Teacher Ashley Kannan stands for a photo in his classroom on Friday, March 18, 2022, at Percy Julian Middle School in Oak Park., Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

There are two types of teachers, Ashley Kannan says. There’s the one who enjoyed going to school and was a naturally good student. Things came easy. That teacher, he said, is like the Michael Jordan of the classroom and holds the same expectations for students, wondering why some “don’t get it.” The second type is the complete opposite, the one who had a tough time in school and has vowed to make sure no one else goes through the same thing. 

Kannan, a longtime teacher at Julian Middle School, is the latter. Despite being named Regional Teacher of the Year for Cook County and a finalist for Illinois Teacher of the Year — which in the education world is like snagging an MVP award — Kannan still remembers what it was like being the only “Brown kid in class” and growing up Indian in Oak Park. 

“When I was at Hatch, my first day eating lunch outside, I had a couple of fifth-graders knock over my lunch box and call me a ‘dot head’ and a ‘sand N-word,’” recalled Kannan, as he leaned back on his chair inside his classroom on Julian’s fourth floor. He can still picture the adults who stood nearby and didn’t intervene. 

That’s why Kannan was ecstatic to hear about the hiring of Ushma Shah, District 97’s new superintendent. 

“From being called a ‘dot head’ and a ‘sand N-word’ to now having one of [our] people run the district and to be able to say that you’ve seen that experience, that’s f–ing liberating,” he said, adding he initially didn’t expect to be moved by the news. “But once Amanda [Siegfried, the district’s communications director] sent that email, I said, ‘Holy s–. [She’s] an Indian. It’s one of us.” 

For Kannan, Shah’s arrival in the district is not just about representation (“We could have a focus group with the five Indians [educators at D97] and the superintendent now,” he joked). It’s about creating a space for students — and even staff — to be seen, heard and valued. 

Kannan, who teaches humanities, was the first to design and pilot the district’s course on African American studies. The idea for the course came from two former students, he said. They reached out to him during the early days of the pandemic and were struggling to grapple with the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and countless other innocent Black men and women. Those students, who had long been out of Kannan’s class, returned, searching for a place to share their feelings. 

That started him thinking. The spring of 2020 proved to be a tumultuous time, as people wrestled with the onset of COVID-19 and the continuous news of lives lost to racial injustice, police, and white supremacy. 

“It’s not just a passing phase,” said Kannan, who, apart from teaching, has also worked on the district’s equity mission through various groups and committees. 

Almost overnight, Kannan took apart his own history course and built a new one. This new course, he said, would focus on the meaning of being “othered.” He centered the course around America to Me, the 2018 documentary series that followed the lives of teachers and students at Oak Park and River Forest High School and examined the intersection of racial, class and economic issues. 

Class discussion and project-based assignments, guided by current events and other themes, rounded out the course’s makeup. 

Kannan said teachers — or adults in general — are often viewed as the people who know everything, but the truth is, they don’t. Kannan doesn’t either. 

“I can’t explain why the police officer knelt on [Floyd’s] neck for nine minutes. I can’t explain why 16 bullets were pumped into [Laquan McDonald] while he was walking away. I can’t explain that, and I can’t pretend to explain that,” he said. “We need to be able to parse through this together.” 

Kannan told Wednesday Journal that the African American Studies course, which first launched during the 2020-21 school year and is now an elective, serves as a way to keep those hard conversations moving forward. He said he often leaned on America to Me as a way to open those discussions. Apart from the docuseries’ analysis on the school’s achievement gaps, it also showed the daily struggles of being a teenager. Even Kannan, who graduated from OPRF, remembered how he fit into the school’s “track” system; he was a stellar student in English but “atrocious” in math and science. 

“The idea of ‘misery loves company’ is the only thread that binds eighth grade,” Kannan said laughing, adding that the point of sharing the documentary was also to show students that there is a much bigger world than middle school and it “does get better.” 

He’s on a mission to make sure the world of middle school is also a good one. The moderator of Julian’s LGBTQ+ club, Rainbow Tribe, said the group came together almost five years ago and formed out of one of his trans students’ experiences. That student, he said, opened up about her experience through an online discussion post. 

“‘I just wish I could not feel so much like a freak in my school,’” Kannan remembered of what the student wrote. He reached out to her, and from there, they created the Tribe and welcomed more students in. He remembered those first few meetings where they checked in with each other. Other times they talked about more serious issues like coming out to loved ones or navigating conversations with family members during the holidays. About five years later, the group has now amassed about 45 members. 

Speaking about Rainbow Tribe, he became emotional. He thought about the students who previously attended Julian when the club didn’t exist yet and the role that he played — or didn’t — in helping those students feel seen or heard.  

“God knows how many kids have gone through this place and just not had a place,” he said. “If you’re the voice of institutional memory — and there aren’t many people around who can put in 23 years at Julian — you have to take responsibility for where memory is excluded.” 

The thing about Kannan is he doesn’t forget. He listens and learns. 

On a student’s desk, Kannan stretches out one of his hands, each finger donning what he calls his “Hindu bling.” He slips these rings on every day, bringing with him the spirit and fight of Mahalakshmi, the goddess of prosperity; Lord Mahavishnu, the protector; and Lord Hanuman who evokes righteousness. Like them, his goal as a teacher is to be a “buffer” for his students. 

“You’re just trying to make sure someone else doesn’t have as crappy an experience as you did in school. You want to be the buffer so that the institution doesn’t inflict the same pain it did on you.” 

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