a Pakistani family — who has quickly become popular among the youths.

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Shami is part of 4 percent of Carroll County Public Schools staff that is not Caucasian.

“I was so nervous [on my first day last year],” Shami told the Times in an interview early Thursday morning. “I remember not just me being nervous, I remember the looks on the kids’ faces. I remember they looked at me and sat down; they didn’t know what to expect or how I was going to be.

“It took them a while to kind of break out of their shell,” she said, “but the relationships I’ve developed with some of the kids — I feel like even the kids that I felt didn’t like me will now just randomly stop by and be like, ‘Hi, Ms. Shami!’ and run out on their way to another class.”

The teacher shared part of her story at the latest Carroll County Board of Education meeting, during a presentation about diversity recruitment and retention. She explained that she first became interested in the county at the Maryland Education Recruitment Consortium fair held at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County last year.

Diversity recruitment and retention at CCPS

It was there that Shami met Chantress Baptist, CCPS director of human resources — who told the BOE on Feb. 13 that one of her main goals is for the diversity of CCPS staff to at least mirror that of its students.

According to the presentation, 83 percent of Carroll County students are white, and 17 percent belong to other races — 4 percent African-American, 7 percent Hispanic, 3 percent two or more races, and 3 percent Asian.

But 96 percent of Carroll’s teachers are white, 3 percent are African-American, and 1 percent Asian. That's 141 staff members out of 3,388 across all bargaining groups.

Although 4 percent of CCPS staff belong to minority groups, Baptist explained that 8 percent of CCPS hires this past year contributed to that — eight minority hires out of 98 — and that the county participates in 32 recruitment events each year seeking new talent.

Counties like Howard and Harford — although they recruited 103 and 29 minority teachers, respectively, according to the presentation — are larger counties and diversity around the same rate of 7 to 8 percent, she said.

“That exposure not only helps minority students, but non-minority students in building their confidence, the ability to be creative, as well as positive impacts of cultural acceptance and inclusion,” Baptist said.

Questions for a hijabi
First year South Carroll chemistry teacher Hena Shami sometimes refers her students to "Yes, I'm Hot in This - the Hilarious Truth about Life in a Hijab" when they have questions about her headscarf.
First year South Carroll chemistry teacher Hena Shami sometimes refers her students to "Yes, I'm Hot in This - the Hilarious Truth about Life in a Hijab" when they have questions about her headscarf. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

Shami is an example of that, as she fields questions from her predominately white group of students such as: Is she offended by comments about ISIS? Does she have hair under her hijab? Aren’t “American Indians” and people from India the same?

“I know that it’s not out of a negative place,” she said. “I know it’s just out of curiosity. They’re blunt. I have a very open relationship with the kids.

“I want them to feel like they can say whatever’s on their mind, be in an environment where they can ask questions,” Shami said. “They don't have to feel shy or nervous about asking anything. I make that very clear from the get-go.”

Shami said she overheard one student tell another who was growing out his facial hair recently that he “looked like ISIS.”

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When she told him that was inappropriate to say, “he said, ‘I didn’t mean to offend you.’”

She said she asked why she would be offended by that, to which the student responded: “Because you know, it’s your religion.”

“It’s actually not,” Shami explained. “That's not part of my religion. It’s completely not what I believe.

“Just because someone was a Muslim and did something doesn’t mean that's what Islam represents. It’s completely against my religion to be so violent, and be so vile, and those hate crimes,” she said.

She has a cartoon book that answers some of those questions in her classroom, called, “Yes, I’m Hot in This: The Hilarious Truth about Life in a Hijab,” by Huda Fahmy.

And she keeps a list on her whiteboard of students and the page they are on, so they can come back and continue reading from where they left off.

How American are you?

“The kid who asked me, ‘How American are you?’ I remember he drew out a map on the board and was like, ‘Show me where you would be from. I said, ‘Well I was born here [in the United States], but my parents are from here [in Pakistan]. And this is where we are [in Maryland].’ And I tried to show him a little bit,” Shami explained.

“I pointed to another kid and said, ‘He's Italian, he's a first-generation Italian. His parents moved here, too. [The student said] ‘Yeah, that doesn’t make me any less American,’” she said. “I was like, ‘So why does it make me less American?’ And he was like, ‘No, you're right.’

“I tried to use it as a tool to help them.”

Shami listens to hip-hop and pop music on her way to South Carroll from Elkridge in the morning — she likes Ariana Grande and Ed Sheeran — and uses popular makeup brands like Tarte and Benefit to line her big brown eyes and accentuate her eyelashes.

She gets her hijabs — head scarves — from Target and Forever 21. She wears Tory Burch flats with a matching bracelet, her Apple Watch has a screen protector, and that week her nails were a pastel shade of purple.

First year South Carroll chemistry teacher Hena Shami sometimes refers her students to the book "Yes, I'm Hot in This - the Hilarious Truth about Life in a Hijab" when they have questions about her headscarf.
First year South Carroll chemistry teacher Hena Shami sometimes refers her students to the book "Yes, I'm Hot in This - the Hilarious Truth about Life in a Hijab" when they have questions about her headscarf. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

The chemistry teacher got an early start though — earning her bachelor’s degree at 18 after going to a conservative private Islam school from kindergarten through eighth grade and then being home-schooled before attending community college and then the University of Maryland, College Park.

“At that point I was kind of on the pre-med track,” she told the Times. “I was a psych major with a lot of science classes and a minor in education and human development.

“I kind of knew I liked education, but didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

She met her husband in college, and they got married shortly after she graduated. He is a physical education teacher in Baltimore. They had to two daughters — Ayse, now 5, and Saliha, 6 — before she went to graduate school at Loyola University and worked with both elementary and middle school students.

“This year is my first year in high school,” Shami said. "I love it compared with the other two. I just feel like I connect better with older kids. It’s nice to be able to have conversations with them — and they’re more independent. It’s just really fun to be be able to talk to them about what types of careers they want, what they like to do, their hobbies.”

She said that although she was terrified at first, she now feels like she belongs at CCPS, surrounded by supportive colleagues and students.

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“Stay, Live and Prosper”

Judy Jones, CCPS supervisor of equity and community outreach, told the Board of Education in February that one key part of her job can be summed up by the acronym “SLAP” — to get teachers to “Stay, Live and Prosper” in Carroll County.

“We want all of our minority employees to feel and accept Carroll County Public Schools, their place of employment, as home,” she told them, “not a system where they simply get great training, get experience, and once they get everything from us they go to another county.”

According to their presentation, the CCPS minority retention rate is 80 percent, while the non-minority retention rate is 96 percent.

Baptist said another goal is to make both numbers the same.

The county is small and cozy enough that they can check in on staff regularly to ensure they learn their teachers’ larger career goals, needs and concerns, Jones said.

“I'm here because someone saw something in me,” she said. “I always had someone tap me on the shoulder about opportunities, and where did I see myself. It made me feel wanted, made me feel appreciated, the reason why I'm still here several years later.

“My job is to create opportunities, to spot talent, and give minority employees some sort of insight on growth opportunities in our county, offer them opportunities to attend equity and diversity conferences, cultural proficiency training, and it also gives them a place to feel like ‘I'm needed here in the county,’ ” Jones said. “We also help them become a part of CCPS outreach committees — for instance, social committee if they want to be mentors mentoring students other teachers — again, giving them an opportunity to have leadership abilities right where they are.

“If teachers can have it, custodians can have it, instructional assistants can have it: Where do I see myself in the next couple years?” she said. “And not again, going to another county.”

The entire diversity recruitment and retention report can be viewed online through the agenda for the Feb. 13 Board of Education meeting, which can be found at www.carrollk12.org. The video from the meeting can also be found on the website, under the meeting videos tab.

First year South Carroll chemistry teacher Hena Shami talks with sophomore Becky Dailey during her advisiory period Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019.
First year South Carroll chemistry teacher Hena Shami talks with sophomore Becky Dailey during her advisiory period Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)
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