Dr. Rachel Mahmood - OCN Member Named Illinois Teacher of the Year!

Dr. Rachel Mahmood - OCN Member Named Illinois Teacher of the Year!

Opportunity Coalition Network member, Dr. Rachel Mahmood, was recently named the Illinois Teacher of the Year! Dr. Mahmood teaches at Georgetown Elementary in Indian Prairie School District #204 and is a proud IEA member. In the picture above, Rachel is joined by Dr. Tony Sanders, Superintendent of the Illinois State Board of Education (far right), Dr. Steven Isoye, ISBE Board Chair (far left) and Laura Gonzalez, IEA Board of Directors Member and ISBE Board Member. Read about Rachel's journey below. 

As a girl, Dr. Rachael Loeb Batchu Mahmood always dreamed of becoming a teacher, but the subtle message she always received from school was that she did not belong. The daughter of a Russian Jew and Indian Hindu, Dr. Mahmood was usually the only student in her school with brown skin and almost always the only one not celebrating Christmas. She called out answers and walked around the classroom helping her peers even when she had not begun her own work. She was told she wasn’t paying attention, and she was talking too much, which further reinforced her feelings of not belonging in school. She was determined to go into education to validate the students like her, but also as a way to heal from her own experiences. 

Unaware that the topic of multicultural education had been around since the 1960’s, Dr. Mahmood learned the correlation between school connectedness and students seeing positive representations of their culture in the curriculum and their schools. Also, she finally understood the disconnect between her learning style and what was expected of her while taking an undergrad educational psychology course.  “I learned about communal and oral cultures and realized that a lot of the behaviors that I had as a student like shouting out, high energy, long drawn-out stories, and wandering around the room socializing, were not problem behaviors, in fact, they were hallmark behaviors of being from a communal culture. I vowed to be the teacher who made every student feel included by highlighting their culture and empowered by including their cultural learning styles. I want to teach my students their culture is not a challenge or a problem, but instead is an asset.” 

Dr. Mahmood has fulfilled this vow in her 5th grade classroom and beyond. “Every year when we start our social studies unit on American History, I have the students do an audit of their social studies book. We look for who is centered, who is marginalized and who is completely absent from our history book. One thing that is always evident is that many pieces of American history are not told in the curriculum that we teach. I have been searching for those missing pieces of history, those missing contributions and intentionally putting them into my classroom instruction.” 

But teaching about cultures and learning to respect them is not reserved just for Social Studies. Dr Mahmood’s class is crafted intentionally. Each read aloud she chooses allows students to see themselves and various people represented. Each conversation she has about either the foods she’s tried or the countries she’s visited is a discussion meant to allow children to either connect with their culture or exposure to things they may not otherwise have seen or experienced. Also, Dr. Mahmood allows her students to communicate in ways that make space for students from oral and communal cultures. Students have ample opportunities to shout out, to move about the room and work collaboratively with their peers. She uses their orality and community to enhance their learning experiences and help them to process information. 

While her impact on her students is profound, Dr. Mahmood’s work is not limited to her classroom. In her district, she has developed culturally responsive professional development sessions which have led to her becoming her district’s first equity ambassador. “When people started reading my articles, they asked me to come present at their schools and school districts. So that's when Equity Teacher Leader was born, as a vehicle to carry all the things I have learned from my classroom to schools across Illinois.” 

While her work invigorates her, it can also be lonely. She was the first person of color hired in her school, and she is the only non-Christian teacher in her building. She acknowledges that she is often the only Asian teacher in most educational spaces. Fortunately, Dr. Mahmood has found camaraderie within The Opportunity Coalition Network. “It has been a wonderful opportunity to participate in a cross-pollination of ideas. Not just with people from varying cultures and races, but also from various types of communities, including rural. It’s amazing to discuss ideas that impact students and teachers from so many different walks of life. The Opportunity Coalition Network provides a safe space to exchange ideas, share concerns, and offer support to each other when doing equity and social justice work. You not only walk away with ideas, you learn from one another, discuss important issues, and build relationships that can help you continue to do the work.”

In addition to being a member of OCN, Dr. Mahmood has worked in partnership with the Muslim Civic Coalition and Asian Americans Advancing Justice to write legislation that 

requires the histories and contributions of all faiths to be taught in the K-8 classroom. With the passage of this and other laws, Dr. Mahmood is confident that her students will continue to see positive representations of Asian Americans and people of all different faith backgrounds, not just the year that they are in her classroom, but for their entire educational experience. “Learning about the history and contributions of diverse groups in American history helps to reduce ignorance and hate towards diverse students and helps to bring communities together in our school and community.”

This year, Dr. Mahmood’s work inside and out of her classroom was rewarded. She was awarded Teacher of the Year in Illinois. The little girl that was told that her culture was not normal and that she was a problem child in school has become the teacher that is bringing belonging to so many. “Though I never felt like I belonged in school, I now realize with all the cultures, races, religions, and ethnicities I represent, --that unifying these groups of people together– is actually the place where I belong.  Everyone has aspects of themselves that could be advantaged and disadvantaged…as an Indian I am often in a minority in the classroom but Indians globally number in the billions. Seeing examples like this helps others empathize with how at times we all face some type of disadvantage in our educational system, but we also have many strengths. When we embrace one another and draw on our collective wisdom, we can reimagine an educational system that truly serves us all.” 

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