Linden Teacher Fatema Sumrein’s TED Talk for Equality
Submitted by Gary Miller
Fatema Sumrein was an all-American girl.
She grew up in Linden, taking part in sports and school activities. She was the daughter of a National Guard sergeant and was taught by her parents to value education, her religion, and her heritage.
But when the world was turned upside down by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, everything changed for 10-year-old Fatema. She was suddenly treated as an outsider because she had been born to Palestinian parents and wore a hijab, the traditional headscarf worn by Muslim women.
“One student came up to me and said,” Sumrein recounted, banging her hand on the desk, “‘You can’t sit here! This is the American table!’ As young and naïve as I was, I giggled and said, ‘Good thing I’m American.’”
But more students joined in. “‘Your uncle is the reason my uncle has to go to war. Your people are the reason we have problems here.’ As a 10-year-old, I couldn’t do anything. I was defeated. I put my head in my hands and I cried.”
But there are heroes in this story: her principal and a teacher. They reached out to her to give her support and encouragement, and to let her know that it was OK to be who she was.
Now, almost 19 years later, Sumrein is a language arts teacher at McManus Middle School in Linden, and she tries to use those educators as an example of how to reach out to students in her classroom, in her building, and throughout the district.
She shared her childhood story in a TED Talk on July 31, 2019 at The College of New Jersey. It was part of a New Jersey Department of Education conference on equity in education, the idea that every student should be given an equal chance at success regardless of their background.
TED Talks are short, influential speeches given at conferences nationwide from expert speakers on education, business, science, tech and creativity. The TED organization, a non-profit that started in 1984, teamed up with the Department of Education to help selected educators to share their stories.
Sumrein, who is starting her second year at McManus after teaching in Hillside, said she got involved when she saw a link on Twitter asking for anyone who had a story to share to apply. She didn’t realize the program was affiliated with TED until she was one of 19 people chosen to work with TED representatives to refine and sharpen her story to make it the best presentation possible.
She was then one of eight people selected from around New Jersey to speak at the conference. She and the other New Jersey speakers are now in the running to speak at the national TED Ed conference.
“It was a really good experience,” Sumrein said. “It shows that teachers are more than just teachers in the classroom. We’re changing things.”
Sumrein was excited for the opportunity to get involved with TED, but was nervous about sharing such a personal story.
“That was something that was really hard,” she said. “The first two times I presented my talk, I cried. It’s emotional. I’m always a funny, happy-go-lucky type of person, so for me to show my vulnerability was a big thing for me.
“My biggest fear is letting those children down, honestly,” she said. “I think this is a good thing because I want the kids who don’t have someone to act as a voice for them to see that there is hope for them. I definitely feel that I want to be their inspiration, and I’m hoping that I can be. I’ll be humbled if I am.”
In addition to the TED Talk, Sumrein will be working with the New Jersey Department of Education this year to create standards for equity in the classroom and with Union County College to set up a program on equity. She was also selected as a “Face of the NEA” and will appear in promotional materials for the National Education Association.
“I think this is going to be an exciting year. Equity is becoming a serious situation,” she said. “We always talk about it, but we need to take that next step. This is going to show a lot of teachers that we do have an opportunity to change things. We shouldn’t see ourselves as just educators within the classroom, but beyond that. Teaching beyond the borders.
“The more you give to these kids, the more they will give you back.”