Somali teacher honored for diversity efforts

Photo by John Gessner

Gideon Pond Elementary fifth-grade teacher Qorsho Hassan has gained recognition for her equity and diversity efforts in Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District 191.

Principal: Hassan is ‘game changing educator’

For the Somali students in her class at Gideon Pond Elementary, fifth-grade teacher Qorsho Hassan thinks of herself as a mirror, reflecting back their identity.

For other students at the Burnsville school she thinks of herself as a window, exposing them to a new culture and new ideas.

The only Somali teacher at Gideon Pond, Hassan is proud to share her example and perspective within and beyond Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District 191. And she’s getting noticed for it.

This month Hassan was chosen from candidates across the country as a Topnotch Equity Leader by Kinect Education Group, a national consulting and training firm specializing in diversity and inclusiveness in educational institutions. The award is given monthly.

Hassan was nominated by Gideon Pond music teacher Rebecca Buck, with whom she’s writing a book on Somali songs and stories in their community. The pair also collaborated on a presentation to a Minnesota Music Educators Conference about culturally relevant teaching, with an emphasis on Somali culture, around the Kodaly method of music instruction. They will present to the National Organization of American Kodaly Educators next March.

“Qorsho is a relentlessly loud voice for her students of color in her school, is a beautiful role model for her Somali students, and is an endless inspiration to everyone she comes in contact with,” Buck wrote in her nomination letter.

Now in her eighth year of teaching and third year at Gideon Pond, Hassan feels she’s found her professional home — especially with the addition this year of a co-teacher of color, Monet Barnes. The student body is 48.4 percent black or African American, 33.5 percent white, 8.8 percent Hispanic or Latino, 7 percent students of two or more races and 1.8 percent Asian.

“Environment really matters,” Hassan said. “As a person of color, as a Muslim teacher, I don’t think every school would be the right fit, but Pond really is.”

Hassan was born in New Orleans to Somali parents who came separately to the United States in the late ’80s, well before many of their countrymen arrived.

“It was very rare to find Somalis in the States at that time, so they kind of found home in each other, which is beautiful,” said Hassan, who lives in Eagan.

Her father died in 1994 and her mother moved the family to mostly white Hilliard, Ohio, a Columbus suburb. In school Hassan said she was subjected to micro-aggressions (“You sound like you know English pretty well”) and occasional outright hostility in a post-9/11 environment, including from white school staff members.

“I remember certain moments in high school where beyond micro-aggressions, I was being blatantly told to go back home, even though my home was America,” Hassan said.

After graduating from high school in 2012 Hassan attended The Ohio State University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. Through the Americorps national service program she taught kindergartners in Ohio while attending college. She was selected as a Fulbright Scholar, which took her to Malaysia for a year of teaching.

“I think that’s when I knew teaching was for me, because I just felt so valued in Malaysia, and I felt like I was important, like I was seen as someone who needed to be in a classroom, who needed to be a leader,” Hassan said.

Returning to Columbus, she taught kindergarten and third grade for three years at an inner city charter school before coming to the Twin Cities in 2015 with her sister, Hoda, who came for a residency in psychiatry.

While in Columbus, which has a large Somali population, Hassan chronicled that community as co-curator of a multimedia exhibit and book whose English title translates to “Community In-Between.” Some of the exhibit’s poster portraits of Somali leaders hang on the wall at Gideon Pond.

“It lives on,” Hassan said of the project, “and the book is at Barnes and Noble and on Amazon.”

In District 191 Hassan has helped start several affinity groups for students and staff of color, Buck wrote in her nomination letter. This year Hassan and Eagle Ridge Middle School Associate Principal Isis Buchanan co-founded Amplify One91.

“Amplify One91 is a cohort for staff of color in this district,” Hassan said. “It’s basically meant to be a safe space for staff of color, not only teachers but EAs (educational assistants) — anyone who works within the school district and is paid gets to be a part of it.”

Hassan applauded what she said is an upswing in the district’s minority hiring this year. Hiring and retaining more staff members of color remain challenges, she said.

She credited Gideon Pond Principal Chris Bellmont with supporting her efforts and seeing “the big picture.”

Hassan is a “game changing educator,” Bellmont said in an email. “She is able to leverage relationships in a powerful way. Her ability to form strong relationships, combined with brilliant teaching expertise and a relentless quest to ensure all students succeed, make her an effective educator on so many levels.”

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