Teaching in an Islamic school

This is an edited version of an article that was originally printed in the October 2010 print edition of Teacher.

Coming from a non-Islamic background, Andrew Turcinovich was a little apprehensive when he got a teaching job in an Islamic school. Here, he explains why he needn’t have been worried.

I’m no expert or scholar in cultural and religious matters; neither am I a Muslim, but I do teach in an Islamic school, where I work with extremely generous and kind-hearted staff and students, so it baffles me when I hear anti-Muslim sentiments being expressed.

Having lived abroad for nearly 14 years, both in Singapore and the United States, and having travelled the world countless times over as a professional tennis coach on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) world tour, I’ve met numerous people and experienced numerous cultures. There’s a time to call it quits on the ATP world tour, though, and when my time came I completed a Masters in Teaching at the University of Melbourne, and was fortunate enough to begin my new teaching career at the beginning of this year at Ilim College – an independent Prep to Year 12 Islamic school in Melbourne with an enrolment of 1,000 or so students.

Coming from a non-Islamic background, I was both excited and frankly apprehensive about what this year had in store for me, not least because I was a ‘beginning’ teacher, and we can all remember that harrowing experience, but also because I was walking into a culture with which I was to an extent unfamiliar.

I needn’t have worried. I’ve been welcomed overwhelmingly by the entire staff at Ilim College. I’ve seen warmth, openness, real care and true collegiality – and no faculty rivalry or political in-fighting. The predominantly Muslim staff has accepted me from the get-go and I immediately felt that I was a part of the Ilim College ‘family.’ The focus at Ilim College is on academic excellence, and you see that in the day-today professionalism of the teaching staff, but there’s something even more distinctive than that: food.

Food is embedded in Islamic culture. How often do you walk into the staffroom kitchen early on a Monday morning, and see the table brimming with a kaleidoscope of the most wonderful assortments of foods and colours? At Ilim, plates are piled high with flat breads; dishes filled with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, feta cheeses, olives, and bowls are filled with various dips. Teachers, me included, sit at the table, immersed in conversation, and eating. More than likely, a colleague will be cooking Kavarma – a Bulgarian stew using spiced pork, beef or chicken – in a massive pot in the staff kitchen for all to enjoy at lunchtime.

This arrangement is not formalised or structured. Teachers bring along what they have and everybody shares. This notion of communal celebration and sharing, hospitality and kindness has made a big impression on me. The passionate discussions in the male staffroom is another aspect of the school which I’ve not experienced in other school forums. Topics such as religion and politics are not taboo, and I’ve been involved in many interesting and thought-provoking conversations.

Don’t think I’m going to gloss over the male staffroom I just mentioned: yes, we have male and female staffrooms. This separating of the sexes also applies to students on the school premises. Male and female students have generally assigned areas, which discourages intermingling during recess and lunch. That’s not to suggest that the genders don’t mix; they do.

In the staffroom, you’ll hear teachers from Turkish, Lebanese, Sudanese, Ghanaian, Croatian, Pakistani and a host of other backgrounds, speaking the language of their culture. The diversity of the teaching staff is a real strength of the school, as the teaching faculty has a broad range of teaching experience in many countries around the world, and many teachers hold masters and doctoral degrees. In fact, the staffroom sometimes reminds me of a mini United Nations.

Of course, the Islamic faith is a ubiquitous force that is the bedrock of the school culture. Teachers are engaged in prayer in the staffroom on a daily basis and demonstrate a profound dedication to their faith. They also demonstrate a profound respect for the beliefs of others. Daily prayers, attended by both students and teachers, are conducted in the school mosque.

Like all schools, there are students and staff who are more devoted to their faith, while others are less so. The teaching of the Qur’an is taught as a subject in its own right, and students must be able to recite verses of the Qur’an as part of their academic progress. On occasion, students are also given the opportunity to recite verses of the Qur’an at school assembly or on special occasions.

Calligraphy is another subject on offer at the school. I often find myself marvelling at the students’ mastery of the beautiful, though difficult, Arabic script proudly displayed around the school hallways. And English, maths, science, languages, health and physical education, information and communication technology, and so on? Yes, these are all part of the curriculum at Ilim College: it’s an Australian school.

As to the issue of Islamic dress, yes, female students and female staff are required to wear a head scarf. Being a new teacher at the school, the only issue I’ve had is that it was initially hard for me to identify my students, and there have been one or two minor incidents involving derogatory remarks to female students when on excursions, but that’s the exception. Most feedback from the community is very positive.

Ilim’s principal, Yusuf Kirca, sees the school’s role is to reach out to and integrate with the broader community, and staff and students are valued as productive citizens and members of their wider community. The school participates in a ‘mixed cultural program,’ which involves schools of other religious denominations, as well as state schools.

Schools like Ilim College are helping to enrich Australia and, with a little luck, helping to correct some of the misperceptions some people have about the Muslim community. Talk about Islamic schools and Muslim students, though, and chances are you’ll reinforce someone’s stereotype, somewhere, which is why I’d like to tell you my recent experience on yard duty.

I came across a female student, a Muslim student wearing a head scarf in an Islamic school. She was distraught, shaken and crying. Why? A teacher had confiscated her iPod.

This is an edited version of an article that was originally published in the October 2010 print edition of Teacher. The author biography remains unchanged and may not be accurate at this point in time.