How an Aurora teacher is giving students a sense of belonging

As a child, Rachael Mahmood didn’t see too many people like her at school.

The daughter of a Russian Jewish mother and an Indian Hindu father, she was different from her classmates and her teachers.

“Growing up, I never saw representations of myself in the curriculum, or in my school, the teachers or the walls,” she said. “Everything pretty much didn’t reflect or validate my identity.”

Today, Mahmood is a 19-year teaching veteran in Indian Prairie School District 204 who views someone’s identity as their greatest strength in the classroom.

“Every part of your identity belongs in the classroom,” she said. “We need a very diverse teaching force … your identity is your strength. ”

Mahmood, who has spent her entire teaching career in Indian Prairie School District 204, says she uses her identity to connect with her students and help show them how they fit into the world around them. She looks for ways to show students people who look like them in the lessons she teaches or the projects she assigns and showcase their culture in the classroom.

“She’s unique,” fifth grader Kenny Huynh said of Mahmood.

Kenny and others said they enjoy how their teacher works other cultures into her lessons, and that they get to learn about different historical figures in class. Students describe her as fun, generous, kind and caring.

Mahmood’s love for teaching earned her the honor of being named this year’s Illinois Teacher of the Year for the far Western suburban region by the Illinois State Board of Education. She is one of 15 educators in the teacher of the year cohort who are in the running to be the state’s teacher of the year.

  Rachael Mahmood used a recent project about the Revolutionary War to introduce students to historical figures from diverse backgrounds. Students had to research their individual and create a clothespin figurine depicting them. Brian Hill/

“She’s the teacher who’s always working on a project or plan to benefit as many students in our building as possible,” said Tyler Hunt, a fellow fifth grade teacher at Georgetown Elementary. “At any given moment you’ll see her with flyers, a coffee cup, student artwork and tape in her hands. When you ask her what she’s doing, she’ll motivate you, make you laugh and then move you to join her efforts.”

Mahmood says she’s always known she wanted to be a teacher. She jokes that even when her father, a physician, offered her a car to become a doctor, she turned him down.

“The joke is that my dad used to say, ‘Rachael if you become a doctor, I’ll buy you a brand new car,’” she says with a laugh. “And I used to say, ‘Daddy, I really want to be a teacher’ … that’s how adamant I was from such a young age to be a teacher.”

Nineteen years into her career, Mahmood says she can’t imagine herself any place else but in a classroom.

  Rachael Mahmood, who holds a doctoral degree in education, has trained other teachers in the area of cultural learning and equity. Brian Hill/

“I love being around kids,” she said. “The only other place I could imagine myself is helping to prepare teachers who are going into the classroom.”

Through her company, Equity Teacher Leader, Mahmood has trained teachers in the suburbs and across the country. Her trainings cover topics such as equity and culturally responsive teaching. In her classroom, she studies her students’ backgrounds and makes sure to find ways to include their backgrounds in the classroom, whether it’s through her book library, classroom discussions or honoring their holiday traditions.

  Rachael Mahmood looks for ways to incorporate her classroom’s diversity into lessons and everyday activities. Brian Hill/

But, most importantly, she tells teachers to bring their whole selves to the classroom.

“I was a talker, I was a walker, I was a shouter outter,” Mahmood recalls of her younger self. “Now I get paid for all the things I got in trouble for in school --- to wander around the room, to talk loudly, to capture the attention of my classmates.”

She says that “leaning into your authentic self” is noticed by students.

“You’re letting your natural gifts shine,” she said. “And then you’re happier and the kids are happier. You want to stay where you feel like you belong.”

Curriculum vitae: Rachael Mahmood

Age: 41

Residence: Plainfield

Hometown: Downers Grove

Occupation: Fifth grade teacher at Georgetown Elementary School in Aurora. Teacher with Indian Prairie School District 204 for 19 years

Education: Ed.D., Northern Illinois University; Master’s of Education, Elmhurst College; Bachelor in Elementary Education and Psychology, Benedictine University

Credentials: Micro-credentials in equity mindset and culturally responsive curriculum from Illinois State University

Activities: Chair of equity team at Georgetown Elementary School; previous equity ambassador for Indian Prairie School District 204; served on district’s parent diversity advisory council for 15 years.

Hobbies: Traveling: Mahmood has visited 20 countries on four different continents; writing articles and blogs about education and equity; walking; listening to podcasts about education and equity

Five tips from a top teacher

1. Embrace your identity (your culture, experiences, talents) as your greatest strength. Leaning into your identity enhances your teaching.

2. Take time to learn about students' identities (their cultures, experiences, talents). Knowing students as individuals, and viewing their identity as a strength, builds connections and relationships that can carry you through challenging times with students.

3. Design lessons/ tweak lessons to include topics or projects you love to teach. We are all happier when we are teaching what we enjoy.

4. At the end of the day, write down or tell yourself or a colleague something good that happened or something you enjoyed that day.

5. Affirm your students and colleagues. Be intentional in telling them the value they have to your school and that they belong.

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