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East St. Louis teacher surprised with Illinois’ highest honor for educators

Briana Morales, dressed in a blue crewneck sweatshirt, stands with red roses after receiving the 2023 Illinois Teacher of the Year Award.
Troy Anthony Photography
Briana Morales, currently doctorate student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and a high school teacher in East St. Louis, is Illinois' 2023 Teacher of the Year.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.

Briana Morales might be worth consulting for this week’s winning lottery numbers.

When Gordon Bush Alternative Center Principal Darnell Spencer informed the English teacher she was the Southwest Region’s 2023 Illinois Teacher the Year winner, he said, “A few weeks later she came down to my office and she said, ‘Mr. Spencer, I think I’ve got this one’” in reference to winning the overall award for the state.

Indeed she did as the Illinois State Board of Educationhas named Morales the 2023 Illinois Teacher of the Year. State Superintendent Dr. Tony Sanders was on hand Monday morning at Gordon Bush to present a surprised Morales the award in front of several of her students.

“They faked me out; I thought I was coming down here for a meeting,” a stunned but appreciative Morales said. “I think that the work we do is amazing. There are so many amazing things that are going on and I just knew we had such a great story to tell here. The kids have an amazing story tell.”

As far as her prediction to Spencer, Morales — who was selected from 13 2023 Illinois Teacher of the Year finalists — said with a laugh, “I was kidding, but not really.”

One of Morales’ students, Devin Mosely, was thrilled to see his teacher honored. Mosley, 18 and a 12th grader, said Morales has the nickname of “Giddy” because she smiles every day she walks into the classroom.

“This is terribly exciting,” Mosley said. “It’s not a surprise that she won it. It’s amazing that she did. She’s an amazing teacher. I’ve increased my skills because of her. She’s an amazing person. She’s helped us on so many levels and I’ve learned so much because of her.”

In turn, Morales said this award was a collective effort.

“We earned this together. My students and I did, we all did,” she said. “We are putting East St. Louis on the map. And not only are we putting East St. Louis on the map ... we’re putting alternative education on the map. These are students who every single day are looked at by society as being expected to be something other than who are they. So every day here, we do the best that we can to show them that who you are is enough.

“We’re elevating peoples’ humanity at all times.”

Morales has taught high school English at Gordon Bush Alternative Center in East St. Louis School District 189 since 2018.

Many of her students have experienced poverty, gun violence, and personal tragedy. She encourages them to write and talk about their trauma. It’s a concept Morales says she learned from her own seventh grade English teacher, who supported her through a tough time and taught her the benefits of expressing herself through poetry.

“I think that students deserve good teachers no matter what district they’re in,” she said. “There are kids who need a teacher who is excited to see them every single day. I think working at an alternative school — with a lot of students who, like I said, when I look at them I see a lot of me — I think that that has really kept me and I’m really looking forward to spending the rest of my life here.”

In 2019, Morales co-directed a student-led initiative to embed nonviolence principles with youth in the Orr-Weathers housing development and supported her teen leaders to earn national certification as Peace Warriors.

According to Sydney Stigge-Kaufman, executive director of communications and strategic partnerships for East St Louis School District 189, two community-based Peace Warriors groups exist in East St Louis. She said Morales was highly engaged in 2019 with the Join Hands ESL Ubuntu Center for Peace (located in Orr Weathers) that launched all the work in our community.

Since then, Stigge-Kaufman noted, District 189 has embraced Peace Warriors. There is a club at both Bush Alternative as well as East St Louis Sr. High School. Their work is centered in non-violence and promotes social inclusion through the school, including students with and without disabilities and has expanded to several local school districts as well as both high school and middle school campuses in District 189, Morales said.

“Peace Warriors use tenets of nonviolence developed by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a way to deal with community issues that plague many of the students in our community,” Morales added. “This reciprocal teaching of youth allows young people to rise to the occasion of being agents of change helping one another process their current realities while also equipping themselves with the tools to work toward a better future.

“In 2019, I worked with Join Hands ESL, Inc., a nonprofit in the city of East St. Louis, to co-direct the program where teen youth became the second group of students to earn national certification and gain the qualification to train other youth.”

'This is personal for her'

Morales has also advocated for students and fellow educators outside the classroom.

She has served as a policy fellow, senior fellow, and now a national senior research fellow with Teach Plus, where she has worked on advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion for students across the state through “culturally responsive initiatives,” according to her nomination.

She says her policy work is grounded in “elevating marginalized voices and advancing policies that will give every student in Illinois a fighting chance through the quality of education they deserve.”

District 189 Superintendent Dr. Arthur Culver commended the ISBE on “making the right decision” for selecting Morales.

“I am so thrilled, excited and honored to be the superintendent of the Illinois Teacher of the Year,” Culver said. “This is awesome for our school district, for Bush and our community. We’re very thankful that you selected her.”

Culver added Morales’ students know she genuinely cares for her.

“This is personal for her,” he said. “Briana Morales, we are so proud of you.”

An ambassador for Illinois' teachers

Sanders said Morales was very deserving of the honor.

“Briana, congratulations on being the 2023 Teacher of the Year. We are so proud of you. Among all the candidates, you shown like a star. You are an amazing, amazing teacher. She shines like a bright night even through her students’ darkest moments. She inspires and challenges all of us to transform learning environments into equitable, liberatory species where every student finds connections and care.”

As the2023 Illinois Teacher of the Year, Morales will serve an ambassadorship beginning in July.

State funding will allow her to take a one-year sabbatical and will provide a novice teacher with the opportunity to teach in her place.

Morales will represent Illinois on the national stage in the National Teacher of the Year program sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

“Great teachers are the foundation of the kind of education system we aspire to in Illinois — one that uplifts every student and makes an impact beyond the classroom that helps shape the future leaders of our state,” said Governor JB Pritzker said in a video statement. “Congratulations to Briana Morales for her exemplary service to the students of East St. Louis and for working to make our state’s goals a reality every day.

Soon to be doctor?

Morales facilitates an affinity group for other teachers of color through ISBE’s initiative with Teach Plus and recently became an adjunct professor of teacher preparation at National Louis University.

Stigge-Kaufman said the affinity groups are part of ISBE’s three-year Strategic Plan to support educator retention by leveraging partnerships that will provide access to coaching, mentoring, and teacher leadership opportunities. ISBE began reporting the three-year teacher retention rate disaggregated by race/ethnicity for the first time in 2021. The data show that Illinois schools retain Black teachers at the lowest rate of all teacher groups — 80.6%, compared to an 87.6% rate for White teachers.

Research from the Learning Policy Institute also shows that teachers of color boost the academic performance of students of color, including better reading and math test scores, higher graduation rates, and increased aspirations to attend college. Studies show students taught by teachers of the same race/ethnicity are less likely to be chronically absent and less likely to experience exclusionary discipline.

Furthermore, Illinois Affinity Groups cultivate authentic, inclusive, intersectional spaces, shaped by and for educators of Color.

Additionally, Morales serves on the school board for the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice School District 428 and was named an Early Career Educator of Color by the National Council for Teachers of English.

Before teaching at Gordon Bush Alternative Center, Morales taught at Danville High School. She earned her bachelor’s degree in secondary English education from St. Ambrose University and master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from American College of Education.

Morales is currently pursuing a Doctor of Education degree in education policy, organization, and leadership at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Garen Vartanian is a reporter and editor with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Garen Vartanian is a reporter and editor with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.