From Teaching History to Making History

by Anne Reynolds

From Teaching History to Making History

Atif Qarni, MA History ’09, has made public service a focal point of his career.

From serving as a U.S. Marine in Iraq in 2003, to working as a middle school teacher, to the role he has held since January, as Virginia’s Secretary of Education, he has worked for the benefit of his community.

Qarni earned his master’s degree in history as well as his teaching license at Mason. As an adult learner, he valued the university’s support for his career goals as well as the opportunity to exchange big ideas with his classmates and learning from their perspectives. “You’re having those intellectual conversations in class settings and you’re looking at the big picture globally,” he recalls. “You talk about inequities, you talk about social justice; that’s something that I valued going into the program.”

The university’s diversity made a difference in his experience. “One of the great things about George Mason was that you have a lot of varying perspectives in a classroom setting of 30 people or so. It’s the different perspective of folks who have served in the military, like myself, or folks who might be from another country, might be taking a program... for their own personal growth,” he adds. “It was very interesting to engage in conversations with folks from all different backgrounds, and that it really ... expanded my intellectual ability with those perspectives. I was able to apply that in my teaching and in the other things I do in the community.”

In January, Qarni was sworn in as Virginia’s 19th education secretary, appointed by Governor Ralph Northam. Even among this small group, he is unique. “I did some research,” he says. “The position has been around since 1972, when it was put into the code, and of the eighteen folks who’ve served in this position before me, they have been university presidents, or professors, one high school administrator ... But this is the first time a K-12 teacher has come away from the classroom to go into the cabinet, it’s the first time it’s been done.”

He is aware of the impact of his background on his new role. “Having that fresh perspective from the classroom is very critical,” he says. “It does multiple things, but the first thing it does for teacher morale is that when the governor announced the appointment on December 21, I received many, many messages through social media, even at my school work email. Many messages from hundreds of teachers across the commonwealth, who are very excited.”

Qarni is making plans to immediately impact public education in Virginia. Beginning with Teacher Appreciation Week, May 7-11, his office recruited General Assembly members, the governor’s cabinet, and even the governor and first lady Pam Northam to step into classrooms across Virginia and substitute teach. In addition, he is traveling the state “to identify best practices that school divisions are already doing and share that model statewide.”

In the longer term, he has broad objectives for ensuring that education across Virginia, at all levels, leads to outcomes that match Virginia workers with jobs that are available in the commonwealth. He wants students— supported by their schools—to begin to consider their futures at an earlier age: “See what kids are passionate about, what are the jobs of the future ... talk to the local school divisions. Are they offering courses that are going to address all areas, the humanities and the arts and sciences, and have a good balance as well?”

He continues, “[We want to be] having that conversation that everything is equally important, but what are your individual values, where do you want to go in your future? And have good planning, so you’re being as productive as possible.”