COLUMBIA — Minutes before the fifth-graders at the Islamic School of Columbia start their science or communication arts test, teacher Kristine Key leads them in a prayer. She and her students pray to Allah for success on the test.
While prayer isn't rare for private religious schools, the fact that a Christian teacher works at an Islamic School is more unusual. Key, who said she is a devout Seventh-day Adventist who is active in her church, received an invitation to help at the Islamic School and couldn't say no.
The invitation came last year from a doctor who worked with Key's husband at the Moberly Regional Medical Center. The doctor, who was on the school's board of education, had heard of Key's 15 years of experience in education and knew she wasn't working. She had taken time off beginning in the 2006-2007 school year to home-school her son, who was then in the ninth grade.
"I respect Islam," Key said. "I teach everything that will help (the students) embrace their religion and heritage."
Key wears a hijab, the Arabic word for scarf, during school hours because she thinks it helps show the students they should be proud of their religion. It was not something the school required her to wear. Many Muslim women cover their hair out of respect.
"(The hijab is) my assurance to (the school) that I want to be a part of their team and respect who they are," she said.
Teaching at the school allows Key to see the similarities rather than the differences between Islam and Christianity.
"God created the world (and) is forgiving and merciful toward us," Key said. "God listens to our prayers (and) everyone is equal in God's sight in respect to race."
She attributed her attitude of embracing other cultures to her upbringing. She spent most of her high school years overseas. Her parents were missionaries who took the family across the globe to places such as Kenya and Lebanon. She spent her time socializing with people who could teach her about their culture.
"I got to realize there are so many rich cultures out there that mine isn't necessarily right or wrong," she said. "Even at that age, I wanted to know about those people and what makes them happy."
Those experiences and desires of learning about foreign cultures led her to the Islamic School.
She started at the school in early 2007 and worked a variety of hours, first as a volunteer consultant, then teaching first- and second-grade communication arts and social studies as well as fifth-grade science. During that time, she was a floating teacher with no permanent classroom of her own and used a cart to hold her supplies while she moved from classroom to classroom.
The Islamic School provided Key the opportunity to work with small class sizes — the largest class has 10 students. That, along with the family-oriented environment of the school and the attitude of the children, compelled Key to stay at the school when a permanent position was offered. Now, she has her own classroom and teaches kindergarten homeroom, fifth-grade science and communication arts.
Key has taught in Christian private schools and spent six years teaching in the public school system as well. She said the large class sizes in the public schools would often leave her discouraged and defeated because she felt that, despite giving her best, it wasn't enough to ensure that every student had learned the concepts.
Her passion for teaching originated in college when she returned to the U.S. to initially study nursing at Kettering College of Medical Arts in Ohio. She soon realized she had more of an affinity to teaching and transferred to Union College, a Seventh-day Adventist college, in Lincoln, Neb., where she earned an associate's degree in early childhood education and a bachelor's degree in elementary education.
Because of her educational background and her years of experience, Zuhnia Kozbar, the school's principal, said Key was a good candidate for a full-time position at the school.
However, she wasn't the first non-Muslim teacher to work at the school. Key said when she started, there were two other teachers at the school who were not Muslim. They no longer work there.
Kozbar said having Key teach at the school is a good experience. Key teaches a lot and she is learning a lot, Kozbar said.
"The best thing is, when we work, it really doesn't matter (that Key isn't Muslim)," she said. "It's a mutual respect (and) it's a school of diversity. We welcome everyone."
As a result of living abroad, Key said she came to the school with no reservations or stereotypes. Yet other people in her life didn't feel the same way.
"(Some acquaintances) have a hard time of understanding why I work here because of the negative stereotypes (of Muslims)," she said. "(Their comments) don't affect me. I roll my eyes."
While Key may not receive encouragement from some of her acquaintances, she does receive support from her husband. His only worry is the 40-mile drive from Moberly to Columbia and the subsequent cost of gas.
Key's Centralia-based church, Sunnydale Seventh-day Adventist Church, is also supportive of her decision to work at the Islamic School. Pastor Doug Inglish said Key reached out to help the children with their education because they needed a qualified teacher. He said the beliefs Key holds don't conflict with the beliefs of the school.
After getting off work, Key sometimes goes to the church still wearing a hijab. But this doesn't bother Inglish.
"There's nothing offensive about wearing the scarf," he said. "(Wearing a head scarf is) no more than to show respect."
Since being at the school, Key said she has spiritually grown.
"I have had to examine the differences (of the two religions) and have gained a fresh perspective on the beliefs I hold," she said. "I want to serve God and please him more each day, (and) I thank him for bringing me to this school."
The atmosphere at the Islamic School has allowed her to gain a better understanding of her faith and of Islam without being criticized or being pressured to convert, she said.
As for the future, Key isn't sure where her career will go.
"I am really excited to see what God has in mind," she said.