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Exclusive: First Interview with Ralph Northam’s Pick for Virginia Secretary of Education, Atif Qarni

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On Sunday, I had a chance to sit down with Marine Corps veteran, teacher, community leader and proud Muslim American Atif Qarni, who Gov.-elect Ralph Northam announced this past Thursday as his pick for Virginia Secretary of Education.  Here are the highlights from our discussion, at Silver Diner in Arlington, condensed for readability. Oh, and best of luck to Atif in his new job; I’m confident he’s going to do great!

How will having been a teacher for many years inform Atif’s approach to being Virginia Secretary of Education?

Atif Qarni: My background as a teacher is the most valuable thing for this job, because having that field expertise, that “field PhD,” is so critical….you know, thousands of teachers in the Commonwealth were hoping for [a teacher as Secretary of Education]; VEA was aggressively pushing for it. As a matter of fact, as soon as the nomination was announced, I have gotten dozens of Facebook messages, emails…dozens of teachers across the Commonwealth are super excited.

Literally, the other day you were working as a teacher, then Ralph Northam came to name you Secretary of Education, and after that you went right back to work.

Atif Qarni: On Thursday, I was literally teaching, then afterwards I went back to my last period, finished it up, then I had detention duty…My principal was like, you don’t have to do detention duty, and I said no no, I’m going to finish it out. I’m sitting in detention and I had students from high school come…former students…to hang out with the detention kids. And then Delegate Plum – he’s a former teacher – the most senior member [of the Virginia House of Delegates], he came to congratulate me…

Being a K-12 classroom teacher brings something unique to this job?

Atif Qarni: I think the field expertise and perspective is going to be critical.  A lot of educators, teachers, counselors, etc. have already started to reach out to me…They’re invested now…this has given them hope that one of our own is in this position and they’re ready to work, they’re like what can I do to help? Folks are already asking can we do focus groups, policy sessions…I really would like to travel the Commonwealth as much as possible; I don’t feel that I’m gonna do my job well the time sitting in the office. I really want to travel, get to know every corner of the Commonwealth, talk to people, engage them, really get really get them invested, talk to…everybody, all stakeholders; I really want to be out there on the road as much as possible.

Before working as a teacher for 10 years, what did you do?

Atif Qarni: I was in the Marines, deployed overseas…in Iraq. I was also, before that, a litigation paralegal for 8 years. I joined the Marines right after High School, did my basic training, was in the reserves, then did some active duty when I was deployed [to Iraq]. Everything I’ve done – being in the Marines, working for a major law firm, being a teacher – all those experiences that I’ve gained are going to add a lot of value in running a big agency with an $18 billion budget.  As far as the Marine Corps are concerned, those leadership skills of working through challenging situations are very important…My job is to work with/listen to [experienced Department of Education employees’] expert advice, look at what the Governor-elect’s agenda is and try to facilitate the policies…making small adjustments here and there can have really big impacts in the classroom…
In the Marines, you dealt with a very diverse group of people, how did that shape your approach?
Atif Qarni: Some of my best friends were from all walks of life, all over the country, then getting deployed, interacting with a different culture, different languages…really understanding people, getting a “people PhD.”
Prince William County is also extremely diverse…how might that diversity inform your approach to the Secretary of Education job?
Atif Qarni:  If you look at dialects, there could be potentially up to 200 or so [spoken in the Prince William County public school system]. There are also 30-plus nationalities represented in the Prince William County schools. If you look at the picture with the governor [on the day of the Secretary of Education announcement], what I did was, I have six classes I teach – five 8th grade classes and one 6th grade class, so 171 kids – and I could only like fit in maybe 15, 20 kids so what I did was I drew three names in each class, 18 kids out of a hat, a random selection, and if you look at that picture, you’ve got every type represented, it’s very diverse.
To get to the question about going from very diverse Prince William County to other parts of the state, that’s fine; again, having the passion and the care to improve education is very critical. One of the issues they have in a lot of the rural areas is a lack of internet access. I’ll be trying to work with private companies – I’ve already started the conversation – about providing broadband access in in those rural areas. Also, why not get folks from northern Virginia to volunteer to go teach in rural areas? That’s something that I’m definitely going to look into to see what are the possibilities this kind of innovative, out-of-the-box thinking? but then that doesn’t cost any more.
We need to infuse energy, and I’m all about energy…I really mean that. I feel energized, I feel like this governor could be the best we’ve ever had, I really believe in him. We take that energy and infuse that into these localities where it’s desperately needed and get them attention. Let’s connect them, let’s go and do policy councils in Southwest Virginia…let’s take teachers down to these towns and have the discussions there, so they can physically see…I want to start from the small divisions, then work our way up to big divisions, because they really really need the attention, and they shouldn’t feel helpless…I’m convinced that there’s a lot of talent in these divisions, I think all we need to do is to engage them.
Any thoughts on being the first Muslim Virginia Secretary of Education?
Atif Qarni: Every individual has different identities that define them, who they are. I am a proud Marine, a proud teacher, a proud parent, a proud family man, husband, and a proud Muslim – what’s wrong with that? That doesn’t mean I have some hidden agenda to indoctrinate kids…give a teacher a chance to prove themselves. When people get to know me, they will love me, I guarantee it. You’ve seen it; folks did not initially give me a chance, but once they did and got to know me, I made friends with everyone. There’s this distrust of Muslims, do they have a hidden agenda, can we trust them? But once people get to know me…I love my [Muslim] community, just like I love my teaching community; they’re genuine, they’re hard working, patriotic…All I want is a level playing field…you should never never dismiss somebody based on their identity, we should focus on their merit….[In the interview process for this job], they were really looking for merit, they were not concerned about what my identity is, they were looking at what is my professional background, what are my leadership skills, what am I bringing to the table, what is my vision?
This year in Virginia we saw a tremendously diverse slate of candidates step up to run – Latinas, African Americans, LGBT, a Democratic Socialist, etc.
Atif Qarni: Prince William County led the way, and that’s something I’m very proud of. We started it in Prince William in April when Jackie Smith won [her special election over Jackson Miller for Clerk of the Circuit Court]…then Karen Keys-Gamarra’s election to the Fairfax County School Board. This was great for our county and for the whole Commonwealth. We did a lot of hard work, people like [State Senator] Jeremy McPike; he reached out, we started planning stuff out…1 1/2 years ago, we started working together, building the infrastructure, bringing in an executive director which we never had in
the party and which really helped a lot…training candidates…I sat down with almost all the House candidates, talked about how to do call time, how to canvass.
Will any of that work help you in your new job as Secretary of Education, including working with people of both parties?
Atif Qarni:  One thing I’m very proud is working pleasantly with everyone. The vast majority of Republican elected officials I know, such as Prince William County School Board member Willie Deutsch, are not like Corey Stewart – he’s not a decent human being, and you can put that in the interview – they’re good human beings, decent people who I can work with even if I don’t agree with them philosophically. Many are interested in special education, pre-K, other issues I care about as well. My personal opinion, though is, there’s no wiggle room in terms of investing in public education…
Any thoughts on SOL testing?
Atif Qarni: It’s not just about getting rid of tests, it’s about are we being productive, are these assessments productive?  It’s not necessarily about big data but about small data…when you assess kids in small increments you’re doing better tracking whether kids are learning…The baseline doesn’t have to be done in front of a computer, either…I can tell you by talking to kids…whether they know [the material] or not…Pre-assess, teach, re-assess…there are all different levels of mastery…Are we grooming our kids to be good test takers or are we grooming them to be good critical thinkers…In some content areas for English language learners, why don’t we try doing assessments in different languages, in mathematics [for example]…Say your family just migrated from South Korea, why not do an assessment in Korean?…That’s what creating a world-class system is about…it’s just common sense…we should make that effort…try experimenting with this…work with companies to develop better, technology-enhanced assessments…
Speaking of technology, what about its impact on learning?
Atif Qarni: Even with technology, you still need teachers…you’ve needed them since the beginning of time; in any civilization, it’s an absolutely critical profession. Even with the technology enhancements, you still need teachers to teach the technology…I use technology in different, creative ways, in computer labs and so forth…that kind of led me to be named the teacher of the year, because I was using technology in creative ways…There are a lot of advantages [to technology] in learning mathematics…you can do it on your phone so you don’t need an actual computer…but if you don’t have a basic thing like internet access, you can’t get access to the websites…You need the teacher to supervise [kids’ use of technology] so they stay on task…Need to embrace technology…but kids still need time to socialize, decompress…can be too much pressure…Some kids know the content but don’t assess well on tests…
What about other paths to graduating in our diverse economy?
Atif Qarni: I had a student who loved cars, was very interested in it. There’s only one High School in our county that offers an auto mechanic program. He was unable to get into the specialty program, his base high school didn’t offer that. So now he’s working at Walmart. I wonder if he had gone to the different high school if his route would have been different…When the Governor-elect was talking to my kids, he asked kids questions, he called on them, asked if anybody knew what they wanted to do when they grow up. A bunch of kids put their hands up. One kid said I want to be a cyber security specialist. If he already knows he wants to be a cyber security specialist, what kind of exposure does he have to that? One kid said I want to be a financial manager…another said they wanted to be a fashion designer. I mean, the kids are not getting that exposure until very late, either in college or in some instances not until their senior in high school, so let’s see if we can try to work to work to try to give them exposure early.
How about arts education?
Atif Qarni: The Governor-elect  talked about STEAM all the time and emphasized the arts, because again, you know, you want kids to do what they love the most, give them exposure early, let them try out different things, they might change their minds. A way to attract a lot of folks who are experts in different professions – artists, musicians, etc. – might be allow them to come in and teach every other day, or half a day of teaching. Of course, you need high-quality teachers, not just people who know the content area…they need to know how to work with kids…
Any final thoughts?

Atif Qarni: I’m excited for this opportunity, it’s going to be a great four years. I just want folks to understand is that my goal is to make Virginia a model…Ralph Northam is really passionate about this, his wife is a school teacher, he’s very very serious [about education]. It was significant [that Northam announced his Secretary of Education pick at a public Middle School], he was sending a statement regarding how serious he is about this…[he announced it] right before Christmas break, the last announcement right before that…I know that there are a lot of high expectations and I plan to work hard. I want to make all of Virginia proud, in all parts – rural, urban, everywhere. I’m going to work 24/7 on this, live and breathe it…I’m doing a lot of reading already to study different models of
what’s worked where globally, locally, nationally… I want to connect all different school
divisions to get them to communicate with each other, to see what is actually working…We want them to try things…sometimes you might fail, but you try and you never surrender…I’m very grateful for the governor for giving me this opportunity. And four years from now, I’ll show you where we are in Virginia and I’ll show you the data four years from now…I’m going to hit the ground running.
  • Esther Ferington

    What a great interview. Thanks so much for doing this. This is the kind of thing that makes Blue Virginia worth reading every day, not just during elections and campaigns, and I’m sure it took a lot of work to pull together. Thanks again.

  • RobertColgan

    Yes, a very good interview.
    Education is one of those things that everyone agrees is a good thing………but have extraordinary variety regarding what education is, or ought to be.
    Seems simple to me: just allow kids to play until they’ve exhausted the urge to play, then provide the materials (tools, art supplies, books, computers, whatever) they need to explore the world.
    Adult guidance always seemed to me to be more about indoctrination than empowerment……I think the best thing would for the elementary schools to be converted into play centers supervised by caring adults (teachers, behavioral therapists, psychologists) who would stay out of the way but be both observant and available to those who are struggling for any reason. Most of children’s problems stem from familial upset…..abuse is far too often hidden and ultimately carries its stigmatic trauma into succeeding generations: those adults would be tasked to spot problem areas and be able to recommend to those whose job it is to assist families in trouble. This would have the effect of reducing greatly the number of people for whom trauma has embedded in their psyches….saving a lifetime of suffering.
    Don’t teach as much as get out of the way. Kids are perfectly capable of becoming self-navigational. When they finally have played enough, they will be able to become either more scholarly, or move into trades that appeal to them.
    I hope we have a genuine reformer in Qarni….although with a military background with its obeisance to hierarchy that it infers….I suspect he will be more middle-of-the-road in his role as SoEd. Regardless, Best of luck to him.

    • xyz Cole

      You know, you approach the education thing almost identical to the way my stepfather, who retired from the teacher’s union in Virginia, does. Interesting way to do education. As a special education teacher, that’s kind of the way I teach, as much as possible, at least. My students help determine what we’re going to do in class that day. It’s important to me not to extinguish the flame or spark for learning that kids come to school with.