When many eager and enthusiastic brothers and sisters volunteer to be teachers at their local weekend Islamic school (Madressa), most do not realize that they are essentially the main source of religious knowledge and guidance for the majority of children and youth in our communities. Unfortunately, teaching at Madressa for many of us is learned through trial and error. While many Islamic schools are cognizant about providing a teacher's guide or manual, these booklets often address technical issues and do not delve into the qualities and characteristics necessary to ensure that the teacher fulfills his/her lofty role as a religious guide and authority for his/her pupils. The following are some of the most important qualities an Islamic school teacher should possess when (s)he walks into a classroom filled with young brains thirsty for knowledge.
Knowledge of Subject Matter
If you have been allocated the 8th grade Fiqh class and have not thoroughly read and understood the rulings of the Marja Taqleed (Religious Authority) whom most students follow, it would be advisable for you to either teach a subject that you are knowledgeable about, such as history or Qur'an, or teach younger children who are not likely to ask questions that leave you scratching your head. The worst thing a teacher can do is come unprepared to class, ignore students' questions, and when not knowing the answer, make them up! Within the realms of the Madressa institutions across the world, we have somehow labeled the more difficult and higher classes as prestigious, with teachers desperately trying to climb the imaginary teaching hierarchy.
Although we all love being humble, if there is one group of people who should be well known for their piety besides religious scholars – that's Madressa teachers. The bare minimum requirement of every Madressa teacher is that we ensure we fulfill all our obligations (Wajibaat) and refrain from intentionally committing any sins. Why? Because the young children look up to us, and if we only practice the areas of Islam that we teach and are careless towards other obligations (e.g. a Qur'an teacher who does not observe Hijab properly or backbites about others), students will perceive this behavior as acceptable and won't take long to emulate it. As Imam Ali (peace be upon him) said, "Verily, the heart of a youngster is like an empty plot of land – it accepts whatever is planted therein." (Tuhaf al-Uqul)
Practice What You Preach
Once the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) was approached by a mother who was concerned for her son's health as he constantly ate too much honey. When asked to kindly persuade the child to stop consuming honey, our Prophet asked the mother to return with her son in three days. The Prophet then discussed the honey-eating business with the child and said that it should not be consumed in excess. When the mother asked the Prophet why it took him three days to speak to her son, it was explained that our Prophet also ate honey and had to stop eating it for three days before he held any authority to advise others to stop eating honey too! Moral of the story is: practice what you preach! If you are explaining the ill effects of listening to music and you are the type of person who won't turn off the radio, TV or a movie when music comes on, or are discussing song lyrics with friends in public, not only is this behavior hypocritical, it is extremely detrimental to your students' spiritual development. All it takes is a few seconds for one of the poor little students to catch you out, and that's it. Everything you have taught them, alongside your worth in their eyes, will go completely down the drain.
Build a Close Relationship with the Kids
Age difference is no barrier. Just because we may be significantly older than our students is not a reason for us to maintain that strict and scary teacher-student relationship. Teachers should try to build our relationships with the students in such a way that they are able to approach us with their personal problems or cute questions that they are too embarrassed to ask anyone else. Madressa-aged kids sometimes desperately need just a tip or two about how to combat peer pressure, low self-esteem or bullying. All it takes is speaking to students out of class for a few minutes, perhaps keeping touch via Facebook, inviting them out for a sports game, or joking with them during Madressa breaks in order to gain their trust and have them open up to you. However, you must keep in mind to not become overly informal with your students, because then you risk losing your authority over them in the classroom.
Don't Be Too Lenient or Too Strict
On one hand we have the teachers who never give out homework, don't enforce any rules, and aren't too fussed about completing the course, and on the other end of the spectrum are the super strict teachers who call up parents and issue detention for students who don't complete their homework or who make mistakes and mess around a bit in class. Keeping in mind that most kids sleep in on the weekends and Madressa kids wake up early to attend Islamic class, it is best to maintain a balance with the way we treat the students in order for them to feel as though they want to come to Madressa and aren't being forced to. Convincing the students to be good and attend class by way of incentives such as promising end of semester treats (e.g. taking them out for ice cream, going on an excursion, having a food party, etc.) and frequently rewarding students who pay attention with stickers, small prizes, and candy without being overly harsh on the not-so-great students will automatically encourage all students to be the best. Try it, it really works!
The typical Madressa course consists of overly-wordy textbooks with minimal interactive activities. Rather than making it more boring by reading out of the book, try present the content by way of discussion or a PowerPoint presentation, followed by fun worksheets and crosswords. Incorporate movies, Islamic comedy clips with a good moral, and plays into the classroom, and ask them to submit homework in different forms, such as posters, 3D models, paintings, and poems. (Please keep in mind that any creative ideas and activities should be pre-approved by an Islamic scholar.)
It isn't the students' faults that their families are not so religious and don't care too much about their religious well-being. If you are sure that your students' Islamic learning is limited to the weekend Madressa class, then you should go out of your way to ensure your students are constantly learning and applying practical aspects of Madressa to their everyday lives. Make them prayer and fasting timetables, colorful Du'a books, Hadith flash cards, online quizzes, and have competitions which will ensure they are constantly improving themselves between Madressa classes too.
It's a common sight that parents and the Madressa administration have more than enough on their plates, so as Madressa teachers, many of us have been entrusted with the honorable position of instilling religious knowledge and piety in our students as their teachers. All it takes to be a good Madressa teacher and role model of our communities' youngest of Muslims is a passion to teach, knowledge, patience, good temper, and a splash of fun!