Mo Ibrahim: How I Became a Teacher

I met Mo Ibrahim, a high school teacher in New York, because of his Behind the Approval Matrix  blog, which I admired. I interviewed him about his I Got Uggs! blog. Recently he has become interested in finding out if my ideas about teaching can help him teach better. This is the first in a series of posts by him about that.

I went to college at Chicago State University, a commuter school in Chicago. I started in the late 1980s. I considered a career as a teacher when I was there, but changed my mind after I visited the education department and learned about the student teaching requirement, which seemed like a drag. Later I visited the premed office. Mostly I studied biology and graduated with a degree in Independent Studies. By graduation, I had been accepted at University of Illinois School of Medicine, in Chicago.

I started there in 1995. The summer before I enrolled, I had been verbally promised a whopping three scholarships. One was from my State Representative, the other two from a non-profit organization that helps African-Americans get into medical school.  I did get the scholarship from the State of Illinois, which covered my tuition. However, I never got the other scholarships, which meant that my living expenses weren’t covered. Between the time of the verbal promise and my enrollment, the organization had started a policy of only giving scholarships to students in the second and later years of medical school. Too many African-American students dropped out in the first year; the foundation reasoned it was wasting its money.

At the medical school’s financial aid office, I was informed that my only option was to take out a loan. This was something I had sworn I would never do. I’m Muslim; interest-based loans are against Islamic law. Despite being told that it was virtually impossible to be a medical student and work, I got a job during the graveyard shift at a seedy hotel on the North Side. I avoided drinking coffee to stay awake because I didn’t want to go to the bathroom and compete with the rats for a stall. Without coffee, I fell asleep. I was only there a week. A tenant who owed the hotel over $1,000 moved out while I was asleep. I was immediately fired. Three months later, I withdrew from medical school. I couldn’t afford it.

My first real job after medical school was in the medical records office at St. Francis Hospital. A co-worker was taking a computer repair class at a community center and suggested that I join him. I didn’t take the class, but I purchased a used computer, some computer repair books, and studied for the A+ Certified Computer Repair Technician exam. I passed the exam on the first attempt and got a job making five times what I was making at the hospital. I did computer repair and network engineering for five years. Unfortunately, the work seemed to be drying up. I started at $100/hour but after five years was making $9/hour. Toward the end of the five years, my wife and I took a vacation in New York City. In the subway, I noticed an advertisement for the New York City Teaching Fellows (NYCTF) Program. I liked the idea of being a teacher because of the job stability and the idea of giving back to the minority community. NYCTF automatically puts you in an “underprivileged” school. The deadline for applying to the program was quickly approaching and I filled in the online application as soon as I returned to Chicago.

I was invited back to New York for an interview. After I taught a sample lesson and did group and one-on-one interviews, I was accepted into the 2004 NYCTF program. That summer I enrolled in a Master’s degree program in in Education at the City College of New York. I also got a job teaching at an underprivileged high school near Columbus Circle. Ten years later, I am still trying to determine the best way to teach my students.

2 Replies to “Mo Ibrahim: How I Became a Teacher”

  1. the link in the original “behind the approval matrix” now links to some customer matrix website.

    Seth: thanks, I’ve fixed it.

  2. It’s always interesting to consider the type of training we give USA teachers–especially those who have the hardest positions (in this case, “underprivledged” schools)–in comparison to the type of training given to teachers in, say, Japan or Finland.

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