In late October, the 2020 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, Qorsho Hassan, stirred community discussion by assigning her fourth graders the picture book Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice. It wasn’t a big deal for the kids, she notes. “They’re not rigid in their thinking and imagine a world full of possibilities.”
At Echo Park Elementary, in Burnsville, Hassan is an advocate for reform in the “last in, first out” policy of laying off teachers by order of seniority, which often works against BIPOC educators. “We can’t expect BIPOC students to be interested in the field of education when they see little to no representation,” she says. Before working in Minnesota, Hassan contributed to the Urur Dhex-Dhexaad Ah (Community In-Between) project in Ohio, which helped young Somali Americans reclaim their own narrative from mainstream media, introducing them to a poet, a nurse, an economist, a mental health practitioner, and other Somali leaders.
What have been the after effects of your Urur Dhex-Dhexaad Ah project, and how has it informed your work today?
Urur Dhex-Dhexaad Ah was important moment for me and many Somali Americans who needed to reclaim our narratives from mainstream media. It allowed there to be a sacred space for storytelling, reimagining, and hope. The project gave young Somali American students the ability to see themselves as community builders and leaders. It also amplified the nuanced stories of Somalis who are balancing multiple intersectionalities without tokenizing their contributions to their communities. The project informs my work as an educator and community organizer in so many ways. It grounds me to contribute to my community and to inspire a generation of community builders as a Somali American teacher. I provide multiple pathways to success in my classroom by showcasing role models from this project and highlighting diverse leaders from the community. The project reminds me the power of community voices and the importance of amplifying not advocating for marginalized experiences. It also gives me hope and resilience, because I know I’m not alone in the work that I do to make communities appreciate and value differences.
What qualities in the children you work with now give you hope for the future?
They’re not rigid in their thinking and imagine a world full of possibilities. The children I work with have passion and interest in learning the differences of their peers. They spread courage through their actions and words. They push themselves to be the best version and are willing to take feedback. They know their rights as children and students. My students have an incredible interest in what’s happening in their communities and the world. I love how they hold me accountable to be the best educator they deserve. My hope is that they see the importance of holding leaders in their lives accountable. I also know that they will be strong community members because of they way they show up in my classroom.
How should Minnesota move past “last in, first out” policies for teachers?
First there has to be an acknowledgement and understanding that this policy significantly harms BIPOC educators. A large portion of teacher contracts specify that Tier 1 and Tier 2 licensed teachers either do not earn seniority or must be laid off first. When 21% of Minnesota’s teachers of color and Indigenous teachers teach on those licenses, they are often the first to be laid off. We can’t expect BIPOC students to be interested in the field of education when they see little to no representation. There should be other ways of assessing and retaining teachers that is not based on years served in a district. This policy not only harms BIPOC teachers but it also cuts out young, progressive teachers that are ready to be reflective and adaptive for all students. This policy is the status quo and will be the default unless there’s a specific effort to change. I’d like to see districts using multiple data points like a community and parent evaluation system instead of LIFO, which is a huge barrier to recruiting and retaining a high quality and diverse teaching staff.
Why are books like Say Something! and Something Happened In Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice important to your teaching style, and are there other children’s resources you recommend?
Books that are inclusive and reflective offer students to see themselves and/or understand varying perspectives. I use books like Say Something! and Something Happened In Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice because inclusive texts matter. As an anti-racist educator, I address larger issues like systemic racism and xenophobia because young children are ready and are aware. It’s often adults who can be hesitant, afraid, or dismissive of the need for these necessary discussions. My teaching style allows for students to lean in, ask questions or wonder, explore their own connections, and compare their perspectives to their peers’. I believe the future is bright because of my students, whose first instinct is not fear, but rather courage when faced with how to make the world a more racially-just, and happier place for all.
Read about all 22 Champions of Change featured in our Jan/Feb 2021 issue.