It is my bedrock belief that teachers influence student outcomes more than any other education variable. This belief stems from the actions of my own seventh grade teacher, Ustad Abdulhamid. He was our Egyptian Arabic literature teacher, and a very tough teacher. He used to yell at students if they did not do their homework, or if they made mistakes. That was a common practice for most teachers when I was growing up in Somalia. In his class, we learned ancient and medieval classic Arabic poems, and other forms of literature.
But Ustad Abdulhamid recognized my hard work and my motivation to learn. He also saw my ill-fitting and ripped old shoes and understood that I lived in poverty. He had empathy for me, and his support changed my life. One day, after I recited a poem that I memorized before the class, he placed his hand on my shoulder, and pulled me toward his body. He demanded the attention of all 50-plus students. I could hear a pin drop.
He placed his index finger on my forehead and said, “Knowledge is written here. He is very poor, but I am sure this boy will be one of this nation’s scholars.” His words were liberating. I did not try to hide my family’s poverty anymore. I became me. I developed confidence. I was able to say, “I am smart.” He created hope in me. In short, his words influenced my decision-making from that day forward. I never again thought about leaving school after that day.
In the Spring of 2020, Leyla Hashi was selected to be the student speaker at the graduation ceremony of University of Southern Maine. She sent me this message. “You have no idea the amount of impact and influence you have in my life. Your support and kind words have helped me achieve a goal I never thought was possible, and I will forever and always tell you how grateful I am to you.” She was my student while she was in high school. Her kind words reminded me of Ustad Abdulhamid.
My former students may not remember the content we covered in classes. However, I know many of them remember that I cared about them. My goal remains to empower my students the same way Ustad Abdulhamid empowered me.
Dr. Abdullahi Ahmed is co-principal of Deering High School. This is the first of a series to be published in Amjambo Africa describing his journey from life in military-ruled Mogadishu, Somalia, to the first African-born leader of a school in Maine. Dr. Ahmed is married and has four children.