Not every road you start out on leads to the place you expected. Kholood Qumei’s educational journey started with an undergraduate degree in diplomacy, followed by a short stint at Harvard Divinity School, but it veered in another direction as she discovered academia wasn’t for her. “I left after a semester at Harvard, realizing that I didn't want to do academia. I wanted something more personal.” She began giving back to the community by volunteering for NGOs and teaching English as a second language (ESL). This seemingly sharp turn led her back into graduate school, leading to a master’s degree in TESOL, Pre-K-12 at Teachers College.
What began as a short certificate program in TC’s TESOL Certificate Program quickly led to a full-blown masters degree as Kholood discovered the depth of her passion for teaching ESL. Nourished by her experience in the certificate program, she quickly applied for the MA degree. While she waited for her acceptance letter, she kept herself busy with internships, teaching beginning ESL at the International Rescue Committee, and substitute teaching. Her love for kids emerged through a combination of her experiences teaching night ESL courses and the volunteer interpreting she did within the public school system. Her adult students in the ESL class often brought their kids, and Kholood made it her mission to create worksheets and activities to keep those kids busy and learning as well. She also acted as a liaison and mentor for students and families, getting another inside look at k-12 education.
Kholood also worked as an assistant teacher for the IRC's Refugee Youth Summer Academy, focusing on the social and emotional growth of children, assessing school readiness. “That was a really cool way for me to learn beyond content or language pedagogy, like what's important for the kids and their school readiness.”
The same intensity that led her to Harvard was applied in a new way as she became a leader at TC, serving on the AL/TESOL RoundTable and helping to begin the Celebration of Teaching Conference, which is now an annual event that seeks to bridge the gap between theory and practice, providing teachers with a platform to share practical tips, ideas, and lessons that they can apply immediately. “We were the founders of Celebration of Teaching; it was kind of like our cohort’s baby. It's such an important thing to have practical ESL ideas for content areas. The idea was to do or watch demos that you can take to your classroom the very next day.”
The supportiveness of her cohort was a highlight for Kholood. “We were so close, and we used to send each other motivational texts every day. We’re just so unbelievably supportive. We’d share ideas and come to each other when we’d get stuck.”
Kholood’s pace didn’t diminish with her graduation from TC. Instead, she zoomed ahead, landing a position teaching 10th and 11th grade social studies at the Manhattan International High School – the same school where she completed her student teaching for TC. She raves about her cooperating teacher and how they’ve become partners in the classroom. “I just had this great dynamic with my cooperating teacher there, and now I'm her counterpart – we teach the same thing. Even today, she's my mentor, my friend, my coworker, my collaborator, and we just co-design everything. I love my school. I love my network. I feel very spoiled.”
On top of being a high school teacher, Kholood is a National Geographic Certified Educator. She also applied for and won the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship, which is a professional development opportunity for Pre-K-12 educators through National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions. “The process of becoming National Geographic certified is really intuitive, like collaboration and the sense of wonder that you're instilling in the kids with experiential and project-based learning. To get certified, you do this whole process and create a capstone video. The idea is geographic literacy, so my project was for English Language Learners; I incorporated this idea of geo-literacy into my unit on slavery, and called it ‘Mapping Slavery’. As a winner of the fellowship, we’re going to Antarctica in December.”
When asked what keeps her going every day, Kholood smiles and says, “In a weird way, I think it’s the kids themselves. They’re just so cool. It’s such a pleasure being their teacher, even though there are moments when I’m overwhelmed. It’s the kids and their stories that keeps me going. We read literature about teaching our students to be resilient, but they already are resilient; they’ve come this far. They all have incredible journeys; you can’t not love them.”
About her education philosophy, Kholood says, “Someone once told me that education is like a flower is not growing. You don't blame the flower, right? You don't say, ‘Oh, flower, you're terrible! Why aren't you growing?’ You start searching. You see the soil and look to see if there are not enough air pockets or something, ask if you’re overwatering it. Is it not getting sunlight? Is it too cold? You look at the environment and you try to adjust the environment so that the flower grows. The students are the flower. You don't say, ‘What's wrong with that student?’ You say, ‘Okay, what are we doing? What is in the environment that we can change to help them thrive?’ That is motivating for me, figuring out what I can do for these students to help them thrive.”
What’s next for Kholood? “I’m thinking about a second degree, but I want it to make sense with my teaching. I want my teaching to inform my areas of interest, and I want my areas of interest to enhance my teaching. I want the two to meet together.”