Sara Abo-Zed shares her story on the challenges and triumphs of her multi-faceted identities, and how her career as a teacher shaped her views to help her students excel.

My name is Sara Abo-Zed, and I am a 9th grade ELA teacher in Paterson Arts and Science Charter School. I was born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in New Jersey—so yes, I am and will always be a “Joisey” girl. 

Ever since I was a little girl, I was always fascinated with my identity and how it corresponded with the different facets of my life that were presented to me.

“You are Muslim. You are Egyptian. You are American. You are a female.”

Sometimes these facets of my identity would mesh into a confusing amalgam, and sometimes they would rest peacefully together.

I was in 3rd grade when I began wearing the hijab, and it was a year later that I was told to remove it by my own parents. It was September 11th, 2001. At 9 years old, you don’t fully comprehend matters of terrorism, racism, prejudice or injustice. You’re still understanding the delicate balance of “Good” and “Evil”, “Right” and “Wrong”. But that day, I was branded. I questioned a facet of my identity, and I was told to hide another. Was I really an American if Americans hated what I was? Was I really Muslim if I had to hide my religion to be safe?

At 9 years old, I refused to remove the hijab, to hide any of the facets of my identity. At 25, I continue to build on who I am—without fear and without apology.

I studied at Rutgers University, and graduated with a degree in English Literature, and received my teaching certification from Montclair University.

My first teaching job was the most difficult experience of life, not because it was my first experience, but because it was a situation that contradicted my very own ethics. I was assigned a class that were labeled “at-risk” because of reasons my supervisor presented as “academic or behavior struggles”. I later came to the realization that these students only “struggled” because the school did not give them the proper care and attention they needed. They labeled them and placed them in an environment that very similarly reminded me of a prison. This was due to the fact that these kids—simply and clearly—made the school look bad. What the school and the administrators were ignoring was that these students were coming from extreme situations. They were coming from abuse, from poverty, from gangs and drugs. Some students came just for food, and others came just to get away from people who were harming them. Some students came to get away from gangs in which they were members. Every day, students would talk to me during my lunch, my preps and afterschool—sometimes for hours.

When I presented these facts, I was told to “just focus on teaching”. I was brushed aside, and so were my students. The students were wild because they were allowed to be under the label of being “at-risk”. They were forced to be considered different, misbehaved, uncivilized.

Thus, they were forced to have facets of their own identities in which they had no choice but to accept.
Teaching was never a career option that I wanted to be a part of for a long time. I didn’t understand the effect that I could have as a teacher. I only knew what I knew from my experiences as a student—and those experiences were always unspectacular. These students made me realize just how much an effective teacher could do. They made me reevaluate the meaning of being an educator. I realized that a teacher doesn’t “just focus on teaching”, but she puts all her efforts into her students and the betterment of their lives through being an entire support system and being a tool of empowerment.

I can now say that I’ve included another facet to my identity.

I am Muslim. I am Egyptian. I am American. I am a female, and I am an effective teacher.

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