‘My job is making my pupils realise their worth’: how I found my calling in the classroom

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‘My job is making my pupils realise their worth’: how I found my calling in the classroom

ICT teacher Misk Sharif Ali: ‘I try to bring laughter, warmth, enjoyment to every class’ When she left school at 16 with one GCSE, Mi

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Misk Sharif Ali ICT teacher

ICT teacher Misk Sharif Ali: ‘I try to bring laughter, warmth, enjoyment to every class’

When she left school at 16 with one GCSE, Misk Sharif Ali couldn’t have imagined that one day she’d be a silver award winner in the Pearson National Teaching Awards. She was recognised last year, in the further education lecturer of the year category, for her commitment to changing the lives of her students. “I was just speechless when I was told,” she says. “It was overwhelming.”

The ICT teacher’s journey to the front of the classroom has been anything but straightforward. Sharif Ali grew up on what she describes as “the worst estate in north London” and she would skip school to look after her four younger siblings or to help her mum.

“I learned how to work the system,” she says about turning up just enough not to raise alarm bells, or intercepting the post before it arrived at home. “My mind wasn’t always on education. I learned to annoy teachers so that I would get kicked out of class and could go home. I was argumentative and sarcastic, and they couldn’t handle me.

“I can spot those tricks in my students now because I’ve been through it,” she adds. “When a student sits in front of me when they come to enrol at the college, especially the ones who’ve been through something similar or been kicked out of school, I always picture myself. They’re trying to paint a picture, they’ve rehearsed lines. They’re saying what they think I want to hear. I can always tell.”

Misk Sharif Ali ICT teacher

‘Education isn’t always about what’s in a textbook. It’s about having a teacher who believes in you’

It was only her ICT teacher, she says, who took the time to try to understand and to encourage her. “He said: ‘Well done, that was amazing!’ about something I did one day. I never missed any of his classes after that. That was the one GCSE I got.”

Returning home after spending a year living in Yemen with her grandparents, she started a part-time job at an optician’s and tried to enrol in further education. With few qualifications, she struggled to find somewhere that would accept her until she visited City of Westminster College, a further education college in central London. “I told the tutor a bit about myself and she gave me a chance, enrolling me on to a BTec level 2 course in ICT.” After progressing on to level 3 and graduating with distinctions and merits, she went to university to study complementary medicine (rather than her beloved ICT, as her family did not approve of it).

Training to become a teacher hadn’t crossed her mind, and she was considering qualifying as an optometrist until a chance encounter on a train. “I helped an elderly lady send a text message to her son. She was so grateful that I thought I might enjoy teaching older adults about technology.” Later she researched routes into teaching and came across the diploma in education and training. It was during a placement at Newham College in east London, as part of the course, that she fell in love with working with teenagers.

“I could see part of me in many of the students. Newham was part of the Rise Project [which aims to empower young people to realise their potential], so there was an intake of students every week – kids that have come into the country as refugees, kids speaking English as a second language, kids that have been kicked out of school.”

Once she’d graduated, she was offered a job at City of Westminster College, where she’d done her BTec courses years earlier. But she admits she was “terrified” going into her first classroom. “I got really thrown in at the deep end. [My boss] said: ‘These are the students we’d consider challenging and reluctant learners.’ I will never forget my first tutor groups. They could have eaten me alive.”

Misk Sharif Ali with her Pearson award

Misk Sharif Ali with her Pearson award

Some of those first students, when interviewed by Pearson for the recent awards, described Sharif Ali as “empowering, positive and encouraging”, “very unique” and “one of the best teachers I‘ve ever had”. “She never gives up,” one said. “That makes me look up to her. She believes in me.” She helped a student with issues he was having organising a flat with the council, another who was struggling with their mental health, and stayed at college late to help with assignments, even if they were set by other teachers. Some students said they were about to give up, but she encouraged them to keep fighting.

“Giving them time is really important,” Sharif Ali says about her approach in the classroom. “I try to bring laughter, warmth, enjoyment to every class so my students don’t feel they are in a lesson. I want them to feel like they’re safe, and to steer them towards making a positive change through my own failures and accomplishments.”

Having finished her diploma in education and training in 2015, she went on to complete her qualified teacher learning and skills certification three years later, and has almost completed a master’s in education.

“I probably should have gone into teaching a long time ago,” she says. “While sometimes it feels like a job that never finishes, you never really switch off, and it can be very, very challenging – I always look forward to going to work. I love what I do. Education isn’t always about what’s in a textbook. It’s about having a teacher who believes in you. I believe in all of my learners, regardless of where they come from. And part of my job is making them realise their worth, too.”

In teaching every day is different, and so is every teacher. Discover 100 teachers across the country, shaping lives. And if you’d like to know how you can bring your individual passions to a job in teaching, head to Get Into Teaching to find out more.