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Leading and inspiring the next generation with Naimah Zarif

By Marilu Aguilar-Moreno
from Aspire’s Talent Team

Whether in the classroom, on the playing field, or as a mentor, Naimah Zarif has always been an educator first. As a young student, Zarif distinguished herself in school with her diligence and dedication. Recalling her early academic experiences she said,  “School was a very good place for me and I always wanted to be a part of education. When it took me longer to process some of the material in middle school, teachers were really patient with me.” 

However, the journey to higher education had a setback when an academic counselor superimposed presumptions on Zarif’s fate, “You’re not going to college, kids like you don’t go to college.” Her counselor’s words created dissonance within Zarif. She had entrusted her school system to prepare her for college and was under the impression that that would be the natural next step post-high school. “I assumed that everyone was taking the appropriate classes in preparation for the next level of education. I decided to go to summer school every year and worked really hard to catch up,” she reflected.

Zarif’s hard work paid off. With trusted mentors and advocates on her side, Zarif went on to earn a full-ride track scholarship to Sacramento State University and became a first-generation college graduate in Child Development. Later, Zarif enrolled at Alliant University to pursue a Master’s in Education and teaching credential and joined the team at Aspire Langston Hughes Academy (LHA) in 2009.

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She is now a Math/Science Teacher, an Activities Coordinator, and Middle School Athletic Director at LHA, where she leads by example and builds community. She is a mother of four, three of whom are Aspire scholars and an Aspire alum, who is currently pursuing a degree in engineering at Howard University. 

Our Aspire teammate spotlight with Zarif shares how she inspires students to show up as their best selves – meeting and exceeding expectations set for them. Learn more about her journey, and her student-centered approach in education.

Can you tell me about yourself and how your journey as an educator started?
During my time in college, I was a Preschool teacher intern for Head Start, and after graduation, I took an opportunity as a social worker for San Joaquin County. Although I was out of the classroom, I was still educating. There, I worked with pregnant and parenting teens in the Adolescent Family Life Program and supported young people, as they navigated decision making, goal setting, and personal and family development. After undergoing such life-changing experiences, it was vital for me to let my clients know that they still had a bright future. 

When I became pregnant with my oldest son, I transitioned from my social worker job to a teaching position at Clara Mohammed School in south Stockton. After many successful years at CMS, I switched from private school to public school, launching my journey with Aspire in 2009. I started as a long-term substitute teacher and gradually became a full-time teacher over the years. I’ve taught AVID, middle school, and high school math, and am currently teaching 6th-grade math and science. I serve as the Student Activities Coordinator and Middle School Athletic Director. I wear a lot of hats, and my days are often very long, but I can honestly say that I love my job. 

What do you enjoy most about your work?
I really enjoy the opportunity to help our future generation of leaders excel. I know that education is not the highest paid profession, but I do believe that it is one of the most important. In all my roles as an educator, I have had the privilege to build confidence, expand horizons and vision, teach concepts, and challenge students to dig deeper. I love teaching math because it’s linear and concrete. I actually disliked math when I was little, but I figured out how I learn best and was able to apply new methods and processes, which helped me develop a passion for the subject. 

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What change do you want to see in the education system at large?
I want to see equal opportunity to support all learning institutions, educators, and most importantly, students. If you were to evaluate curriculum, supplemental materials, technology, tools, and resources across schools, they should all be up to date to accommodate student needs. A kid doesn’t have a choice on where they grow up, and the quality of education should not be contingent on one’s socioeconomic status. When schools aren’t meeting the needs of all students, it creates inequitable results. As educators, we need to examine our system, assess our root causes, bring in stakeholders, and make decisions with students’ interests in mind. I believe that all students can learn if they are provided with layers of support to meet their learning styles and needs. 

What is a lesson you’ve learned or advice you’ve received in your career that you’d like to impart to aspiring and practicing educators alike?
One thing I’ve learned is that I need my students as much as they need me. We help each other grow. I advise educators to set high standards and expectations. Whether I am leading in my classroom or my teams, I expect their best effort. If you’ve watched “The Last Dance,” Michael Jordan leads with dedication and passion, and I can relate to that. I never ask my students to do anything I am unwilling to do myself. My personal outlook is to treat every lesson, every opportunity, and everything you do as a “last dance” and give your best effort. Then show up the next day with the goal to be a better teacher, teammate, leader, and overall a better person than you were the day before. 

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