Mohammad Ahmad was in fourth grade on 9/11. In the aftermath of the terror attacks, Ahmad, an American Muslim, faced hateful backlash from his peers. He was called a terrorist and was subjected to jokes about his faith.
Years on, that painful experience motivated Ahmad, a high school teacher, to create safe, inclusive spaces for his students. Specifically, he works to check his own biases and encourages his students to call him out if they perceive an offense or an injustice. “As the person of ‘power’ in the classroom, an apology and public recognition of fault goes a long way toward repairing relationships, increasing self-esteem, and building a community,” he said.
Ahmad, who teaches computer science, math, and financial literacy at the Bronx Academy of Letters, was recently named Amazon Future Engineer Teacher of the Year, for promoting inclusion in computer science. The award comes with $50,000 in prize money and supplies for Bronx Academy of Letters.
And he’s looking forward to getting back to campus, despite the unusual circumstances that will greet educators and students when school starts again next month. “My classroom is my second home,” he said. “Education is very personal and remote learning is very much the opposite.”
Ahmad spoke recently with Chalkbeat about his classroom community, the recognition from Amazon, his commitment to diversifying the field of computer science, and how he helped his students navigate their grief following the sudden death of the school’s young principal.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How and when did you decide to become a teacher?
Most of my life I wanted to go into medicine. In my senior year of high school, I took a Future Educators of America elective course (mainly to get out of AP Calculus B), and I got to be a teacher assistant in a sophomore World History class with a teacher I really respected. I still can’t find the words to describe the satisfaction I felt sharing my knowledge and helping people learn and understand something they might not have otherwise. I think it was that experience that sowed the seeds that would blossom into my current career.
You teach three different subjects. How did you manage to balance everything and teach all of these subjects remotely?
When we first started remote teaching, I found myself working seven days a week, from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed. I had to learn to balance fielding phone calls and emails from students, lesson planning, meeting with colleagues, and doing whatever task seemed to pop up at all times of the day. I’ve heard students say, “I miss school” more times than I ever imagined I would. It was only through the support of my colleagues and school administration that I was able to get a handle on my schedule. It was hectic at times, especially since the New York City Department of Education didn’t give schools adequate time to figure out how to take their school virtual, but it was a valuable professional learning experience. No matter what happens in the years to come, I will always have online components to all my classes — and ways for students without reliable internet access to complete those components — regardless of subject matter.
Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
Once, I met with a student’s mother to discuss his progress in my class. I took three years of Spanish in high school, and I rattled off a memorized line: “I understand Spanish, but speak very little.” I began the process of getting a translator when she stopped me. She said that I was a teacher and should know that I needed to practice to learn. She insisted that I speak to her in Spanish as best as I can, no matter how long it took to get points across. This experience led me to try to speak to Spanish-speaking families in Spanish more often unless conversations were serious and warranted a translator. That student’s mother taught me that overcoming my discomfort and shyness opened doors to connections I wouldn’t have made through a translator or translation service.
How did you find out you had won the Amazon award? What will this prize — and the money and supplies that come with it — mean for your school?
I was blindsided by the announcement at the start of our weekly 10th grade team meeting. We were told we’d have a guest speak to us briefly, and I had no idea what it was about. I was speechless. It’s easy to get down on yourself in education, so the kindness and validation was much needed.
This award couldn’t have come at a better time. With the pandemic, the city and state governments announced that they were going to cut funding to education. It is not uncommon for staff at my school to provide all their classes with binders, notebooks, writing utensils, paper, and various other school supplies. At the start of this pandemic, our school cannibalized itself to provide students with technology and the ability to continue their education remotely. This Amazon award for technology will provide us with the foundation to rebuild what we were forced to dismantle and disseminate.
The award recognized your work promoting diversity in computer science. Why is that important to you?
Computer science is largely perceived as a male-led and male-dominated field with a lower ratio of BIPOC than white men. The truth is that … from Ada Lovelace to Margaret Hamilton to Grace Hopper, we have women to thank for the development of the computer science field. I’m proud to say that out of the 18 students in my AP Computer Science Principles class in the 2019-2020 school year, all were BIPOC students and eight were girls. In the three years I’ve been teaching computer science courses, I’ve had students who at one point didn’t even consider a future in computer science to be realistic go on to study computer science-related majors in college.
Tell us about your own experience with school and how it affects your work today.
I grew up in Broward County in South Florida. The tragedy of September 11, 2001 happened when I was in fourth grade. After 9/11, I was warned by my mother to be careful what I say, even jokingly, because it could be misconstrued and I could face severe consequences that would impact my whole family. I was only 10 at the time but these were real fears Muslims had to navigate and still do to an extent. For years in school, I was subject to jokes about hiding terrorists in my home, having terrorists in my family, the importance of being cautious around me so I wouldn’t blow up, and other things that boiled my identity down to terrorism.
I take these experiences with me into the classroom every day as I reflect on my own biases. I try to watch my dialogue to avoid colloquial microaggressions that might negatively impact students. I work not to be offended when they inevitably call me out for something they felt was an injustice. Most of all, I believe in apologizing to students when I’ve made a mistake, no matter the magnitude.
How did you address the racism and social unrest of recent months with your students?
My classroom is a safe space, and students are allowed to say whatever they need to work through their thoughts, fears, and trauma without fear of judgement. These spaces can look like circles for discussion where one person speaks at a time, open forums in class where students speak and teachers guide discussions with questions, and opportunities for students to express themselves through writing. The nature of remote learning coupled with the sudden loss of our school’s principal, Erin Garry, shifted the community’s focus to dealing with our collective trauma and having individual conversations about the racism and social unrest at large.
Tell us about Principal Garry and how the school community is dealing with this loss at an already difficult time.
Our principal, Erin Garry, passed away suddenly on June 4. She was a leader in the community, a radical advocate for justice and equitable education, and an uplifting voice within our school to students and staff alike. Erin wore her heart on her sleeve and her emotions on her face. When she spoke to you, she made you comfortable and feel unconditionally accepted. She empowered our students — students marginalized by the school system at large and the institutional racism as a whole. She empowered our staff in ways as simple as words of motivation and as grand as expanding teacher leadership and pushing us to prioritize our mental health. I hope we can honor her legacy and continue her fight for justice, equity, acceptance, personal growth, and community.