Aurora teacher named Illinois Teacher of the Year

Rachael Mahmood, a fifth-grade teacher in Indian Prairie School District 204, has been named the 2024 Illinois Teacher of the Year.

The surprise announcement came Thursday morning at Georgetown Elementary School in Aurora, where Mahmood teaches. In her acceptance speech, Mahmood told the assembled crowd of district administrators, Illinois State Board of Education staff and students that she came into the teaching profession looking for the belonging she lacked as a biracial student.

“I just never wanted what I went through to happen to other children – to be ashamed of my culture and my identity,” Mahmood said through tears. “I feel so weird saying this now because I celebrate so much culture.”

The daughter of a Russian-Jewish mother and an Indian-Hindu father, Mahmood grew up participating in cultural and religious practices from both sides of her family, she previously said.

Steven Isoye, chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education, said in making the announcement that Mahmood stood out from the other nominees because she “embodies the qualities of an exceptional educator and inspiring leader.” He praised her commitment to inclusion in and outside the classroom and her commitment to the craft of teaching.

“If the textbook does not adequately represent her students’ cultures and encourage them to identify with the content, she will not hesitate to redesign the curriculum,” Isoye said.

The 2024 Illinois Teacher of the Year award comes with a year-long paid sabbatical to travel the state as a teacher ambassador, and Isoye said he “couldn’t think of a more qualified candidate.”

According to Isoye, Mahmood said during her interview for the award that it would be a “dream come true” to spread the message that teaching is a life-changing profession.

“I just want other teachers to realize how incredibly lucky we are to have a job where we get to spend all day with kids who love us unconditionally and that we get to make school and learning fun,” said she during her acceptance speech. “When we love our job, we love each other and we love what we do, it just feels like we’re not working at all.”

During her year-long sabbatical, she also plans to leverage the skills and local knowledge of all regional teachers of the year to advance the teaching profession, she said after the announcement.

Mahmood was in the running for the Illinois Teacher of the Year award after being named Far West Suburbs Regional Teacher of the Year earlier this year.

Fifth-grade teacher Rachael Mahmood reacts after learning she was named Illinois Teacher of the Year Thursday at Georgetown Elementary School in Aurora. Behind her stands Georgetown Elementary School Principal Jill Keller. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)

In an interview after being named regional teacher of the year, Mahmood said she wanted everyone to bring their full, authentic selves to school. Whether teachers, students or parents, they should all find strength in their unique identities.

“If we look at our identities as strengths, as a foundation of knowledge, as something that can be used when we unite all of these identities, we can definitely reimagine an education system that serves everyone,” Mahmood said at the time.

At Thursday's announcement, Georgetown Elementary School Principal Jill Keller said Mahmood is committed to her students, committed to working with their families and has the creativity to create engaging and interesting lessons in the classroom.

Outside of the classroom, Mahmood continues to show her commitment to her students by planning and organizing school-wide events such as STEAM or multicultural fairs, supporting the PTA and leading a school equity team, Keller said.

According to Isoye, Mahmood’s influence isn’t limited to Georgetown Elementary either. He said she has led diversity and equity teams throughout Indian Prairie School District 204, worked to promote interfaith discussions, written curriculum for her district and beyond, written education-related blogs, ran an educational consulting business and more.

Isoye called Mahmood an “incredibly accomplished teacher leader over the last two decades in the field of education.”

Mahmood joined Indian Prairie School District 204 as a teacher in 2005 and has spent the last nine years at Georgetown Elementary School in Aurora. According to District 204 Superintendent Adrian Talley, Mahmood is the first teacher in the district to be named Illinois Teacher of the Year.

“We believe it symbolizes all the great work she does to support our students, as well as the work of her fellow teachers,” Talley said.

According to Talley, Mahmood “represents diversity, inclusivity and a strong desire to ensure that all of her students are heard and valued.”

Even though Mahmood will be on a paid sabbatical next year and away from a classroom, she said after the announcement that she would try to find ways to come back and see her students when she has free time.

Mahmood said during her acceptance speech that the end of the school year is always difficult because her students leave middle school and often never come back to attend.

“I hope my students know how much I care about them, how hard I work to make sure you have such a great educational experience, and that you love coming to school every day,” she told her students during her acceptance speech.

After her acceptance speech, Mahmood's students hugged her tightly. Some students complained that they were too far away from Mahmood to get a proper hug, so the circle of students changed and they went in for another hug.

“I belong in spaces like this that bring people together,” she said at the end of her acceptance speech. “After 20 years of teaching, I have learned that bringing our classroom, our school and communities together is a space where we can all feel a sense of belonging.”

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Anna Harden

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