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My Northwestern Direction

On Becoming a Teacher — and a Poet

faisal mohyuddin
Image: Illustration by Bruce Morser

By Faisal Mohyuddin
Spring 2019
My Northwestern Direction

One of the most transformative experiences I had in the Master of Science in Education program was being asked to develop a personal philosophy of education — what I value most about teaching and learning. When professor Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon read an early draft, she pointed out its strengths but kindly noted how little it showcased my voice. She challenged me to focus on why I wanted to become a teacher and leave a career in journalism.

I told her about my parents and how they were my most important teachers, about my Pakistani heritage, my Muslim faith; I then opened up about my love of visual art and writing, how I also dreamed about becoming a poet.

Sophie emphasized the words I heard so often at Northwestern, that the most talented teachers possess a masterful sense of pedagogy but also a strong understanding of self.

 

The more I ­talked with ­Sophie about the magic of poetry — of how it captures in words what cannot be expressed in words — the more my philosophy became my own.

That spring I enrolled in the Teaching of Writing course taught by Dagny Bloland ’69, ’70 MA. As a part of the class, we wrote constantly— narrative vignettes, analytic essays, short stories, even poems. To be an effective teacher of writing, Dagny taught us, you must yourself be engaged in writing.

When I sit down to write a poem, I am opening myself up to the magic of possibility, of something beautiful and profound taking shape on the page. I am never sure what will happen. So often nothing happens. But I have been writing for so long now that I know it’s about being present and being still. Dagny would often say that a skilled teacher creates a space where students can be still enough to receive.

“Stillness to receive” became my mantra too and a guiding principle of my personal philosophy of education. It has helped me create a classroom culture where students have space to be creative and the opportunity to walk along the bright edge of discovery, while turning inward and outward at the same time.

The more I talked with Sophie about the magic of poetry — of how it captures in words what cannot be expressed in words — the more my philosophy became my own. And at the end of my practicum class with Peg Kritzler, when I found myself unable to write an essay about the observation experience, I turned to my philosophy. I turned to poetry.

I then wrote what would become my first published poem, “On the First Day of Student Teaching,” a three-part dream sequence imagining the upcoming journey through the challenges of student teaching.

The poem came out just as I was beginning my career at Highland Park High School in suburban Chicago; I am now in my 16th year there. I have been so fortunate to have colleagues, administrators and students who continue to reaffirm a philosophy of education rooted in being true to one’s own passions while guiding others to be true to theirs.

In April 2018 my first book of poems, The Displaced Children of Displaced Children, came out from Eyewear Publishing in London. Poet Kimiko Hahn selected it for the 2017 Sexton Prize for Poetry. That I wrote the book as a high school English teacher and included in it a number of poems about the joys and struggles of teaching fills me with special pride. I will be forever grateful to my professors and classmates at Northwestern who recognized that it was not only possible to be both a teacher and a writer, but that it was necessary that I do both.

Faisal Mohyuddin ’03 MS is a high school English teacher, poet and visual artist.

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