Dounya Muslet teaches fourth grade at Greenbriar Elementary School, located near the intersection of 86th Street and Ditch in the western part of Indianapolis’ Washington Township. Most students at Greenbriar, which is known for embracing students from very different backgrounds and abilities, qualify for a free or reduced lunch. A number of students speak languages other than English, including Spanish and Arabic. The majority of students are African American but there are Latino/a, white, and international students, too. In this interview Miss Muslet–which is what her students call her–talks about why she became a teacher, the joys and the challenges of her profession, and her pride in her Palestinian heritage.
Q. Why did you become a teacher?
A. Growing up all I ever wanted to do was be a mother. To be my mother. When people would ask, “what do you want to be when you get older?” I always used to say, a mom. I remember being told once that I can’t just be a mom, that I have to have a real job.
I wanted to be a teacher so that I could do what very few teachers did for me. I did not have a terrible upbringing. There were so many adults who loved me. But I faced a lot of childhood-based trauma. I wanted to make sure that every kid knows and feels that they are loved, and no matter what, that they have an adult who respects, understands, and supports them regardless of who they are, how they act, or where they come from.
Being a teacher is so much more than teaching kids how to add and subtract. It’s about being that adult that changes their life. Whether I am that person that they trust and confide in about things that no child should have to know or go through, or if I am just that role model that teaches them that it is okay to be weird or different and it’s not “cool” to say bad words or to be mean to others. I wanted to make a difference.
Q. What is the best part and the most challenging part of your job?
A. The best part about my job is seeing the impact I have. The notes and drawings given to me by students. The complete 180-degree turn a student makes after having me as their teacher. The long-lasting relationships that continue beyond my class. The growth that we document using data that we collect throughout the year. If it weren’t for these things, there is no way I could still be an educator.
The most challenging part about my job is a lot harder for me to identify. I guess if I have to say one thing, the lack of respect and appreciation. Not necessarily from my school, students or families, but from society. We are expected as educators to be this perfect person on social media, in school, and out in public; to know and teach everything from science to writing without making any mistakes; to teach children who really need a higher level of intervention but do not have an Individualized Education Plan in place; and to create or buy materials to make learning more fun and engaging, no matter how many students we have. It feels like so few people really understand how underappreciated teachers are and why some teachers will never reach their full potential. We don’t get paid enough, and we do not get the respect we deserve. It is by far the most challenging part of my job.
Q. What is special about Greenbriar?
A. Don’t even get me started. Greenbriar was my dream school. Not for the reasons many would think. I had the opportunity as a junior at Ball State to visit an Indianapolis-based school where the daughter of my instructor, Dixie Denton, was teaching. I had never heard of Greenbriar but soon learned from my good friends, most of whom had graduated from North Central High School, that it was a Washington Township school that many of them had attended.
The first lesson I ever taught was in a kindergarten class at Greenbriar. I immediately felt everything that makes Greenbriar so special. The diversity. Greenbriar has one of the most diverse population of students I have ever seen. The people who work there. Not just the teachers. I am talking about everyone from the front office staff to the custodial staff. Every adult in that building is dedicated to the success of all its students. We all support one another. I can’t imagine working anywhere else.
Q. What does your Arab heritage mean to you?
A. Both of my parents are of Palestinian descent. Growing up I was sometimes told by my grandmother to lie about where we were from. To say I was Jordanian and not Palestinian. As an adult, I was not only ashamed but sad that anyone, especially my family, would be embarrassed or scared of telling others the truth.
I am a very proud Palestinian. Being of Palestinian heritage is one of the most meaningful things to and about me. Not because I can speak the language, because I can’t, or even because I was raised so deep in the culture. Being a Palestinian makes me proud and sets me apart from others because it is a reminder of my people who fought and continue to fight for what is theirs and what they want. I feel like it means so much to me because as a little kid I learned so much about my heritage, and then it was sort of taken away after my parents divorced and I moved away. My learning stopped for a while. I was (and still am) often teased for being so “white” or Americanized. For a short time, I acted as if I was happier that way, and I adopted American society’s preconceived notions about what it means to be Palestinian. But it did not take long for me to realize that I had a huge hole within me that craved my culture and religion. I am constantly doing what I can to be a better Palestinian because I don’t want my future children to ever be ashamed of where their family is from, the language they speak, or the clothes they wear.
Q. What would you like your legacy to be?
A. My hope is that long after I am gone those who knew me are kinder and more empathetic toward others than they were before knowing me. I would like to be remembered for the kindness I showed toward others. Most importantly, I want others to love one another. Love each other no matter what, and make sure they show their love through actions and not just words. I want to be remembered as a teacher. To be remembered for teaching my students to believe in themselves no matter what, because they are capable of so much more than they ever could have imagined.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.