Calm, cool and confident, Shawnee Mission East High School teacher David Muhammad is among the most skilled martial artists in the world and the No.1 seed on this year’s U.S. Karate team.
But Muhammad, 32, knows he has a lot more going for him when it comes to connecting with high schoolers today. He’s young — even bearded and bespectacled — and he doesn’t look all that much older than some of his students. He’s also a talented musician.
Earlier this school year Muhammad dropped a hip-hop, rap album. One cut is titled “ ‘Fairytale,’ a song highlighting the fallacy behind reality TV,” Muhammad explained.
Muhammad rapped a few lyrics from the tune he recorded in a Kansas City studio: “This life is just a fairytale, you serve well, they can sell, you as a main attraction to distract ’em from what’s real.” When he’s whipping up his rhyme, Muhammad reveals a whole different swagger.
Brotha Newz — Muhammad’s hip-hop persona — is pretty sure he’s the only rapping teacher at East. But that’s not all that makes him unusual there.
“I’m an African-American, male, Muslim teacher,” Muhammad said. “That’s rare anywhere, even more so here. I know that for many of the students here, that is exciting.”
Watching how comfortable he is in the classroom, one would never guess that Muhammad is among the most skilled fighters in the world.
One day in January, free trade versus fair trade was the economics and international relations class lesson for the afternoon. Not exactly a topic one might guess would be gripping to a group of high school sophomores.
But Muhammad, who slowly strolls the floor catching the eyes of students seated in desks arranged in a horseshoe, had their full attention.
The teens call this classroom persona his “cool.” And that’s how they describe “Mr. Mu,” their beloved social studies teacher.
Students are drawn to Muhammad, said his principal, John McKinney, and there are plenty of reasons for that. But foremost, “David is honest,” McKinney said. “The kids, they recognize that.”
Shawnee Mission East, with its 1,500 enrollment, is a school where 86 percent of students are white, only 1.4 percent are black and 6 percent are Hispanic. It draws a chunk of its kids from some of the more affluent communities in Johnson County.
Muhammad grew up in Overland Park and attended Shawnee Mission South High School, so he’s quite familiar with the neighborhoods his students hail from. On top of that, Muhammad has been teaching in Shawnee Mission for eight years. He started at East, then transferred to a middle school in the district before rejoining the high school’s staff.
By the time he returned to East a lot of the same students he’d taught in middle school were sitting in his high school classroom.
“I was 23 when I started teaching,” Muhammad recalled. “And I had students in my class who were 18 years old.”
Muhammad knew how to befriend students with his urbane demeanor. But it took a few years to hone his teaching style. “I made my share of mistakes,” he said.
One memorable lesson came in the wake of a school tragedy.
“I remember when Tyler Rathbun died,” Muhammad recalled. Rathbun was a 17-year-old East soccer player killed in an ATV accident in 2013. “I remember how it affected the school.”
Muhammad said he learned that sometimes “it’s OK not to worry about curriculum and to just let people be in the moment.”
Teaching is in Muhammad’s blood. His dad is a Karate instructor and Muhammad has been a student of the martial art since the time he could walk well enough. As a teen, he too was teaching at his father’s dojo (gym) in the Red Bridge area of Kansas City. Tall and lean, Muhammad was good.
“I tried out for the U.S. Karate Team three times before I made it.” said Muhammad, now a fifth-degree black belt. The first time he tried, 2011, “I didn’t even come close. I lost my first match.”
In 2014, two weeks after his daughter, Aria Grace Muhammad, was born, he made the U.S. Karate team as an alternate for the Olympics. This year Muhammad made the team again, but now he’s tops in the nation. And win or lose this time, Muhammad says, when this current international competition is over, his journey to be best in the world is done.
“I know that competition does not define me, but it has given me something to strive for,” Muhammad said. “I do believe in chasing your dream but you also have to be realistic,” he said.
Competing on a national stage demands a lot of money, energy and time, Muhammad said. And at this point in his life, spending more time with his 2-year-old and wife Aisha Sharif, who teaches English at Longview Community College in Lee’s Summit, is a priority. That, and his third love, teaching.
Muhammad often combines the three on evenings at home with his toddler, singing and counting and reciting colors, part of the routine before her bed time.
He’s all daddy at home.
At school, Muhammad’s philosophy, is to treat his students “like you would any human being,” he said. “They are smart. Don’t lie to them.”
Sometimes, Muhammad said, “there are days I will tell my students, ‘I just don’t have it today,’ and they appreciate that. They know I’m human. Some days they don’t have it, and it’s OK.”
He suspects not all the other teachers in his building agree with his style. “I’m sure sometimes they walk past my room and to them it looks like I’m just hanging out with the kids.” Sometimes, he is. But even then, Muhammad said. They are often talking about some social or global issues.
That’s what drew Olive Henry to his room her second week at the school.
The 14-year-old freshman showed up to join his Coalition Club, created to allow students to express social consciousness in conversation with one another and through school projects.
It was clear, she said, the moment she set foot in Muhammad’s room what this teacher was about. Posters of John Coltrane, Muhammad Ali, Gandhi and Mandela adorn his classroom walls.
“I want my classroom to reflect what I’m about,” Muhammad said. “And I try to keep an open environment.”
Henry, who is biracial said she heard from other students, that Muhammad “is the cool teacher.” The two bonded right away, “talking about our heritage,” Olive said. “He’s the only teacher I know who can talk to us not just about school but about anything, everything,” she said.
Besides being a really good teacher, Olive said, what she and her schoolmates like most about Muhammad, is that when he has something to say, he says it. “He never goes in a round-about way” she said. “He’s direct.”
Devon Dietrich is quick to agree. “What makes Mr. Mu an exceptional teacher is you know he’s not ever going to lie to you. A lot of adults shy away from being fully honest with us.”
Last year, Muhammad helped some East students respond to a racially charged Instagram post that surfaced targeting African-American and Hispanic students and used the N-word several times.
Students launched an Instagram campaign — #itooameast —highlighting the faces and voices of black students who felt undervalued, unheard or unfairly stereotyped.
During a recent meeting with other teachers and McKinney as part of the school’s diversity and inclusion committee, Muhammad shared his respect for students, telling the group to reach out to minority students and then reminding them that a last name or skin color doesn’t fully speak to a student’s identity.
When Muhammad wants to know how students identify themselves, “I will just ask them straight out,” he said. He does that, he said, to let them know he cares and respects them.
“David makes teaching around him better,” McKinney said. “He challenges me. I challenge him. He tries to find ways to make students grow, to educate them in a number of different ways. And the students recognize that David cares.”
Indeed. Some nights Muhammad doesn’t even make it home after a day teaching at East and then karate, until nearly 10 p.m. because often he stops to meet in the evenings with groups of students and parents who want to talk outside of school about how to navigate being such a small minority at East.
Teaching for Muhammad is more than just what comes out of a text book or a question on a test. It’s life lessons, and he says he’s dedicated to helping youth learn those lessons through his interactions with them, even through his rap music, which he says is an extension of his classroom.
“I think I’ll always be a teacher no matter what happens,” Muhammad said. “I’d like to help others chase their dreams.”