Beyond Biology: Teaching the Future with Heart
Baiyinah Abdullah, the recipient of this year’s New Teacher of the Year award at Lamar, is a teacher who makes sure that biology is more than just the study of living organisms. You could say it is in her genes; Ms. Abdullah follows a legacy of teaching – her parents are ESL and early childhood teachers. She was raised primarily in Galveston, TX (and it remains her favorite place!). In addition, she brings a global background to the IB school, having spent a few years of her childhood in Middle East and moving to Houston in high school.
Although a new teacher at Lamar, she is not new to teaching; throughout high school and college, she taught and tutored children ages 4-16 in programs at public and private school and her local mosque. In talking about what made her choose to become a teacher, she says, "Throughout the years, I really loved building relationships with my students and getting to share a love for whatever it was I was teaching. As an African American Muslim woman, I related especially to my students of color, and the struggles that they went through in facing the inequities in education.”
Regarding the path to deciding to become a teacher, Ms. Abdullah completed her Bachelor of Science in Biology at the University of Houston. While there, she was part of a teaching program called teachHOUSTON. Ms. Abdullah says, “Going into it, I was not sure if I wanted to be a teacher. However, as I progressed in college and took on more opportunities to educate, I realized that the things I wanted most out of life and the skills I enjoyed practicing were attainable through education. I felt empowered by the people in my life – family, mentors, teachers, friends – who had looked out for me and pushed me towards success. The opportunity to do the same for my future students was too good to pass up.” High school students don’t always know exactly where they are going in life, so it’s good to know that an award winning teacher can relate to that!
She advises students who may be interested in becoming teachers to take their time in making their decision and to seek opportunities to teach early. Ms. Abdullah provides the following advice:
- Make sure that you explore your interests and that you are in it for the right reasons.
- Various opportunities are unfortunately not equally accessible to all people, so be sure to build a support system to help you find opportunities and scholarships.
- Take the time to do the research and educate yourself on what you need to make opportunities available to you. It is okay to improvise!
- Reach out to good teachers you know and mentors in other fields, and practice asking the right questions. Don’t underestimate the power of your intuition – if it feels right, try it!
There are many reasons that Ms. Abdullah was awarded Lamar’s New Teacher of the Year, but one key factor is her involvement with her students beyond the lessons of Biology and her concern about students beyond academic needs. Every two weeks, she leads students in a restorative practice called Circles to promote and build community. The class is organized into a circle and we check in with what is called a “fist to five” to indicate how the day is going and provide an opportunity for students to reflect on their week. The questions range from silly (“If you could pick anything to shrink down to pocket-size and carry around with you, what would it be and why?”), to serious and thought-provoking (“What would you NOT want to change about your life, and why?”). Ms. Abdullah believes that Circles provides outlets that allow student voices to be heard.
She says, “Mental health, in my opinion, is one of the biggest issues facing our students today, and it is not addressed in many places. Circles gives my students (and myself) the opportunity to talk about what is plaguing us, what is healing us, and what is bringing us together.” Ms. Abdullah recognizes that Lamar is a big school, but the school’s new neighborhood system “gives us a small school feel, with big school opportunities. We have really become a family in our neighborhood, and I could not be prouder of the role that my students played in developing that culture!”
When asked about how she felt to receive the New Teacher of the Year award, she responded that she felt blessed and honored that her students and colleagues thought highly enough of her to nominate her. She says, “I am one of those people who can forget to appreciate themselves, and I think that sometimes the world needs more people appreciating themselves and being their whole selves, because when we do that for ourselves, we give other people the permission to do it, too.”
As a student at Lamar, I hope Ms. Abdullah knows that she is very much appreciated for all that she does! Ms. Abdullah makes her class not only a period to learn what you are made of, but also who you are; she helps all her students recognize that we are all more than the sum of our parts!
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