Windows and Mirrors: Why Arab American Heritage Month Matters
“I never once had a K12 teacher who reflected my Arab American heritage,” observed Mya Baker, New Leaders alum and Vice President at TNTP, a national education nonprofit. A former principal and charter network leader, Baker supports school systems across the Midwest. “I do this work because I got very lucky in my career, in my life. Many students of color and students from rural communities, like me, do not sit where I am sitting today. You shouldn’t have to get lucky to have a life of opportunity and choice.”
Growing up biracial in an all-white rural community, Baker was taught to assimilate. Her Saudi father refused to teach her Arabic so she could fit in at school. She knew little of her middle eastern roots. It wasn’t until she attended the University of Texas that she was exposed to diversity. “I went from no one who looked like me to a lot of people who did. It took me a while to reconcile that identity.”
Today, close to 3.7 million people in the U.S. identify as having Arab ancestry. This fast-growing diaspora population reflects more than 20 countries across the Middle East and North Africa, including a wide range of ethnicities, languages, cultures, and religious identities. Frequently stereotyped as being anti-West or anti-Christian, Arab Americans face a single narrative that perpetuates bias and discrimination.
We asked Baker to reflect on her lived experiences and what representation in education means to her. And how that impacts a big issue schools and districts are facing right now: retention.
What does Arab American Heritage Month mean to you?
I think every heritage month creates an opportunity to provide “windows and mirrors” for all students. Arab American Heritage Month can be a window for students to look through and see into the lives, perspectives, and cultures of other people. And, it can be a much-needed mirror for Arab-American students to see themselves, to feel honored, respected, and cared about for who they are.
Traditionally, we haven’t had a long history in the United States of preserving and honoring a variety of cultures. And while I hope these celebrations are never limited to a month, we have to start somewhere. It can be an education for all students.
As school and system leaders, we need to think about the exposure our students have to diversity. How do we ensure our students are constantly hearing different voices and seeing people who look different from them? Or who look like them? These opportunities need to happen throughout the school year and not just the month they’re delegated to.
Research shows better school and student outcomes, particularly for teachers and children of color, when a principal of color is at the helm. What does representation mean to you?
I never saw non-White teachers growing up. Had it not been for my very diverse experience in college, I never would have seen education as a career path. The same is true for many students of color. They don’t see the value in education because they’ve never seen someone like them.
We also tend to overlook the fact that the research shows that diverse representation among teachers and school leaders improves the performance of all students. There is a benefit for White students in not just learning about different people and cultures but in creating a meaningful relationship in which they can say: “I know this person is different from me, and this person cares about me.” That changes a student’s perspective.
Representation, or the lack thereof, has a lasting impact. The more diversity we have in education, the better it is for all students.
How can we diversify and draw more teachers of color into education?
First and foremost, at a high level, we need to make education a desirable profession to pursue. And one that is economically sustainable. TNTP’s recent guide to addressing teacher shortages includes a number of ideas for how school systems can rethink the teacher role. And then, we need to reduce barriers to entry by examining bias in our recruiting practices and certification tests, removing financial obstacles to pursuing master’s and doctoral programs, and eliminating other barriers that limit access to the profession for people of color.
After that, retention is key. We see widespread turnover happening right now, but the teacher shortage is not new. And it’s not just a pandemic thing. Districts and principals need to think strategically about retaining teachers of color. What support systems and mentoring programs do they have in place? We need to create working environments that are conducive to teachers having a great experience. And the same is true for leaders of color. We need to build talent pipelines that create a diversity of candidates, and then we need to make sure they’re fully prepared for the challenges of leading schools.
Lastly, we need to diversify all the way up, creating intentional opportunity at every level of leadership in our K-12 system. Right now, less than 10% of superintendents identify as people of color. We need the highest levels of educational leadership, including at the state-level, thinking critically about the systems that enable high-quality education for all students and replacing the systems that unfairly limit access to teachers and leaders of color.
What drew you to New Leaders?
After coaching a resident teacher for a year, I went to my district leaders, and I said: “This feels right. I don’t think I should go back and teach. I think I need to get into leadership.” And they said, “Yes, you’re good at this. You can go ahead and jump right into a leadership position.”
I realized that that is what I did as a teacher, jumped right in. So this time, I decided to go on a leadership journey. I knew I was ready. I wanted to move into leadership roles in a way where I was supported. New Leaders gave me that option—and a cohort of other aspiring leaders, a resident principal, mentors, and a coach who is still an integral part of my life more than a decade later. New Leaders was the experience I was looking for.
What is your advice for leaders right now?
Take care of yourself and the adults in your building. We need you to stay in the profession. Give yourself time and really prioritize what you need, so you can do the work.
And, then secondly, remember that kids are resilient. Kids bounce back. Take care of yourself because the kids are going to be okay. They’re going to get through this.
For more resources on understanding and teaching Arab-American heritage, visit:
Supporting Arab-American Students in the Classrooms, Learning for Justice, 2021.
As an Arab-American Muslim Mother, Here is the Education I Want for My Children, Rethinking Schools, Winter 2019-20.
The Story of Arab and Muslim Students is Often an Untold Story, EdWeek, 2020.
Presently Invisible: The Arab Plight in American Classrooms, Learning for Justice, 2021.