Classroom Perspectives, Diverse Voices, Reading and Literacy, Social Justice

What Should a Teacher Look Like?

What Should a Teacher Look Like?

Originally published in TEACH Magazine, March/April 2024 Issue

By Rabia Khokhar

Ever since I was four years old, I dreamed of becoming a teacher. I would come home from kindergarten and “play school” with my stuffed animals and siblings. Whenever someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I knew the answer deep in my heart: a teacher!

However, I never really saw any teachers who shared aspects of my identities (Muslim and South Asian)—neither in real life, nor in the books I read. In many ways, even though I did not have the language to verbalize or make sense of this at the time, I internalized that people like me did not belong in this profession.

I didn’t let the lack of representation hold me back from achieving my dream though. I persevered, and today am a proud educator! I love my job, and couldn’t be happier with the work that I get to do, but it hasn’t always been easy.

When people see me, they are often unable to reconcile my “teacher body”—which is based on my identities—with that of the typical “model” teacher that is usually reinforced by popular tropes and discourses in society. This dissonance is especially obvious when I am asked any of the following questions:

  • “Are you the lunchroom supervisor?”
  • “Can I speak to the teacher?”
  • “Are you here to supply?”
  • “Are you a volunteer?”
  • “Can I see your name tag and ID please?”
  • “Where is the teacher in this classroom?”

Not only are these comments hurtful, they serve as a reminder that the physical representations of my identities do not fit those of the idealized teacher. Even when I am dressed professionally (in the same manner as any other teacher) or am the only adult in a classroom space, there will probably be some people who think that teachers do not look like me.

This of course begs the question: What should a teacher look like?

Supporting Identity through Books

Going through these experiences has been a heavy burden to bear, and never seeing reflections of myself in the spaces I’ve wanted so much to be included within has often felt isolating.

Fortunately, attitudes are changing. Last summer when I was shopping for some back-to-school books, I came across School Day!, written by Candice Ransom and illustrated by Ashley Evans. As I was flipping through the pages, I was so surprised to see that the teacher in the story was a Muslim woman wearing a hijab—just like me! It was the first time I had ever seen a character that I strongly identified with in a book. Finding someone who looked like me was a form of healing. I felt seen, validated, and empowered.

I was so excited when I found School Day! that I hugged the book and immediately asked my sister to take a picture.


This small moment was so meaningful to me, even as an adult; I can only imagine how a child may feel seeing the same. It is especially important for young people to see themselves reflected in various roles in society, so they know that they too can strive to be in such spaces. But it is also important for children of other identities to see these representations—this is one of the ways to build respectful and inclusive communities, which is something that I am strongly committed to as a teacher.

I believe that the classroom is one of the most powerful spaces to affect positive change. Often this starts by selecting materials that represent all of our students. Books are a great way to introduce students to a multitude of cultures and identities, while simultaneously deconstructing stereotypes. They show us the way forward and encourage us to do things we felt like we couldn’t do before. Books provide paths to make the impossible feel possible.

One great example is Vashti Harrsion’s book Big. It tells the story of a little girl with a big heart and big dreams who is boxed in and not given opportunities because her body is seen as being “too big.” People try to give her advice by telling her to act small, blend into the background, and change so that she can fit in. But even though her experiences are challenging and the comments often hurtful, she decides to “make more space for herself.” I think that books like Big can help all of us feel less alone as we journey to make space for ourselves in areas we never thought we could belong.

Another good book about representation that I’ve recently come across is Parker Looks Up: An Extraordinary Moment, written by Parker and Jessica Curry. Based on their real-life visit to the National Portrait Gallery, the book tells the story of how four-year-old Parker saw a painting of former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama and immediately became transfixed. This moment was so powerful because she “saw more than a portrait—she saw a road before her with endless possibilities.”

A Teacher Looks Like Me!

I have often had to carve out my own place within the education sector, which means that I may be the only one who looks like me in certain spaces. This can create a lot of pressure, but I think that sometimes we have to strive to be the representation we needed as young people.

I recently had an opportunity to do so when I was approached by the amazing authors Colleen Nelson and Kathie MacIsaac. They asked me to be one of the people featured in their book If You Can Dream It, You Can Do It. It showcases people of all identities and lived experiences in various careers. I was the teacher.

This was an incredibly powerful choice because it intentionally shifts and counters the traditional narratives around what a teacher is supposed to look like or who is supposed to be in this role. The book celebrates my identities and validates my dreams and goals. With it, I can confidently say, “A teacher can and does look like me!”

You Belong Too

Through my experience working in several school communities in a variety of teaching roles, I have also met many students whose beautiful statements warmed my heart.

  • “I like your hijab, my mom wears one too.”
  • “You look like my neighbour.”
  • “I like learning from you!”
  • “I want to be a teacher like you when I grow up.”
  • “I am Muslim like you!”

Their comments remind me that everyone benefits from seeing representations of themselves and others in both real life and in books. I hope that by continuing my work as a teacher, I can encourage young people to keep believing in their dreams and show them that they belong in all of the spaces they want to be in.

Rabia Khokhar is an elementary teacher, PhD student, and Teacher-Educator in Toronto. She is passionate about social justice education and representation in children’s literature.