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Aurora educator named Teacher of the Year

As a child, Rachael Mahmood struggled with finding a sense of belonging in school.

However, the Plainfield resident didn’t let that stop her from pursuing her dream of becoming an educator and making sure her students see themselves in the lessons she teaches.

Her journey was highlighted Thursday as state and Indian Prairie School District 204 officials surprised Mahmood with the news that she was named Illinois State Board of Education’s Teacher of the Year.

Mahmood, who teaches fifth grade at Georgetown Elementary School in Aurora, was selected from a group of 13 finalists from across the state.

“We think Dr. Mahmood would be an excellent candidate for this role, wouldn’t you say so,” ISBE Chairman Steven Isoye asked students, who promptly responded with a resounding “Yeah.”

Students erupted into cheers when Isoye told them he agreed and made the big announcement naming Mahmood the state’s teacher of the year. She is the first District 204 teacher to earn the honor.

“The best,” fifth grader Qaiser Ahmed said of the news. “I really love that she is teacher of the year.”

  Rachael Mahmood is the first teacher from Indian Prairie School District 204 to be named Teacher of the Year by the Illinois State Board of Education. Brian Hill/bhill@dailyherald.com

He and others in Mahmood’s class said they like how she makes everyone feel included and how she highlights different cultures.

“In her interview for teacher of the year, she said something that really stood out,” Isoye told students. “She said she never really felt like she belonged in school. Yet somehow, she ended up becoming a teacher. And through the experience of teaching, she finally feels like she belongs inside these walls.

“Today, she has a passion for making each and every one of her students — all of you — understand that you do belong here,” he added.

District 204 Superintendent Adrian Tally said the recognition symbolizes the work Mahmood puts into supporting her students and other teachers.

“Dr. Mahmood embraces diversity, inclusivity and a strong desire to ensure all her students are heard and appreciated,” Tally said.

Beyond the classroom, Mahmood has led equity teams and a diversity advisory parent group for the district. She also has her own educational consulting company and has written for educational blogs. But her heart, she says, is in the classroom.

  Rachael Mahmood’s dedication to her students and showing them how they belong are qualities state and district officials highlighted on Thursday during the announcement naming her the state’s Teacher of the Year. Brian Hill/bhill@dailyherald.com

“I belong in spaces like this that bring people together,” she said. “And I’ve learned that … bringing our class together, bringing our school together, and bringing the community together so that we can all feel like we belong.”

As teacher of the year, Mahmood will take a state-funded one-year sabbatical for the 2024-25 school year to serve as an ambassador and share her knowledge with other teachers. She also will represent Illinois through the National Teacher of the Year program sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Mahmood said she hopes to work with others in the 2024 cohort of finalists for teacher of the year as she visits different areas of the state. She also hopes to use her podcast to highlight what teachers throughout the state are doing. And though she will not be in the classroom next fall, she hopes to drop by for visits, she said.

  Illinois State Board of Education and Indian Prairie School District 204 officials dropped by Georgetown Elementary School in Aurora on Thursday to recognize the state’s Teacher of the Year. Brian Hill/bhill@dailyherald.com