Linking the Past with the Present and Future: Shaina Ahmed | Teachers College Columbia University

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Linking the Past with the Present and Future: Shaina Ahmed

Shaina Ahmed is a first year US History teacher at Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies in the South Bronx, “I grew up in the Bronx, so being able to come back and serve in my community is incredibly fulfilling.” A recent graduate of the Social Studies Education Master of Arts program at Teachers College (TC), Ahmed didn’t always imagine herself at the front of a classroom, “If you had asked me five years ago I would never say I'd become a teacher. Never.” Her circuitous path to the vocation of teaching began with personal hardship.

At the age of eight, Ahmed’s mother passed away, and her stable childhood was turned upside down. In the years that followed, her family moved constantly and she was eventually sent to live with relatives in Bangladesh. Before arriving, Ahmed knew little about the country or her extended family there, “When I went to Bangladesh, I lived in a village that didn’t have a school. I had a tutor, and my aunt and uncle are retired teachers, so they helped fill in the gaps. They taught me Bengali, which I hadn’t learned previously. It was a shock coming from America, I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, I'm not going to school. What is happening?’”

After two years abroad, Ahmed returned to the United States. She attended a STEM high school in New York, but history became the subject that most captivated her, “My social studies teacher in high school showed me the importance of ‘your history,’ how your past, or your family’s past makes you who you are, how it makes others who they are, and how the past is linked to the present and future.” Ahmed pursued an undergraduate degree in History at SUNY, Buffalo where she excelled in her studies, winning an award for her senior thesis on the topic of Black Loyalists in 18th century British North America.

It was during her undergraduate years that Ahmed began to place her experiences in Bangladesh within a larger historical and sociopolitical context. “Bangladesh is a really small country but before the 1971 civil war, it was part of Pakistan; it wasn’t an independent state before that. And the first people who were murdered in the civil war, and really it was a genocide, were teachers, professors, and students. The military went into schools and universities and started shooting. It was very violent. Learning about this history, it really hit me: that's my family. My family fought in that war; seven of my uncles and aunts were teachers. And it hit me that, wow, in order to cripple a country the first thing you do is take out the intellectuals, the educated people, the students. You take out the future. Really, to this day, whenever I think about it I get teary because it reminds me how important education is. The effects of that war still plagues my country. We have a literacy rate of 56% so the impact of that is still being seen today, forty years later.”

Through reflecting on this tragic history and her family’s role in it, something ‘clicked’ for Ahmed, and she decided that she would follow in the footsteps of her relatives to become an educator. “I want to show children why education is so essential. If it is taken away from you what can happen, and if you have it where it can lead you. That has been one of the guiding forces behind why I chose to work in schools.”

Ahmed was attracted to TC’s Social Studies Education program in part because of the emphasis it places on social justice. During the year-long masters degree and teacher certification process, she completed coursework on a breadth of educational topics, including developmental psychology, social inquiry, literacy, disability, and diversity, as well as content-focused classes in areas of US government and global history. “I would definitely say that TC met and actually exceeded my expectations. It’s a really supportive close-knit community and we really got to know our professors.”

Ahmed especially appreciated the ways in which TC helped her navigate the New York State teacher certification, “they did an amazing job being there for us and holding our hands through that process.” As part of the certification requirement, Ahmed served as a student teacher at two New York City public schools. She recalls feeling supported by teacher mentors and TC faculty in designing and carrying out her own lesson plans. “Without them I would have been lost.” This year, Ahmed’s student placement opened the door to her first full time teaching job, “One nice thing about my current job is that I was a student teacher here in the spring so I came in already knowing many of the students and teachers. It was a natural fit.”  

Demographically the public school where Ahmed now works is majority Latino and African-American; there is also a large refugee population from Middle Eastern and West African countries. “You really don’t know what your kids are going through. I hear stories of my own students fleeing from war. I had a student whose school was bombed while he was inside. So imagine, now he's in my classroom but this is his association with school, that it’s a place of violence.” As a new teacher, Ahmed is still learning to navigate these challenges. “Empathy is so important but you can’t let yourself become emotionally drained. As a teacher you have to find a balance.”

When designing curriculum, Ahmed strives to make her coursework relevant to her diverse classroom by including contributions and perspectives from people of color wherever possible. She recently lead a unit on Native American history which concluded with students writing letters to Mayor De Blasio requesting that ‘Columbus Day’ be changed to ‘Indigenous People’s Day.’ “The kids loved that activity, they wrote so heartfully.”

When I ask Ahmed if she has a teaching philosophy, she shares a quote by her favorite Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore: “Don't limit a child to your own learning for he was born in another time.” This maxim serves as a reminder that teachers must constantly adapt to the needs of the present; “As times change, and circumstances change, our teaching philosophies must be open to change as well. What worked for me, might not work for them.”  

What is most powerful about Ahmed’s vocational journey is that she has consciously chosen to transform her own adversity into empathy and support for the young students she now serves, “A lot of kids fall through the cracks because they aren't getting the attention they need or they have issues at home. I faced a lot of difficult things myself and so I understand how it is. I've been able to come this far, and I want to help some of my own students understand that it's going to be ok. We're here, and we're going to make it through.”

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