Mariam Mohamed is author of children's book and sixth-grade teacher at MTS Banaadir Academy in Minneapolis. Credit: Courtesy of Mariam Mohamed

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a series of short videos and written pieces examining the impact of COVID-19 on immigrants and refugees in Minnesota. The project is produced in partnership with the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota.

By the time Mariam Mohamed was nine, she was the main person responsible for reading her family’s mail, helping her younger siblings with homework, and assisting her mother to study for the U.S. citizenship test. 

After her older brothers left for work, Mariam was often the only person who was fluent in English left at home—and she liked everything about her unpaid job.   

“I felt like I was always teaching,” she said during a recent phone interview. “I loved it. I loved every time I would see someone get excited about learning a new concept. I just felt this is what makes me happy. This is what I love to do.” 

By then, Mariam, who is of Somali descent and was born in the United Arab Emirates, had lived in the United States for about three years. She continued to be the family’s unofficial teacher and mail reader throughout her teenage years. 

Later, when Mariam began her studies at Metropolitan State University, in St. Paul, she didn’t have to think hard to declare a major: She trained to become an elementary school teacher. In 2015, Mariam graduated with a bachelor’s degree in urban education.  

Today, Mariam is not just a sixth-grade teacher at MTS Banaadir Academy, a Minneapolis charter school with predominantly Somali students, but also the author of two children’s books, Ayeeyo’s Golden Rule and What I Wish You Knew My Cousin Ali.

Ayeeyo’s Golden Rule, published in 2018, introduces a Somali girl, Yasmeen, who arrives in the U.S. at age nine. Like many immigrant and refugee children, the fourth-grader comes face to face with bullies in her classes. To find a way out of this mounting trouble, Yasmeen turns to her grandmother, “ayeeyo in Somali.

The second book, which came out last year, involves a seven-year-old boy named Ali, who has autism. After noticing how other kids treat Ali “like a unicorn,” his cousin, Sumaya, goes on a mission to educate her peers that Ali is a person whose brain is just wired differently.  

As part of our “Stories from the Pandemic” series, produced in partnership with the Immigration History Research Center, Sahan Journal spoke with Mariam Mohamed about her experience teaching immigrant children during the COVID-19 pandemic, her observations on the challenges her students and their parents face, and what it was like for her to publish her latest book in the thick of the pandemic.

I know that you’re a sixth-grade teacher at Banaadir Academy. How long have you been teaching there? 

This is my sixth year teaching there, with my license. But I’ve been volunteering in school systems for 10 years now. 

And what’s the ethnic make-up of your students?

We’re 100 percent Somali students. Banaadir Academy is a Somali charter school. Most of the students were born in the U.S., and a few of them were born in different parts of Africa. 

I’m sure teaching in the age of COVID has been different for you, as it has been for all of us. What has your experience been like over the past several months?

The pandemic has changed a lot. I never knew that teaching online was extremely different from teaching in-person. Many of the parents of the students we work with are essential workers. So, of course, they are not at home during instruction time. 

But the students get help from their older siblings if they’re lucky enough to have them. In a way, this reminds me of when I was younger, as I used to help my younger sibling. But the problem is these older siblings also need to be online, as well. So I feel like it gets really tricky, and it’s a lot of pressure on the students. And that’s showing in their work and how they interact with their teachers.

Could you say more about how the students interact with teachers? 

Engagement is not as high as it would be if they were in a school setting. It’s harder to keep them online and keep them entertained, because teaching also has to be very engaging and fun if you want the students to truly learn. 

On top of that, technology is really tricky, even for me. I felt like I had to watch a lot of YouTube videos and teach myself before each lesson. On top of that, a lot of teachers have to spend out of their own pocket. Resources are really limited. So we find ourselves browsing various websites and making purchases that are geared toward online teaching in order to engage and truly educate our students.  

Also, the students are just confused and don’t know what this COVID thing is all about and what the future holds. So it’s hard to teach a child who is in an era where we’re going through a pandemic. All of those factors kind of play into the ongoing struggle of our students. The word that comes into my head when I think about this year, with COVID and teaching, is “struggle.” Everybody is struggling, and we’re trying our best to make it to the next stage when it comes to education. 

Have you come across students who could not afford internet access or computers at home? How did the school respond to this?    

A couple of my students mentioned that they don’t have an internet connection. They asked me to excuse them from class. 

So, luckily, the school provides them with internet access. I forgot the name, but there’s something like a router that students can pick up from the school or it can be dropped off. They can have access to limited free internet. So that problem has been solved from the very beginning, which I’m really grateful for. 

If there’s one thing that COVID has taught you about teaching, what would it be?  

It has taught me to not stress so much over the little things, including what the students are not going to learn. Like, if they don’t get a concept or they don’t complete a task, whatever the issue may be, it’s not the end of the world. 

You have to keep thinking that this child is going through a pandemic, and they’re confused and probably bored and stuck at home every day. So their social-emotional wellbeing is way more important than anything else. 

In other words, if they don’t get a certain concept, it’s OK. They’ll learn that concept eventually. If a child is going through a lot emotionally and is stressed, then that does more damage to a student than their multiplication lesson, for example. 

They can always learn that. We’re very good teachers, and we’ll make sure they get that concept. If they don’t get it this year, the next teacher will help them. But if a child is just really sad and stressed and they’re not as engaged, I feel like that should have more of a focus. 

That’s the lesson that COVID has taught me. 

I have one or two more questions about your latest book. But before I shift gears, is there anything you’d like to add regarding your experience teaching during the pandemic?

I just wanted to say that a lot of people don’t take into account that teachers also have their own families. Teaching from home is a lot. I say this because some people think that teachers are excited that they’re working from home. In other words, they think that we’re not doing as much work and that the pandemic is a good thing for us. 

No, a lot of teachers do want to go back to school buildings. They do miss their students. And they are balancing working from home, helping their children as well as teaching other students. There’s a lot on our plate. I feel like that’s not taken into consideration.

So, your latest book, What I Wish You Knew about My Cousin Ali, is about a boy who is mistreated at school because of his autism. Then his cousin, Sumaya, starts to educate students about autism, telling them that Ali is a normal boy, but different. Of course, this is a great story for kids. But I felt like you’re also speaking to adults about autism.        

I just felt like that was a very important topic, especially having worked with many students who have been diagnosed with autism and having family members who have been diagnosed with autism. For them, a child with autism is a child who’s incapable of doing anything. So for years now, I’ve been trying to educate and build acceptance around this topic. 

In the Somali community, like many other communities, people with autism aren’t really accepted. This is bad, especially when a lot of the children in the Somali community have been diagnosed with autism. 

So I really wanted to reach these parents through this book. Yes, it’s a children’s book, but it’s also for parents to learn with their children about the topic. A lot of parents need to be educated on autism and encouraged not to feel ashamed of having autistic children. 

Ibrahim Hirsi is a reporter at Sahan Journal, where he covers immigrant communities and the politics and policies that affect them. He was previously a staff writer for MinnPost and MPR News. Ibrahim got...