Every two years, we identify 10 finalists for our Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching. Although we should be used to this process by now, every time we’re amazed by the incredible innovation, dedication and brilliance that educators bring to their work with students.
While it’s always a challenge to narrow the field down to 10, this year was particularly difficult. But the work of our finalists is extraordinary. From creating ethnic studies lessons in elementary school to writing gender-inclusive biology curriculum to running social justice afterschool clubs, these educators are going above and beyond to ensure that their students are equipped to participate in—and have a hand in shaping—our diverse democracy.
These 10 finalists have shown their commitment to learning and amplifying student concerns about a wide range of topics, including climate change, immigration, racism, LGBTQ rights and more. And they’re extending their work beyond the classroom walls: Many of our finalists facilitate and support professional learning in their schools, districts and communities.
We’re excited to announce the 2020 finalists for the Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching so we can share their work with you as well.
Kaitlin Kamalei Brandon
Leschi Elementary School
Kaitlin Kamalei Brandon (she/her) is a Native Hawaiian, multiracial educator who teaches in Seattle, Washington. In her second and third grade English language arts classes, Kaitlin Kamalei centers ethnic studies. For example, her students compare the civil rights movement and the U.S. internment of Japanese Americans to engage with complex questions like “What have communities done when their rights were taken away?” With the goal of creating an empowering community for every student in her district, Kaitlin Kamalei also serves as an ethnic studies curriculum developer for Seattle Public Schools. In addition to those roles, she’s Interim Project Manager/Coach for the Seattle Education Association Center for Racial Equity. And she’s extended her support of educators beyond her district in her work as the founder of Colorful Pages, a website designed to “help educators, families and librarians explore the use of multicultural literature to cultivate cultural empowerment and cross-cultural empathy in our students.”
Atlanta International School
After years teaching internationally in Hong Kong, Ecuador and elsewhere, McKenzie Day (she/her) now teaches high school history in Atlanta, Georgia. As the social studies department head, McKenzie has been leading a radical transformation in the way her subject is taught at Atlanta International School (AIS). For example, she has invited students into a partnership with their teachers to help develop the new social studies curriculum. Now, classes in the department will take a thematic approach and explore topics such as identity, rights and ideology. The drive to center students as co-creators of their own educational experience also informs McKenzie’s work outside of the classroom—most notably in her development of the AIS Green Team. Together, the group has attended the “Fridays for the Future” climate strikes in Atlanta, eliminated all single-use plastics on campus, and introduced new recycling and composting programs at AIS.
Eastlake High School
Rachelle Horner (she/her) teaches composition, AP U.S. history and comparative literature (a social justice focused English class) in Sammamish, Washington. In her 12 years at Eastlake High School, Rachelle has become the leader of her school’s equity team. She works in equitable partnerships with students and families to provide staff members with professional development on social justice pedagogy and cultural competency. She’s also started a Student Equity Advisory Board, and she serves as the Black Student Union advisor. In both spaces, Rachelle builds students’ capacity for leadership on equity issues, supporting student-led initiatives to create an equitable school culture. In addition to the work she does at her school and in her district, Rachelle consults with the National Park System, where she runs equity trainings for staff. She says her motto is, “Social justice is not an additional burden you have to shoulder; it is the lens with which you choose to see the world.”
Standley Lake High School
Sam Long (he/him) teaches high school science in Westminster, Colorado. In his classroom, Sam addresses the role science plays in oppression and liberation, encouraging students to explore this question from several angles. In lessons, he challenges students’ thinking about who can be a scientist. He has students compare modern genetic research with common misconceptions and prejudices about skin color and race. And he provides inclusive representations of gender and sexual diversity in his teaching about genetics, evolution, reproduction and anatomy. A leader in gender-inclusive science education, Sam supports other educators by delivering workshops and curating lesson resources on the website Gender-Inclusive Biology. He also co-sponsors the Standley Lake GSA and serves on the Colorado Governor’s Commission for History, Culture, Social Contributions and Civil Government in Education.
Georgetown Elementary School
Dr. Rachael Mahmood’s (she/her) doctoral research re-examined parent involvement models to credit the involvement of African American mothers with low incomes. The asset-based framework and commitment to community that informed her academic work are evident in her fifth grade classroom in Aurora, Illinois. Whether her students are studying hard history, evaluating school activities for gender bias or writing to textbook publishers about inequitable representation, Rachael challenges them to take action in their communities. Rachael started a school-wide educational equity team and has hosted multiple African American parent dialogue circles. For 12 years, she has served on the leadership team for the Parent Diversity Advisory Council. She also works as a district equity ambassador, designing and delivering equity workshops and authoring an interactive multicultural calendar. Rachael shares ideas, lessons and frameworks for culturally responsive teaching with other educators on her YouTube channel and on Twitter.
Northgate High School
Rosie Reid (she/her) teaches high school in Walnut Creek, California. Rosie has taught English and English Language Development (ELD) for 18 years. In 2019, she was named California Teacher of the Year for her work promoting equity both inside and outside the classroom. She has used her platform to give speeches and lead workshops on the need for anti-bias and antiracist work in schools and to start a discussion group that brings teachers, parents, administrators, school board and community members together each month to discuss antiracist texts and take action. Across the region, Rosie leads professional development that is focused on elevating and celebrating English learners. Her experience as a mom of a multiracial family with a range of sexualities and academic affinities has heightened her awareness of issues of equity and justice. Whether she is teaching ELD, grade-level English or AP literature, social justice is at the heart of her lessons.
Brooklyn Prospect Charter School
Erin Shadowens (she/her) teaches third grade students in Brooklyn, New York. She is passionate about creating inquiry-driven curricula that challenges kids to grow as readers and as writers while simultaneously addressing issues of equity. As part of this work, Erin leads Townhall, a monthly gathering of students from kindergarten through third grade where young people build community and discuss critical topics such as bullying. Erin is also a member of the District Charter Collaborative (DCC), a committee of district and charter schools working to address inequities and implement culturally responsive practices in schools. With the DCC, she has helped design and lead professional development at her school. Erin further supports other educators as the professional development coordinator for resident teachers, through which she works with new teachers, and as an adjunct professor at Relay Graduate School of Education.
Kia Turner (she/her) teaches sixth through eighth grade English in Harlem, New York. She also serves as an instructional coach at Harlem Academy, where she wrote the curriculum Tools for Liberation for the middle school’s advisory program. In her own classroom, Kia makes it a priority to ensure her curriculum is representative of her students’ intersectional identities. She aims to give students the tools they need to understand and deconstruct systemic oppression, and she works to put them in conversation and collaboration with local professional writers of color. Already this year, Kia’s students have moved crowds with boundary-breaking original poems about identity with local writers Jive Poetic and José Olivarez. Later, they’ll write and stage their own plays with local actors, based on the work of Tarell Alvin McCraney. Kia hopes that by teaching through vulnerability, her students leave her feeling loved and willing to speak truth to power.
Sherman Elementary School
Shane Wiegand (he/him) is a fourth grade teacher in Henrietta, New York. In the classroom, Shane seeks to provide a diverse range of experiences and perspectives for his students through the books they read and the topics they discuss. He covers everything from the history of slavery to segregation, policy and politics. He has listened to students voice their concerns about the lack of teachers of color in their district and guided them in creating a presentation for district leadership. Students also turn their learning into action by writing letters to candidates for office about their stances on race, poverty and segregation. Finally, Shane has developed and implemented an inquiry-based curriculum for teaching students the local history of racist housing policy, redlining and resistance. He now serves on the Rush Henrietta Central School District’s Teacher Center Policy Board as a Social Studies Teacher Leader and sits on the district committee for equity and inclusion. Shane lives with his partner in Rochester.
KIPP Prime College Preparatory, Houston
Alicia Williams (she/her) teaches sixth grade in Houston, Texas. Outside of the classroom, she advises the Black Student Union, in which students learn Black history, organize community service projects and develop leadership skills. And in her position as the school’s diversity, equity and inclusion facilitator, she leads workshops that equip educators with tools to be antiracist and culturally responsive practitioners. In her sixth grade social justice class, Alicia and her students explore aspects of immigration, systemic racism, gender equality, xenophobia, LGBTQ+ rights and more. Recently, her students created a video campaign to advocate for including more history of marginalized groups in school curricula and sent their work to the district’s leaders. Ultimately, Alicia sees her teaching as helping her students recognize injustice. Through her work, she aims to help them tap into their power and prepare them with the tools to take action.