Alumni Feature: Teaching with Compassion and Failing with Grace

By Dr. Celene Ibrahim, MDiv ’11 

Editor’s Note: In this post, alumna, Dr. Celene Ibrahim, shares how her HDS education has served her in her career.

Dr. Celene Ibrahim is an internationally known specialist in religious studies with a focus on Islamic intellectual history. She is the author of the award-winning monograph Women and Gender in the Qur’an published by Oxford University Press (2020). Her latest book, Islam and Monotheism (2022), is published in the Cambridge University Press Elements series. She also specializes in chaplaincy and in practices for interreligious encounter and is the editor of the book One Nation, Indivisible: Seeking Liberty and Justice from the Pulpit to the Streets (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2019).

In the decade since graduating from Harvard Divinity School’s MDiv program, I pursued a doctorate, became an author, served as a higher-ed chaplain and a faculty member at several seminaries, and am now a philosophy and religious studies teacher at a residential high school. This academic year, I began serving as the Denominational Counselor for Muslim Students at HDS. It has certainly been a varied path since graduation!

As a faculty member at Groton School, a residential high school not far from Greater Boston, I am primarily a classroom teacher but also serve as an athletic coach, an academic advisor, and a dorm affiliate. In each of these roles, I bring aspects of my HDS training. For instance, I remember being on duty in a female dorm when the news broke about the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion that would eventually overturn Roe v. Wade. Instead of supporting students in writing essays—as I might have done on a typical dorm duty night—I used my chaplain persona that evening to facilitate an impromptu conversation, holding space for deep listening, keeping in mind the diversity of perspectives and experiences that could be in the room. After our conversations, students returned to that night’s essays and problem sets with more focus, having given themselves a chance to process the breaking news together.

The centered, reassuring presence that my HDS training helped me to develop also gives me a holistic, compassionate understanding of my students. Each student has basic needs to feel secure, to feel safe, to be valued, to be engaged in processes of meaning-making, and, at times, to be reassured. The classroom is ideally a place where these needs can be nourished. When I curate student learning opportunities, I think about socio-emotional factors that might impact their learning. I strive to foster meta-cognition and to transmit content in a way that is, ultimately, more beneficial than simply a grade on a report card. Really, I am striving to reach them and support them as moral-spiritual beings. Teaching is my “ministry,” to use HDS language!

My time at HDS has also taught me how to live into vulnerability, to fail gracefully, and to extend myself in compassion; this regularly shows up in my relations with students. For instance, once on a forty-minute break between classes, I settled into a wonderfully comfortable chair in the faculty lounge to delve into a stack of student papers on Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain philosophy. About halfway through the stack, I leaned back and gave my eyes a break from the screen. My eyes decided to take a more extended break than I had intended. I awoke ten minutes into my next class and raced to my classroom, fearing that students might have already left. (They had not, those sweet, dedicated students.) My students know me as punctual and dependable, but they can appreciate me for my basic humanity, too. I now set an alarm when I’m reading student work in the late afternoon—just in case—but, in a grander scheme, I am also trying to reevaluate our culture of overwork and under-rest.

For each of my occupations, HDS training has helped me develop a commitment to self-care and an ability to discern life priorities. Self-care has at its core an ability to sense one’s true dignity and value, independent of external forms of validation; discerning priorities entails effectively communicating our boundaries in the physical, social, and digital worlds. These practical skills, in turn, require honest, non-judgmental self-awareness. The beauty of being surrounded by the humans of HDS is that there are regular opportunities to practice non-judgmental self-awareness drawing on the introspective tools from spiritual disciplines that span the globe. HDS is truly a phenomenal place—not just for intellectual growth but also for self-cultivation.

Comments are closed.

Website Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: