Virginia Secretary of Education: Mason prepared me for a life of public service

Five things to know about Atif Qarni

1. He is a sergeant in the U.S. Marines Reserve who served in Iraq in 2003 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

2. He ran for the House of Delegates in 2013 and the State Senate in 2015.

3. He misses teaching his history, civics and economics classes at Beville Middle School in Woodbridge, Va. “I get emails from my students all the time,” he said. “They’re emailing me from computer lab, and I’m, like, ‘Guys, why are you not working?’”

4. He’ll be back in the classroom as a substitute during national Teacher Appreciation Week, May 7-11, and he’s asking members of the General Assembly to show up as substitute teachers that week as well. “I think it’s resonating because I’m asking as a teacher, not necessarily the Secretary of Education. Little things like this can make a big impact to engage more with the community and the teaching community.”

5.  He graduated from George Mason University in 2009 with a master’s degree in history and a teaching license. He called it a “great experience.”


Ralph Northam, Atif Qarni, Ángel Cabrera, Richmond, Virginia

Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni, center, with Gov. Ralph Northam (left) and Mason President Ángel Cabrera at the Mason Lobbies event in January 2018. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Atif Qarni, who is Virginia’s 19th Secretary of Education and the first appointed to the Cabinet straight out of a K-through-12 classroom, graduated from George Mason University in 2009 with a master’s degree in history and having participated in the teaching licensure program through the College of Education and Human Development.

He said the open exchange of ideas he experienced at the university helped prepare him for a career in public service.

Qarni spoke about George Mason, his vision for the commonwealth and his views on the state of higher education in Virginia.

What was your Mason experience like?

It was a great experience. Being a teacher and going through the licensure program was very productive for me. The classes were well designed. The best thing about the program was it matched me to a local school to do my student teaching. They have a very good relationship with the K-through-12 system, so I didn’t have to search on my own.

How did your time at Mason prepare you for a career in public service, first as a teacher and now as the state’s top advocate for education?

One of the great things about George Mason is you have a lot of varying perspectives in a classroom setting of 30 people or so. It was really interesting to engage in high-level conversations with folks from all different backgrounds. It gives you a broad perspective and expanded my intellectual ability, and I was able to apply that in my teaching, and also in the other things I do in the community.

Mason provides Northern Virginia with a substantial amount of teachers. Why is the university such a good incubator of teaching professionals?

They have a very well established program, it is in a populated area, and the location is convenient for people from the Northern Virginia region. There also is the convenience of taking evening classes. It’s hard for teachers to do daytime courses, so that flexibility of being able to take classes at a time that’s convenient is important. It also really closes a loop nicely in placing students in a student teaching environment.

What are your top priorities for higher education?

As I’m looking at the data, we have a lot of existing jobs that are vacant but don’t have the workforce for them. I want to work with K-through-12 and higher education institutes to figure out a solution. We need a stronger workforce to strengthen our economy and businesses, and we’re having these conversations with the university presidents and the superintendents. We also have a shortage of about 1,000 teachers. We have to make it more attractive for teachers to come into the K-through-12 system. Programs like Mason’s can play a big role bringing more qualified teachers in.

Why is higher education so critical to Virginia?

It’s going to help us be the best in business, the best in productivity, research. We have the best higher institutions—a lot of rankings put us on the top of the nation—and I think it can play a critical role in improving our K-through-12 systems. It can also play a critical role in working with our business community. Their biggest complaint is we need more people coming into our workforce. Our higher education institutions can work with our community colleges on this; Mason does this really well working with [Northern Virginia Community College]. That’s a great model we can apply elsewhere.

Why is Virginia ranked as a best state for higher education?

I believe we have the best universities in the nation because of the autonomy they have. The individuality they have brings out a lot of creativity. We have universities that are unique in their own way.

How do we maintain that reputation?

We do have challenges. Sometimes there might not be consistency, especially if you’re talking about dual enrollment or transferring credits, and so forth. We’re working on that. But I’ve been very pleased with the interactions I’ve had with university presidents as I’m meeting with them. There is a willingness on everybody’s part to really help the commonwealth grow, so I think we’re going to see a lot in the next year or two. It’s going to be very productive for the state.