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AYER/SHIRLEY–Ayer Shirley Regional High School math teacher Kristine Austin came to the school, then known as Ayer High, in 2010, after many years of teaching at Al-Hamra Academy in Shrewsbury, a private school for students in preschool through grade 8.

Austin first started at Al-Hamra as a kindergarten teacher with six students, and went on to teach grades 4 and 5, and middle school.

“I basically went where I was needed, because it’s hard for them to find teachers,” she said of her sweeping responsibilities there.

In the middle school she taught math and science, and found that she especially enjoyed teaching middle school students. “But I was more comfortable teaching math than science,” she said.

Austin grew up in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and earned her undergraduate degree in mathematics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she also met her husband, Pakistani Mohsin Khan.

She took some education courses as an undergraduate, and intended to teach high school math after she graduated.

“But, basically, I chickened out,” she said. Rather than go directly into teaching, she took a job in sales for a couple of years.

The couple settled in Northborough after Mohsin, who earned his MBA at Babson College, started a job in Watertown.

After Austin began teaching at Al-Hamra, where her three children now attend school, she earned her preliminary teaching certification. She later completed her Master’s degree at UMass Lowell.

She said that her biggest inspiration for returning to her goal of teaching was her high school math teacher in Wisconsin. “I never really considered myself good in math, but I think she is the one who finally put that in my head.”

It took a while, she said, but she finally found her niche. Over the summer three years ago she posted her resume on SchoolSpring, a web-based employment service, and received the call from Ayer High School.

Transitioning to Ayer

“I wasn’t sure exactly where it was,” Austin said of the Town of Ayer. “I had heard of it, but then I figured out where it was and figured out that it wasn’t a bad commute.

“I really like it here. I like the size. Having come from a small school, I really liked this school. I didn’t even interview anywhere else. It’s a good transition for me to go from private school to public school. I like the school culture, the administration, and the staff.

“The other math teachers are very collaborative, and we bounce ideas off each other and pass along information. I feel really comfortable here.”

The geometry class Austin teaches is made up of freshmen and sophomores, and each class is generally a block of 90 minutes. “We basically teach the whole course in one semester,” she said.

“There are good and bad things about the block. It allows you to have more electives, but with math in the spring, if the students haven’t had math in the fall, then they’ve gone three to four months without any math. You’re not exactly starting from scratch, but you have to do a little ‘unpacking’ to get them started.”

The school is now working on a revised program of studies that would shorten such classes and offer more options beginning next year.

Austin is also teaching Mathematical Excursions and Algebra II this year. She said that in Math Excursions, students learn about finance, statistics, and a bit of the history of the major contributors to mathematics, including the Romans, Mayans, Babylonians, and Chinese.

Finding Acceptance

After meeting her husband, Austin converted to Islam and became a Muslim. She wears a hijab, a headscarf that completely covers the top and sides of her head, and said that she was a bit nervous the first few days of school, wondering if the students’ curiosity about her background and beliefs would interfere with the classroom learning environment.

“No one said anything for the first few days, and then the first question they asked me was what color my hair is. I thought they would ask more philosophical questions, like about culture or why I am wearing the scarf, but they just wanted to know what color my hair was.”

Eventually the students did ask her about her religion, but the only conflict for her has been coordinating her school schedule with the Muslim holidays.

Muslim holidays begin at sunset of the previous day, and in her first year of teaching at Ayer High, Ramadan ended with Eid al-Fitr, the Festival of Fast-Breaking, on September 10. In 2011, the date was August 31, which she worried would conflict with the first day of the school year.

Asked for comment regarding the issue, former AHS Principal Don Parker responded, “We hired Kristine Austin because we thought that she was the best math teacher for the position. The fact that she is an American Muslim, I see it as a plus, because our kids are being exposed to another cultural religious situation. It broadens our kids’ perspective on people.”

Added current Principal Brian Haas, “Kristine continues to expand her teaching repertoire and to provide our students with quality math instruction in a variety of classes. Kristine is an asset to both the math department and the school community.”

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