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    Educational Policy online version of this article can be found at:

    DOI: 10.1177/08959048093543192010 24: 83Educational Policy

    Melanie Carol BrooksRelationships in American and Egyptian Schools: A Case Study

    Religious Conversion to Islam and Its Influence on Workplace

    Published by:

    On behalf of:

    Politics of Education Association

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    Educational Policy

    24(1) 83109

    The Author(s) 2010

    Reprints and permission: http://www.

    DOI: 10.1177/0895904809354319

    Religious Conversion to

    Islam and Its Influence on

    Workplace Relationships

    in American and Egyptian

    Schools: A Case Study

    Melanie Carol Brooks1


    This single-subject case study explored one teachers religious conversion toIslam and her workplace relationships in the United States and Egypt. Key findingsof the study suggested that social context of schools influenced workplace

    relationships. As a Muslim-American teacher working in the American publicschools, she was uncomfortable revealing her Muslim identity. Teaching in anIslamic-American school, she was welcomed as a member of the community. InEgypt, she viewed the schools through an American lens and chose to outwardlydisapprove of administrative decisions. Her Muslim identity had no bearing onher ability to gain acceptance; rather, it was her overconfidence and ego thatharmed her workplace relationships. Although Amy failed to foster positiveinterpersonal relationships while teaching, she continued to pursue teaching,hoping for a better situation at another Egyptian private school.


    Islam, Religious Conversion, Teacher Lives, Workplace Relationships


    Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world (Bagby, Perl, & Froehle,2001; Smith, 1999) and increasing numbers of American women are converting

    to Islam (Dirks & Parlove, 2003; Eck, 2001; Fluehr-Lobban, 2004; Haddad,

    2006; Mansson, 2006). For many American women, adopting an Islamic

    1University of Missouri Columbia

    EPX354319EPX10.1177/0895904809354319Educational PolicyBrooks

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    84 Educational Policy24(1)

    lifestyle requires substantial alteration of their daily activities, such as daily

    prayers and food restrictions (Mansson, 2006). As a result, new converts often

    encounter unexpected reactions to their religious conversion that fundamen-tally change their personal and professional relationships (Anway, 1995).

    Anway (1995) surveyed female converts and found that 46% of converts

    described parental responses to their conversion as negative and stressful (p.

    46). Similarly, new converts to Islam reported experiencing employment dis-

    crimination and derogatory remarks in workplace settings (Pugh, 2005). Cur-

    rently, there is no research that explores how religious conversion to Islam

    influences teacherworkplace relationships. Such an exploration is important

    because conversion to Islam obliges new believers to interweave the practices

    of Islam into their daily lives such as offeringsalat, or praying five times a day,

    avoiding haram, that which is forbidden, and offeringzakah, charity. Not only

    are new believers obligated to live an outwardly Islamic lifestyle but also do

    many undergo internal changes that reposition their worldview to that which

    appropriately reflects Islamic tenets. Considering these changes, it is important

    to explore how conversion influences teacherworkplace relationships.

    Historically, the teaching profession in the United States was inextricably

    connected to the personal life of teachers. Teachers were viewed as moral

    authorities, and as such, their characters and reputations were incessantly underpublic scrutiny and examination (McClellan, 1999). Although less directly con-

    nected today, society nevertheless continues to hold teachers to higher social

    and moral standards (Honawar & Holovach, 2007). Teachers in the United

    States are expected to be ethical and trustworthy (Fallona, 2000; Mackenzie,

    1909), two values that often conflict with Western stereotypes of Muslims (Sha-

    heen, 2000). Negative stereotyping of Muslims, such as their being viewed as

    terrorists, fanatical, and violent, are frequently depicted in American newspa-

    pers, television, and film (Nacos & Torres-Reyna, 2007). To better understandthe complexities of religious conversion to Islam and workplace relationships,

    the following sections provide an overview of extant research on religious con-

    version, women and Islam, and workplace relationships in schools.

    Religious Conversion and Individual Change

    During the early 20th century, the typical religious convert was seen as pos-

    sessing a sick soul afflicted by spiritual melancholy or suffering with adiscordant personality or divided self, a sense of lost meaning, dread, emo-

    tional alienation, [or] a preoccupation with ones own limitations and sinful-

    ness (Granqvist, 2003, p. 174; James, 1902). Once converted, individuals

    experienced a sense of well-being having been twice-born (James, 1902).

    Other religious scholars (Coe, 1917; Starbuck, 1899) similarly viewed reli-

    gious conversion as an abrupt, yet positive, change for individuals.

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    By the mid-20th century, the focus of conversion studies changed with the

    expansion of psychology, sociology, and anthropology (Rambo, 1995).

    Researchers within these fields began to conceive religious change as a lon-ger process of individual transformation situated within dynamic social con-

    texts. Religious converts were viewed as active seekers (Kilbourne &

    Richardson, 1989), choosing and negotiating their individual religious iden-

    tities. Lofland and Stark (1965) developed a causal process model to explain

    religious conversion. Criticized as too orderly (Snow & Machalek, 1983),

    other researchers portrayed religious conversion as a gradual search for self

    (Richardson, 1985; Zinnbauer & Pargament, 1998) or a response to a sudden

    stress where the individual actively seeks the spiritual to cope with lifes

    challenges (Pargament, 1996; Richardson, 1985; Seggar & Kunz, 1972).

    Snow and Machalek (1983) and Staples and Mauss (1987) developed socio-

    logical frameworks to identify how and when religious conversion occurs.

    According to their research, conversion impacts an individuals fundamental

    view of himself or herself and his or her perceived role(s) in society. In addi-

    tion, religious converts affirmed their new identity by actively participating

    in the creation of a new self that was reflective and in accord with their

    inward change. Although research has found religious conversion influenc-

    ing individual change, little research has explored this phenomenon in rela-tionship to the dynamic work of a teacher (White, 2009).

    Pajak and Blase (1989) studied the influence of the personal life on the

    work of educators and found that certain individuals have particular per-

    sonal interests, personal traits, spiritual beliefs, [and] personal experiences

    that predisposed them for careers in education (p. 292). Pajak and Blase also

    found that teachers who were able to incorporate their personal interests into

    their lesson plans experienced increased satisfaction, enjoyment, fulfill-

    ment, and pleasure in their work (p. 298). Teacher religiosity provided abeneficial connection [to] their professional lives (Pajak & Blase, 1989,

    p. 299). Yet, Pajak and Blase acknowledged the possibility of religion nega-

    tively influencing the work of a teacher, especially when a teachers spiritual

    beliefs conflicted with their professional work. Although Pajak and Blase

    briefly discussed the connection of religiosity to teaching, White (2009)

    emphasized the need for further exploration of this topic.

    Women, Islam, and Conversion to Islam

    Western converts to Islam are often questioned as to why they would

    join a religion many perceive as hostile to women (van Nieuwkerk, 2006).

    Originating from a society where women were viewed as chattel and

    could be bought and sold as needed, Islamic cultures have varied in their

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    interpretations of gender equity (Parshall, 1994). Some Muslim societies

    keep their women sequestered in homes or insist they wear complete veils

    when they go out in public[or] invoke the Quran as permission to beatones wife (Parshall, 1994, p. 165). Female converts, however, readily deny

    their subjugation by referring to the Quranic teaching of gender impartiality

    which states that women and men are equally accountable for their thoughts

    and deeds (Sura Ahzab 33, Quran). Consequently, religious converts often

    view the subjugation of women as culturally sanctioned and opposed to

    Islams true teachings. In addition to the importance of male and female role

    differentiation, women choose to convert to Islam for many other reasons

    including, but not limited to, morality, modesty, security, the sense of

    belonging, the sense of identity, close family ties, care and community, and

    deference to the elderly, as well as traditional notions of respect for women

    (Jawad, 2006, p. 157). Women who convert to Islam are faced with the chal-

    lenge of negotiating their new identity as a Muslim along with navigating

    misguided and inaccurate conceptions of Islam. This can become even more

    complex for teacher negotiation of workplace relationships.

    Workplace Relationships for Teachers in SchoolsTeachers who successfully integrate positive professional relationships into

    their work lives are happier and more satisfied (Farber, 1991; Pajak & Blase,

    1989). Numerous researchers have focused on the importance of teacher rela-

    tionships (Dewey, 1916; McAdamis, 2007; Noddings, 1988; Sapon-Shevin,

    1995; Westheimer, 1998). Dewey (1916) stressed the significance of creating

    positive relationships in schooling. Without fostering interaction and rela-

    tionships, Dewey worried that schools would become irrelevant and provide

    students with a misguided and inappropriate education. McAdamis (2007)discussed the importance of teacher relationships in schools, whereby the

    nature among the adults within a school has a greater influence on the char-

    acter and quality of that school and on student accomplishment than anything

    else (p. 7). Taking a different approach to workplace relationships, Nod-

    dings (1988) emphasized the role of caring in schools. Her research discussed

    the need for schools to promote and encourage caring relationships within a

    schools organization, its curricula, and in its teaching practices. Wes-

    theimers (1998) study of school community and teacher work highlightedthe value of creating meaningful relationships in schools where interaction

    and participation, interdependence, shared interests and beliefs, concern for

    individual and minority views, and meaningful relationships are fostered

    (p. 12). Johnson (1990) described the ideal school as one that has

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    true colleagues working together, debating about goals and purposes,

    coordinating lessons, observing and critiquing each others work, shar-

    ing successes and offering solace, with the triumphs of their collectiveefforts far exceeding the summed accomplishments of their solitary

    struggles. (p. 148)

    Yet, recent graduates from teacher education programs find Johnsons

    (1990) description far from the reality of their workplace (Kardos & Johnson,


    Often, new teachers are socialized for teaching positions in the absence

    of adequate consideration being given to the norms and organizational struc-

    ture prevailing in the schools in which they are to be placed (Conforti, 1976,

    p. 358). Rosenholtz (1989) stated that new teachers had to negotiate work-

    place norms with little direction in the details of practice and faced the

    challenging task of resocializing themselves to workplace norms (p. 17).

    Adding to this challenge was the frequent lack of authentic mentorship and

    schools not openly supporting instructional sharing (Brooks, 2006; Lortie,

    1975). Rosenholtz explained, teachers become turf-minded, unable and

    unwilling to impinge territorially on the domain of others classroom prac-

    tice (p. 69). Lortie (1975) called this teacher isolation, and found it based inthe organization of modern schooling where individual teachers were respon-

    sible for certain subject areas. This organizational structure continues to

    largely dominate public schooling, allowing teachers little opportunity to

    collaborate and share classroom experiences and lesson plans (McLaren,

    2007). With this isolating organizational structure, meaningful interactions

    can be difficult for teachers to promote and sustain.

    To counteract workplace isolation, Rosenholtzs (1989) study found several

    essential components that facilitated teacher retention, namely, positive feed-back, learning opportunities, successful management of student behavior with

    schoolwide support, collaboration, and strong parental involvement. Cole

    (1991) stressed an integrated approach to establish positive workplace relation-

    ships by recognizing the interaction between teacher individuality and their

    distinctive school cultures. Able to establish positive interpersonal relation-

    ships, new teachers were more willing to continue working in schools that pro-

    vided interpersonal support mechanisms (Darling-Hammond, 2001; Johnson

    & Birkeland, 2003; Jones & Pauley, 2003; Sargent, 2003; Williams, 2003). Yetwhen a teachers religious belief system changes, questions remain as to how

    this inward and outward change influences workplace relationships.

    In Egypt, teachers generally have markedly different experiences with their

    workplace relationships to that of American teachers. Farag (2006) found that

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    some teachers reported feeling a sense of isolation, not based in lack of collabo-

    ration or classroom remoteness but in something as simple as reading a news-

    paper which may send unacceptable messages to other teachers in the school,garnering negative reactions (p. 117). Along the same lines, the teachers Farag

    interviewed felt that the teaching workforce seemed to lack a sense of educated

    professionalism where academic interests were commonly replaced by topics

    such as sports and television dramas (Farag, 2006). Teachers were critical of

    their coworkers lack of academic knowledge. A teacher commented,

    Some teachers have such a low scientific and cultural level that they

    transmit their superstitions to the students. A female teacher, for

    example, quite seriously told her noisy class that if they didnt keep

    quiet she would make the jinn (spirits) take over (Farag, 2006, p. 117).

    Farags (2006) interviews with teachers revealed a strong dislike for

    uncommitted teachers, which hindered workplace relationships. In addition,

    Farag discussed the absence of a professional teaching community as largely

    a consequence of competition and the hierarchical organization of Egyptian

    schooling. He stated,

    The general lack of collective action among teachers is compounded by

    a lack of solidarity brought about by competition and hierarchy within

    the profession. As one teacher states, the opportunity for one teacher

    depends on the abolition of the other. Similarly, factionalism and favors

    based on primordial ties prevails among teachers. One teacher points

    out, If a schools deputy is from the village of Ayat, the next thing you

    know the entire school faculty is from Ayat. (Farag, 2006, p. 128)

    This nepotism undermines the Egyptian educational structure and makes

    it challenging to find collaborative and positive workplace relationships.

    Taken as whole, Egyptian teacherworkplace relationships are challenged by

    a mix of nepotism, lack of collaboration, distrust, and criticism. The teacher

    in this study, an American Muslim convert, faced learning to navigate not

    only her new faith but also new workplace relationships as she changed

    schools and cultures.


    The decision to employ qualitative methods in this study was motivated

    broadly by a need to develop a deep understanding of a teachers religious

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    conversion and how this influenced her workplace relationships in United

    States and Egypt. As Bogdan and Biklen (2003) suggested, qualitative

    inquiry is especially appropriate when the research demands an understand-ing of how teachers come to develop the perspectives they hold (p. 3) and

    make sense of their lives (p. 7). I was interested in how a teacher made

    sense ofher workplace relationships as well as how she actually behaved.

    The conceptual framework that guided the study focused on religious con-

    version, gender and Islam, and workplace relationships. In particular, I was

    looking at this teachers unique experiences of converting to Islam and how

    this influenced her workplace relationships in both the United States and

    Egypt. This topic is important because scant research has explored religious

    conversion among teachers even though conversion to Islam among women

    is increasing.

    Participant Selection

    This study centered on one woman who converted to Islam. A single partici-

    pant in a case study is not uncommon. Yin (2002) explained, in the classic

    case study, a case may be individual . . . the early case studies in the Chi-

    cago school of sociology were life histories (p. 22). I chose to ask Amy1 toparticipate in this study because I first met her as a math education major at

    a large midwest university and knew that she continued to teach after her

    conversion to Islam in 2001. Amy taught in public and Muslim schools in the

    United States and currently lives abroad in Egypt working as a middle school

    social studies teacher. In The Man in the Principals Office, Wolcott (1973)

    discussed his specific reasons for choosing Ed as his research participant.

    However, whereas Wolcotts aim was to find as typical a principal as possi-

    ble, I chose Amy for other reasons that make her a unique and appropriateparticipant. First, she taught in different settings, including both public and

    private schools. Second, her religious conversion reflects the increasing

    numbers of American women choosing to become Muslim. I also had access

    to her home and workplaces. Last, given this topic and research design, my

    intimate knowledge of her was a benefit (Creswell, 2007; Wolcott, 1973).

    Our relationship is discussed more fully at the end of this section.

    Data Collection and Analysis

    I gathered data through interviews, observations, and school-based docu-

    ments (Merriam, 1998). I tape-recorded 9 semistructured interviews grounded

    in the conceptual framework that explored issues pertaining to her religious

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    conversion, personal life, and work experiences. I also conducted 10 obser-

    vations of her formal teaching and informal interactions during her workday

    at her schools in both the United States and Egypt. Yin (2002) stressed theimportance of using various sources for data collection. These multiple data

    sources were critical to develop the kind of nuanced, thick, and rich descrip-

    tion necessary to explore the many conceptual facets of this study and the

    connections between them. To this end, I strove to collect data that offered a

    holistic picture of how Amy made sense of her work relationships as a Mus-

    lim convert.

    Data analysis was conducted through an inductive and iterative process. I

    first sorted the data into the initial categories of religious conversion, gender,

    Islam, and workplace relationships. Within each of these categories, I identi-

    fied the initial themes of alienation, acceptance, fear, and frustration and

    explored these further using the constant comparative method (Bogdan &

    Biklen, 2003). After themes were developed within each category, I sought to

    identify patterns that connected across categories. This also helped me

    explore emergent themes and trends in the data. Again, I gathered subsequent

    data about underdeveloped themes and underrepresented or underdeveloped

    concepts until themes become theoretically saturated. Finally, I sought to

    identify conceptual patterns that transcended categories.


    In regards to limitations of case study methods, Merriam (1998) commented,

    mistakes are made, opportunities missed, personal biases interfere (p. 20).

    In this study, I was the primary instrument for gathering and analyzing data

    (Merriam, 1998, p. 20). As such, I was limited by my humanness and biases.

    To offset this, I remained attentive to personal bias on data collection andasked Amy to provide clarification, elaborate on certain ideas, and provide

    me with her insights to help me better understand her perspectives. I also

    confronted my own beliefs by recording my personal reflections in a journal

    to help guard against inappropriate subjectivity, which could result in misrep-

    resentations or distortions (Rambo & Reh, 1992). Merriam (1998) asserted,

    The key concern is understanding the phenomenon of interest from the par-

    ticipants perspectives, not the researchers (pp. 6-7). I was obliged to

    acknowledge my own partiality, opinions, and prejudices as I sought tounderstand how Amy made sense of the world (Merriam, 1998).

    In addition, as a single case study, I did not make generalizations as to

    religious conversion, teaching, and women in Islam. I was only able to pres-

    ent this teachers experience through her single perspective. Merriam (1998)

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    commented, human instruments are as fallible as any other research instru-

    ment (p. 20). As such, I sought to be aware of my biases without imposing

    my biases on the participant or the data. Last, this study took place over aperiod of 2 years. During this period, data were collected via interviews,

    observations, and documents. Observations took place at two schools, Inter-

    national Islamic Academy in Georgia, and Ghaly School in Cairo, Egypt. It

    is important to note that this study includes interview data on schools where

    Amy taught before the beginning of the study. Data gathered on these schools

    were wholly reliant on her recollections. Although I include this data, it was

    not triangulated. The following section discusses my perspective and posi-

    tion in the study.

    Researchers Perspective

    Wolcott (2002) discussed the importance of identifying the risks and benefits

    of intimacy in fieldwork. He suggested a need for heightened sensitivity

    toward the problem, and to not be dishonest about anything one says,

    which is not to say that one is therefore advised to reveal everything

    (p. 161). Wolcott advised researchers to delve as deeply as necessary to answer

    the research question (p. 161). Taking this advice, I entered the field alertto the issue of intimacy, cognizant of my personal biases, and honest in my

    reporting (p. 162).

    I am a White, middle-class woman who has previously worked as a

    teacher in Thailand and in the U.S. public school system. I am 8 years older

    than Amy and initially met her during her undergraduate years at a large,

    midwestern public university. She was a practicing Catholic at the time and

    occasionally we would go to Mass together. We talked quite a bit about reli-

    gion and spiritual issues. About 1 year into our friendship, I asked her to bemy sponsor for the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) where

    adults enter into the Catholic faith. She gladly accepted, and we attended the

    sessions together. I was initiated into the Catholic Church, and soon thereaf-

    ter she surprised me by expressing her concerns about Catholicism. It was a

    few months later that she told me of her conversion to Islam. Over the next

    couple of years, I continued my spiritual journey as a Catholic and she as a

    Muslim. Our friendship continued even though we both relocated several

    times to different states. I slowly became more skeptical and disenchantedwith Catholic teachings and slowly stopped participating. Yet, while I was

    pulling away from religion, Amy was becoming more involved with Islam.

    Currently, I would classify myself as agnostic. We continue to discuss reli-

    gion, although she maintains a strict Islamic perspective.

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    When I shared the idea of this project with her, she was more than willing to

    participate and discuss her experiences. Over the course of our friendship, we

    have established a strong rapport that allowed for in-depth discussions on sen-sitive topics. Yet this study may be hindered by our friendship in that I have

    previously expressed my personal thoughts and biases about religion and

    teaching. Having knowledge of my perspectives may have deterred Amy from

    fully disclosing her beliefs and experiences. To offset this, I sought to acquire

    data from numerous sources, including observations, school documents, and

    interviews. In addition, I wrote reflective journal entries to record my thoughts,

    reactions, and experiences throughout the course of the study. Due to the sub-

    jectivity of this research, it was vital that I maintained a reflective journal to

    document my biases as they developed and as I became aware of them through-

    out the study. As I wrote the findings, I included pertinent journal entries that

    revealed my thoughts to maintain transparency in the evolution of my biases.

    In this way, I was better able to observe my own behavior and its influence on

    data collection. Overall, my close relationship with Amy was a benefit in that

    it provided this study with the depth needed to effectively complete this inquiry.

    Overview of Amys LifeThis section begins with a brief overview of Amys life before and during the

    study. This synopsis is included to help the reader understand Amys back-

    ground and the order of events she refers to throughout the study.

    Amy was raised in a lower-middle class home on the outskirts of a large

    midwestern city. She described her family as typical Americans, rural. She

    attended public schools and a conservative Catholic church. She described

    her family as not particularly religious, although Amy became involved in

    church activities as a teenager. She stated, My mom tried to act religious andshe made us go to church. When I got my drivers license, they stopped

    going. Her life with her family was chaotic, disorganized, and often verbally

    abusive. She explained, I remember the fights. I remember my real dad

    walking out of the house. I remember waiting on the porch for him and him

    not coming. Her mothers behavior was unpredictable:

    I was afraid of my mom because I never knew what to expect. One day the

    rule might be to not sit on the sofa. The next day the rule might be to putyour shoes on the sofa. I never knew what to do. There was no set routine.

    Amys younger sister acted out to gain attention: My sister chose to be

    irritating. She was always more frustrated, I think, than I was. She could

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    never finish a task. She was always moving on to something else. Amys

    mother suffered from chronic depression and mood swings, and her stepfather

    took a quiet and passive stance in the background. Amy described one experi-ence between her mother and her stepfather that occurred when she was 17:

    My mom had threatened to kill herself and I didnt know if when I

    went home I would find my mom or something else. My boyfriends

    mom called my dad and then between the two of them they decided

    that I would not go home until my dad went home and called to say

    that everything was okay. Then it started this whole thought process

    with my dad, Should I put your mom in the hospital? Should I not?

    My dad didnt have that in him to take that action. After that my par-

    ents marriage went downhill very quickly.

    As a way to escape the commotion, Amy concentrated on school and

    sought refuge in her nightly homework. She explained the importance of

    always having homework, I always had homework. I made sureto my

    teachers frustrationthat I always had homework. I didnt want to go home

    without a book. Homework gave me space to do what I wanted, to be lost in

    my own thoughts. Having earned good grades, Amy received two scholar-ships, lost one, and then relied on school loans to fund the rest of her higher

    education. She enrolled in a traditional teacher-preparation program for mid-

    dle school math and social studies. She chose to major in math and social

    studies because her father said to her, make your hobby your career and

    youll never work a day in your life. Amy thought about this and she stated,

    I remembered how much fun I had teaching kids at the church. So, I told

    my dad that I wanted to be a teacher. I also really enjoyed math. As itturned out, I had chosen all of my extracurricular choices in the human-

    ities. I had enough credit to get my teaching certificate in social studies.

    While studying to be a teacher, Amy met a Muslim man, Imad, who intro-

    duced her to Islam. Unconvinced, and in an effort to convert Imad to Catholi-

    cism, Amy studied Islam. She stated,

    When I first started studying it, it was to find out what was wrong withIslam to make him Catholic. So, I could tell him, You see this? This

    is wrong. This is where Islam is off and you need to fix this. What I

    was finding out, however, was that there was more in Islam that I

    agreed with than in Christianity. Islam was fitting me better.

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    Amy privately converted one month before the terrorist attacks on the

    World Trade Centers in 2001. She reflected on this time, Imads sister called

    me. She was so worried that I was going to change my mind. I was like, itsokay. Im fine. In December 2002, she accepted her first public school

    teaching position at Robbins Elementary in a rural Mississippi town. Without

    getting married, Amy and Imad moved to live near his family. In 2003, Imad

    moved out of his parents home and moved into Amys apartment. Their rela-

    tionship was rocky; Imad was self-interested and concerned about studying

    for medical exams. Amy worked hard, financially supported the household,

    and dreamed of marriage. Her first teaching position was difficult. She strug-

    gled connecting with the teachers and students because of her religion, I

    always felt like I had to hide my faith from the parents, from the kids. I

    always felt incomplete, not comfortable. The following year, she accepted

    another position as a math teacher at Asher Middle School in a larger town

    about 15 minutes from her apartment. Amy felt more successful as a teacher

    in this school. She taught math and was actively engaged with curriculum

    planning. She had a good relationship with one of the assistant principals and

    felt a sense of community at this new school.

    Imad passed his medical exams and secured a residency position in Phila-

    delphia. They moved together and decided to marry. Amy began work on hermasters in education at a small college while Imad worked through his 1st

    year of residency. Yet 1 year into the marriage, Imad asked for a divorce. He

    admitted to having another relationship with a woman at the hospital. Amy

    was faced with a decision: to move home and live with her temperamental

    mother or to find a teaching position on her own and start her life over. She

    explained her decision, I had really wanted to teach in an Islamic school

    because I always felt like I wasnt accepted in the public schools. Not so

    much by the students, the students loved me, but by my colleagues.During the time in Philadelphia, Amys involvement with Islam increased.

    She attended weekly prayers, enrolled in Arabic classes, and befriended a

    few Muslim women. She began eating halalmeat. During the divorce pro-

    cess, Amy searched the Internet for Islamic schools and sent her resume to

    several across the country. The International Islamic Academy in Georgia

    responded first and asked her for an interview. She drove to Greenville,

    Georgia for the interview and was impressed at the kindness of the principal

    and the schools focus on Islam and Arabic. After 2 weeks of deliberation,Amy accepted the position.

    While teaching at the International Islamic Academy, Amy also worked as

    a nanny for the secretary of education at the mosque, Nurah. Nurah asked

    Amy if she would like to meet an Egyptian man looking for a wife. Amy was

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    interested, and over the course of 3 months, she became acquainted with a

    39-year-old divorced man in Cairo, Egypt. Amy was 26 years old and not

    concerned that he also had two sons from a previous marriage. They com-municated frequently online and he invited her to visit him in Egypt. She felt

    comfortable with this possible match because

    it was coming through a friend and because I had been recommended,

    it was viewed pretty much like, okay they are talking, they have some

    things in common, lets invite her to see how she is going to be in Cairo.

    While in Egypt, Omar and Amy liked each other and became officially

    engaged. Amy arrived with three suitcases in June 2007. She secured a teach-

    ing position at a private school, Zaki International School, and began work in

    the fall. The schools lack of organization frustrated her. She disagreed with

    many of the principals decisions, found it difficult to work in the school, and

    decided to move to another private school, Ghaly School, 2 months later. Not

    completely satisfied with Ghaly, Amy completed the year and secured

    another teaching position at Haven Academy for fall 2008. Overall, in the

    course of her teaching career, Amy taught in two public schools and one

    Islamic school in the United States. During her 1st year in Egypt, Amy taughtin two different private schools. The following sections present the themes

    that emerged from the study.


    The findings are organized geographically and chronologically and offer

    insights into how she made sense of herself as a Muslim and how this influ-

    enced her workplace relationships in two different contexts, the United Statesand Egypt.

    Workplace Relationships in the United States

    Feeling alienated by coworkers in pubic schools. Amys first teaching position

    was as a math teacher at Robbins Elementary. She had difficulty fitting into

    the community and saw this stemming from her religion. Although no one at

    this school knew she was Muslim, being a Muslim limited social opportuni-ties with other teachers. She explained,

    When I first started teaching in Mississippi, well, that was hard. I was

    in a new town, a new city and I couldnt go to bars anymore. The only

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    people I could make friends with were the people at the mosque who

    really werent accepting me yet because I didnt know how to act

    around them. Its not their fault its just the way it worked.

    While at Robbins Elementary, Amy was fearful of her coworkers reac-

    tions if they learned she was a Muslim, I was worried about not being

    accepted; I was worried about being fired . . . I mean, this was Mississippi. I

    was so afraid to let anybody know that I was Muslim. So, so afraid. I didnt

    tell anybody. Amy left Robbins Elementary at the end of the year.

    Amy found that she never felt accepted. Even after she revealed to her

    coworkers at Asher Middle School that she was Muslim, she continued to

    experience difficult interpersonal relationships: It was just more the matter

    that they had no clue and they didnt know they were being insensitive. Amy

    found that she did not connect with other teachers and really didnt feel

    welcome in the public schools and as a result sought employment in an

    American Islamic school. She explained her choice, When you teach in an

    Islamic school, it gives you this position within the community that every-

    bodys going to get to know you right away. The community is central to the

    religion, not because you are a minority but because of the religion itself.

    Amy relocated to work at the International Islamic Academy in Georgia togain a sense of community that she did not experience in the public schools.

    A sense of acceptance in an American Islamic school. Although Amy felt that

    she was knowledgeable about Islam, it was not until she began to work at the

    International Islamic Academy that she was afforded many opportunities

    to practice and learn Arab culture. From the beginning of her work at the

    Academy, Amy developed good relationships and felt accepted into the


    I knew right away. When you are a Muslim and you enter a new com-

    munity, right away doors are open for you. You automatically have a

    sense of family, and you have friends. People are going to show you

    around the town. Even the principal let me live at her house for three

    months while I saved the money for an apartment. These are not things

    that culturally people like us do.

    Amy had very little money to furnish an apartment after her divorce fromImad. The school community was very generous toward Amy:

    I didnt have many things to furnish an apartment. They gave me a bed

    with brand new mattresses. The desk that I have my computer on was

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    given to me, the bureau was given to me, the beautiful tablethe most

    beautiful table I have ever had in my lifewas given to me, and four

    chairs, the two love seats, the couch, the table stand, most of my kitch-enware was given to me and then the teachers themselves, they had a

    house warming party for me and they gave me a gift card for Wal-Mart

    where I bought my microwave and my vacuum cleaner. I didnt spend

    any money on this apartment and its the best apartment Ive ever had.

    Amy quickly became a leader in the school because she was one of the

    few teachers with an official teaching certificate. This leadership role often

    added more work to her schedule:

    For a few months I had to take over a secondary classroom because we

    had a sick teacher. I was lucky the parents were happy with this situa-

    tion, but they wanted me to take it permanently. I said that this wasnt

    an option because I already had a combined fifth- and sixth-grade class-

    room. The board of education told me that I was taking the easy way

    out. That made me really mad and then the next day a woman from the

    board made the excuse that they didnt know I was teaching the fifth

    and sixth grades. They knew I was teaching fifth and sixth grades! Tokeep the friendship, I said that I thought there was probably a misun-

    derstanding there somewhere. But, I continued for a few months writ-

    ing lesson plans for the class. It was a lot of work; double the work

    because I was still teaching my class. I think that the teacher took

    advantage of the situation and I got stuck with the short end of the stick.

    Amy quickly learned that yelling or outwardly showing frustration while

    at the school was highly inappropriate. Amy encountered difficult momentsat the school, but she realized that as a Muslim, it was important to maintain

    a proper image. She explained her approach,

    I do get mad, but if I yell, I hurt the other person and then that other

    person remembers that. But, if I dont yell, then at least we remember

    that we werent cruel to each other. Even if I was at that moment think-

    ing she was an ass, okay, I didnt call her that. So now, she doesnt

    have this feeling that I at one time thought she was a real jerk. Showingyour feelings isnt really a good thing. Sometimes its better to hide

    your anger or hide your emotions and just be nice with people. I think

    this is healthy because in life we have to learn self-control and self-


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    While teaching at the International Islamic Academy, Amy changed her

    behavior and brought her responses more in line with Arab expectations and

    values. In addition, being accepted into the community gave Amy the feelingof being an aunt or a second mom to her students. She stated that she felt

    great responsibility toward them because here the teacherstudent relation-

    ship extends far beyond a traditional teacherstudent relationship that one

    might have in a public school. It is more like an extended family.

    When I observed at the school, Amy asked that I wear a hijab. At first I

    was taken aback because I thought the other women might think it strange to

    see a non-Muslim wearing a hijab. She replied, If you want to fit in and be

    more accepted, then you should wear a hijab. The women will be more likely

    to talk to you if you are covered, and the students will probably be more

    comfortable. I was not convinced, but agreed. I saw a few teachers not wear-

    ing a hijab and it made me feel a bit foolish. I wondered if I really needed to

    cover. The principal asked me how I liked wearing it and I responded that it

    was nice. To my surprise, the principal responded that I was International

    Islamic Academys first visitor.

    While observing at the Academy, I attended a PTA meeting and watched

    Amy take a leadership role. She made great effort to maintain a good repu-

    tation with the parents and the board of education for the school. She wasthe first to speak at the meeting, With academics, everything is going well.

    We need to work on accreditation and teacher turnover. We need to focus

    on keeping teachers and raising salaries, benefits, and attracting people

    who can stay. This includes hiring male teachers who can stay. The parents

    were concerned about the schools low enrollment. Amy responded that

    one of the main problems was the facility, the schools name is a prob-

    lem. One male parent sided with Amy and stated, We need to have the

    value of Islam, to keep the Islamic identity, but not call it an Islamicschool. The principal responded, That wont work. As long as we are

    connected to the masjid, any other name will be rejected. Throughout the

    meeting, Amy felt free to speak her mind, but was equally cautious in her

    comments. She recognized the importance of being well-thought of at

    work. Amy felt accepted by the head of the board of education because she

    recommended her as a possible wife. She explained, Their recommenda-

    tion means so much. If they didnt like me, they would never have intro-

    duced me to Omar and his family. Therefore, working at InternationalIslamic Academy provided Amy with opportunities to learn how to be suc-

    cessful teaching in a Muslim school and working in an Islamic environ-

    ment. She worked hard to be seen as a proper Muslim woman and, for the

    most part, was able to maintain this reputation.

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    Workplace Relationships in Egypt

    Challenging her coworkers. Having left a successful school experience at theInternational Islamic Academy, Amy entered teaching in Egypt with confi-

    dence. However, from the beginning of her employment at Zaki International

    School, Amy experienced difficulties relating with the two principals of the

    school. She was charged with teaching math and social studies and was frus-

    trated by their approach, The principals think that you do not need a history

    book because everything is on the Internet. Find your own resources, make

    photocopies. Amy saw this as unreasonable and stated that she did not have

    the extra time to write a complete curriculum. In addition, the principals at

    Zaki required monthly homework packets. Amy stated,

    It was really frustrating and then one principal was saying that the

    assignment plans were cutting edge and that these were new things

    happening in the states. This is not a good idea because students wait

    for the last minute or they do it all upfront. It takes the focus away

    from instruction in the classroom and puts the focus on the assignment

    and the grade. I was like youre stupid. You have no brains! Either of

    the principals.

    Amy disagreed with this approach and did not hesitate to voice her dislike

    to the principals, You guys are making me feel like I dont know how to

    teach. I hate teaching now. I dont want to do it as a career anymore. I told

    them that their policies were wrong. Amys overconfidence in her knowl-

    edge of teaching pedagogy worked against creating positive and supportive

    work relationships.

    In addition, Amy wanted a workplace where everything was organizedand exacting, When it is by the book, then I know how to behave and what

    to teach. It is too difficult when rules are changing all the time. In an instant

    message conversation, Amy and I discussed her school and how she was fair-

    ing at Zaki. She wrote,

    I truly think my principal is crazy. She wants us to complete one and a

    half books in math this year. I told her the possibility was that we could

    look at the objectives and find overlaps, other than that, we needed toget a new curriculum focused on skills rather than problem solving.

    Amy became increasingly frustrated by what she viewed as incompetent

    leadership. She wrote in an instant message, I HATE THIS SCHOOL. The

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    admin doesnt care. As long as the parents are complaining, they are going to

    bend until they are happy. This year, I really hate teaching.

    Over the course of the 2nd month of school, Amys relationships with theprincipals further declined. She spoke of an incident, Yesterday one of

    the principals gave me a sideways compliment. This is the one that broke the

    camels back. She said, for not knowing how to teach English, you are doing

    a good job. Amy was furious about this comment and said to me,

    I know Im a good teacher and I also know that I am doing a good job

    teaching English, even if I dont have a credential! Once you learn how

    to teach, you can apply those skills to any subject area.

    Amy made it clear that the problems she experienced were not solely of

    her making. She described the teacher turnover Zaki experienced during the

    first 2 months of school:

    The school hired an American teacher who quit. Then they hired another

    Egyptian teacher who quit. Then they decided that they were going to rear-

    range the teachers schedules and so they wouldnt have to look for another

    teacher. That is stupid. These people have masters degrees in school lead-ership and curriculum. None of them have doctorates in education.

    Even though Amy did not have a doctorate in education, she was critical

    of the school leadership who likewise did not have a terminal degree. Amys

    belief that she was the most knowledgeable caused her much frustration and

    dislike for Zaki. As a result, Amy sought other teaching positions and decided

    to accept a middle school social studies position at Ghaly School. She

    explained the reason why she chose Ghaly,

    I really liked the school. The first thing that I saw at the school was the

    principal yelling at parents because their childrens homework wasnt

    finished. The parents were trying to say that it was the teacher who

    wasnt clear about the homework assignment.

    Amy felt reassured by the principals attitude toward parents:

    It is common to blame the teacher. The parents think that because they

    are paying money, that they are actually the ones running the school.

    But, at Ghaly, Ms. Magda shouted at the parents, Your child is in such

    and such grade, you shouldnt be babying him. You should be standing

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    behind the teacher. You should be asking your child if he did not

    understand the assignment, why not go ask a friend? We are raising

    students who will learn. We are not raising students who want to play.If you want them to play they can go to any other school that will

    gladly accept your money.

    Amy liked the principals no-nonsense approach toward the parents. Con-

    sequently, Amy decided to quit Zaki International using the excuse that she

    was returning to the states to take care of her sick mother. Speaking to her via

    iChat during this time, Amy wrote that she was extremely frustrated by the

    schools resistance to her resignation,

    We had to get a lawyer because the school would not accept my resig-

    nation letter. The principals are threatening going through CITA (The

    Commission on International Trans-Regional Accreditation) who Zaki

    is certified through, to have my teacher certification removed. Now,

    this school is really crooked. I expected the school to understand my

    mom being sick, and when they werent, my mind was made up that I

    was leaving. You know, my mom could really get sick, this might

    really happen. I couldnt believe it.

    Amys mother was not sick, and she was hoping that this lie would allow

    her an easier exit from the school. Amy stated, The principal and assistant

    principals said that they were sorry about my mom, but they also thought I

    was exaggerating my moms illness. I said, even if I am, it is my right within

    the first 3 months to quit. At this time, what was left of a professional rela-

    tionship had deteriorated. Amy stated angrily to the principal,

    I dont like this. I dont like that. Ive told you this. I told you that. And

    she looked at me and said, if you cant do the assignment, then we

    will let you go at the end of the year. I said what are you talking

    about? I can do my assignment just fine. They just didnt get it.

    Amy did not continue her employment at Zaki, and they never pursued

    removing her teacher certification through CITA. Zaki refused to pay her sal-

    ary for her last month of work.Reflecting on her time at Zaki, Amy stated that she learned to not look at a

    schools mission statement expecting that is how it was going to be. Amy was

    highly critical of Zaki International Schools curriculum and its leadership. She

    outwardly expressed her dissatisfaction, which resulted in strained and difficult

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    working relationships. At her new school, Ghaly School, Amy respected her

    principal. She was charged with teaching seventh- and eighth-grade middle

    school students and began working in November, replacing a British teacherwho resigned from the school. On her 1st day, Amy stated,

    The kids were very excited. They were really happy to know that they

    werent going to have their old teacher. Actually, the first two lessons

    were spent answering what I do, what my husband does, why I came

    to Egypt, and if I liked Egypt.

    Although the students responded positively to Amy, she struggled with

    classroom discipline and order. She joked, Sometimes at the beginning of

    class I tell them this is not a democracy. This is a dictatorship and I am the

    dictator! Observing her teaching at Ghaly, I was surprised by her difficulties

    with students as she always spoke highly of herself as a teacher. Yet, while

    observing her class, I noticed she commanded little authority and was largely

    ineffective as a teacher. Amy struggled connecting with her students. Class-

    room discipline was difficult and she often resorted to yelling at the students.

    In her second class, Amy sent two boys to the principals office. They soon

    returned with the head teacher who entered the classroom and announced,Why were these boys sent out of the class? They will be dismissed if this

    continues. The boys returned to their seats and the class quieted down.

    Amys classroom management problems created a strain on her relationships

    with Ghaly school leaders. The principal and head teacher frequently inter-

    vened to quite the class or remove problematic students. While I sat in the

    teacher lounge, the head teacher said to Amy, Why do you have such diffi-

    culty with the boys? They are only boys and you are the teacher. Although

    Amy enjoyed better relationships with the school leaders at Ghaly, she hadlittle control over student behavior. At the end of the school year, Amy left

    Ghaly School and accepted a teaching position at Haven Academy. Haven

    Academy offered the International Baccalaureate Diploma (IB), a rigorous

    and internationally accredited middle and high school program. She accepted

    the position believing that an IB program would enroll academically minded

    students and provide her with an unproblematic teaching position where she

    would have positive relationships with both coworkers and students.


    Amy felt out of place teaching in American public schools. She struggled to

    form relationships at her places of work, largely because she was fearful of

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    her coworkers reactions to her religious conversion to Islam. This fear

    increased her sense of alienation from the public school communities.

    Numerous researchers discussed the importance of relationships in schools.Pajak and Blase (1989) found that teachers who maintain good interpersonal

    relationships at work are happier and more satisfied. Dewey (1916) stressed

    the importance of creating positive relationships throughout the school com-

    munity, and McAdamis (2007) suggested that the nature among the adults

    within a school has a greater influence on the character and quality of that

    school and on student accomplishment than anything else (p. 7). Noddings

    (1988) emphasized the importance of caring in schools and infusing the ethic

    of care throughout the curricula. Yet Amy resisted creating workplace rela-

    tionships in the American public schools. At her first school, Robbins Ele-

    mentary, Amy did not participate in after-school functions and never felt

    connected to the school or its community. The following year, Amy enjoyed

    teaching and working with the students at Asher Middle School but contin-

    ued to feel isolated from her coworkers. She prayed in secret, felt awkward

    during Christian prayers, and was frustrated by the PTA serving pork. During

    Ramadan, she told a few of her coworkers that she was Muslim and was

    bothered by their ignorance of Islam. Overall, Amy did not feel comfortable

    as a Muslim convert in the public schools in which she taught.Amy was of the opinion that being an American and a Muslim was the

    perfect combination for an Islamic school. She saw herself as uniquely posi-

    tioned to relate well with both the Arab and American teachers. Similar to

    Rosenholtzs (1989) findings concerning positive teacher socialization, while

    at the International Islamic Academy, Amy received positive feedback and

    successfully managed student behavior. Rosenholtz stated that teachers ben-

    efit from participating in learning opportunities, working with others, and

    having strong parental involvement. Yet Amy did not embrace learning oppor-tunities or collaboration with her coworkers. She rejected parental involve-

    ment and preferred to work alone and be trusted as a professional educator.

    Although Amy did not want professional development opportunities or col-

    laboration with other teachers, she accepted personal help from Muslim teach-

    ers and viewed the school community as an extended family. In the Islamic

    school, no boundaries separated Amys personal life from her professional

    life. Amy did not see this as a problem or an intrusion; rather, she felt honored

    that they liked her enough to furnish her apartment and recommend her formarriage. Johnson (1990) described the ideal school as one where colleagues

    are fully engaged with each others work. Amys workplace relationships at

    the International Islamic Academy allowed her to be a whole person and

    engaged as a teacher and as a member of the larger Muslim community.

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    Amys professional relationships in Egypt stood in stark contrast to her

    time at the International Islamic Academy. She did not participate in any

    activities outside of what was stated in her contract and became protective ofher time. Conforti (1976) found that to be successful, new teachers must

    learn to function appropriately in the school setting (p. 358). Amy often dis-

    agreed with curricular and organizational decisions and was easily frustrated

    at what she viewed as poor management. Farag (2006) stated that Egyptian

    teachers felt a range of disappointment and frustration and were often criti-

    cal of their coworkers academic knowledge and their lack of commitment to

    the profession (p. 117). Similarly, Amy assumed that she knew what was best

    for students and often disapproved of other teachers techniques. Amy com-

    plained about the mandatory homework packets and the educational philoso-

    phy behind its implementation. Amy frequently referred to her having earned

    a masters degree in education and holding teacher certification as reasons to

    support her criticisms. Amys critical approach to Egyptian school leaders

    greatly hindered her from establishing positive workplace relationships.

    Amy also had difficult relationships with her students. She yelled and

    threatened her students and became visibly angry and upset. Amys demeanor

    as a teacher in Egypt was counter to the cultural norms of female behavior.

    Muslim women were expected to be respectable, well-mannered, and moral(Haddad, 2006; Jawad, 2006). Yet Amys lack of professional manners led to

    much anger, misunderstandings, and frustrations from both school leaders

    and students. Amy was oblivious to how her behavior created a difficult work

    environment for her in Egypt with her colleagues and her students. She did

    not reflect on her behavior and regularly cited others as responsible for the

    many problems she faced at school, as indicated by her quickness to place

    blame for poor behavior and low academic achievement. Rosenholtz (1989)

    stated that teachers derive their strongest rewards from positive and aca-demically successful relations with individual students and from the external

    recognition they receive from colleagues, parents, and principals (p. 423).

    Amys difficulties establishing successful workplace relationships thwarted

    the rewards she received as a teacher. Accordingly, Amys lack of insight into

    how her conduct was inappropriate for the cultural context made it difficult

    for her to maintain positive work relationships, ultimately contributing to her

    departure from both Zaki International School and Ghaly Academy.


    Amy was drawn to Islam because she found that it provided solid answers to

    her most pressing questions about God and life. Amys religious conversion

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    to Islam was a gradual process and influenced both the ways she viewed the

    world and the ways she worked with people. As a Muslim-American teacher

    working in the American public schools, Amy felt alienated from other teach-ers and administrators. Initially, Amy was fearful to reveal her Muslim iden-

    tity, causing her much anxiety and apprehension. Yet when she finally

    exposed her religious beliefs, she was annoyed by the teachers ignorance

    about Islam and became Islams unofficial spokesperson.

    At the Islamic school, Amy was welcomed as a member of the community.

    She felt respected for her knowledge about education and her skills as a teacher.

    Although Amy earned less than the United States poverty level, she found

    acceptance in the Muslim school. Amy became a member of the Muslim com-

    munity and was able not only to increase her knowledge about Islam but also,

    as she felt, to better understand and function within Middle Eastern norms and

    mores. She developed strong and positive relationships with her students, the

    faculty, and the schools administrator. She felt competent as a teacher and

    cultivated caring interpersonal relationships. Her identity as a Muslim was not

    questioned, and it was in this context where she felt most whole.

    In Egypt, Amy viewed the Egyptian schools through her American lens,

    and chose to outwardly disapprove of administrative decisions. The fact that

    Amy was a Muslim neither had much bearing on her work as a teacher nor didhelp her create positive working relationships. Amy paid less attention to her

    identity as a Muslim female teacher and focused on what she perceived as

    incompetent school leadership and ineffectual school organization. At Zaki

    International, Amy entered the workplace overconfident in her skills as an

    American-trained teacher. She was quick to voice her negative opinions and

    outwardly blamed school leaders. At Ghaly Academy, Amy struggled with

    classroom management, and the stress of teaching the students at Ghaly con-

    tributed to her finding another teaching position for the following school year.Amys effectiveness as a teacher rested on her level of acceptance into the

    school community. At the beginning of her teaching career, Amy was anxious

    about her Muslim identity. This anxiousness largely prevented Amy from

    establishing workplace relationships. Amy felt most comfortable teaching at

    the International Islamic Academy, a small school focused on Islam and aca-

    demics where she felt accepted. Yet in Egypt, Amy entered the workplace

    with a heightened sense of self-importance. Her Muslim identity had no bear-

    ing on her ability to gain acceptance; rather, it was her overconfidence andego that harmed her workplace relationships. Although Amy failed to foster

    positive interpersonal relationships while teaching in Egypt, she continued to

    pursue teaching, hoping for a better situation at another Egyptian private


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    Amys experience as a Muslim teacher in the American public schools can

    shed light on the importance of recognizing and supporting teacher individu-

    ality. Cross-culturally, however, it was less her religious preference and moreher ego that ultimately hindered the creation of positive and supportive work-

    place relationships. Future research may offer more insights into teacher reli-

    giosity and school-based support mechanisms to foster positive interpersonal

    relationships. In an international context, subsequent research could explore

    the influences of religion, international teachers, and the role of ego as it

    pertains to workplace relationships.

    Declaration of Conflicting Interests

    The author declared no potential conflicts of interests with respect to the authorship

    and/or publication of this article.


    The author declared no financial support for the research and/or authorship of this



    1. All names are pseudonyms.


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    Melanie C. Brooks is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the School of Information

    Science and Learning Technologies at the University of Missouri-Columbia and holds a

    Ph.D. in Sociocultural International Development Education Studies from Florida State

    University. Her current research is focused on international school library development,

    information equity, and teacher religion. Her work has been published inEducationalPolicy, Etc: A Review of General Semantics, Encyclopedia of the Social and Cultural

    Foundations of Education, and theInternational Journal of Urban Educational Leadership.