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Murray Journal

Parkside educator honored for work toward inclusion, multiculturalism

Jul 08, 2021 12:54PM ● By Julie Slama

Parkside third-grade teacher Cara Cerise, seen here next to a snowman and some students, recently was the 2021 Utah National Association of Multicultural Education’s Educator of the Year recipient. (Photo courtesy of Cara Cerise/Parkside Elementary)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

A Parkside Elementary teacher, who co-founded and chaired the first Equity Council in Murray, recently has been honored as the 2021 Utah National Association of Multicultural Education’s Educator of the Year.

Parkside third-grade teacher Cara Cerise created the gathering where educators can unite to create more equitable education for all students. 

“The Equity Council brings together educators and community members to celebrate and empower all students, especially those disproportionately affected by systemic oppression and marginalization,” she said, adding that when she learned about the honor she was “completely flattered.”

“As someone who works very hard to ensure children feel welcome and loved unconditionally, this award is an important recognition, especially in a climate where discussing equity can feel like an uphill battle,” Cerise said. “This award is a reminder of how important inclusion work is and an encouragement to keep going even when things are difficult.”

Beginning the Equity Council was included in her nomination for the National Association of Multicultural Education’s Educator of the Year. 

Cerise was nominated by Amanda Phillips, who works in Alpine School District’s student education equity department and Jaqueline Thompson, who recent retired as Davis School District’s educational equity department director.

Cerise has collaborated alongside Phillips in a group called FAM, short for Friends, Allies, and Mentors of the LGBTQ+ community, and knows Thompson through volunteering on the board of the Inclusion Center for Community and Justice, a local nonprofit dedicated to eliminating bias, bigotry, and discrimination. Thompson also has led trainings on equity and inclusion for Murray School District teachers.

The NAME board of directors introduced Cerise by saying, “She has a relentless drive to create a welcoming, inclusive, and empathic learning environment. She is truly an outstanding humanitarian and social justice advocate who continues to make a positive difference in our community, state, and nation.”

Other attributes including that she advances a philosophy of inclusion that embraces the basic tenets of cultural pluralism, she promotes cultural and ethnic diversity; she fosters equity for all; and she represents and addresses the needs of the multicultural education community.

It also highlighted that by “working with the Utah Pride Center, Cara has created a space for education, professional development, and representation. She continues to be an example of acceptance and pride in advocating for students and families from diverse backgrounds.”

Cerise was able to thank the National Association of Multicultural Education’s board of directors through a video at the virtual conference since COVID-19 protocols did not allow for an in-person gathering.

In her recorded message, she shared her approach: “My No. 1 priority as an educator is to create equitable, identity-safe classrooms and learning environments. And to me that means making sure that all of my students feel seen, celebrated, valued and empowered. Equity and inclusion are practices that require real commitment and real action toward change, and it is my lifelong commitment to learn and unlearn as much as possible so that I can contribute to the healing rather than the harming of humanity.”

Cerise said she is able to do this by “embracing multiculturalism begins by creating an open and loving environment where all students and families are celebrated exactly as they are” in her classroom.

“My approach to equity and inclusion in the classroom is based on love and respect for all of humanity. From the books we read, to the music we listen to and the conversations we have, I want my students to know about and respect all cultures and identities. One of the ways I encourage both cultural- and self-awareness is by having a diverse selection of literature in my classroom library and during our whole group read alouds and novel studies,” she said.

For example, Cerise’s third-grade students read the books about a boy who moves to the United State from India. As he navigates a new country and meeting new friends, readers quickly become acquainted with the pain stereotypes and assumptions can inflict upon people, Cerise said.

“While we read, we discussed ways in which we too have been hurt by others’ insensitive comments and behaviors, and also how we can make sure new students feel welcome,” she said.

Another book the class read features a protagonist who is on the autism spectrum. 

“Normalizing all kinds of backgrounds is fundamental to the safety and sense of community in a classroom. I never want any student to feel out of place or excluded because of their family, country of origin, skin color, religion, disability, gender, or any other aspect of their life or identity. In my classroom everyone belongs, period,” she said. 

Cerise ensures students have appropriate accommodations and supports whether it may be following proper protocols for students who have individualized education plans or providing text to speech options for students who are still developing reading and writing skills or making sure activities are inclusive for all students regardless of ability.

“My highest priority as a teacher is ensuring every child has equal access to their education,” she said.

Cerise said her learning toward inclusion, diversity, and acceptance is always changing. 

“I try to focus just as much on unlearning as I do learning when it comes to equity and inclusion,” she said. “This award is an honor. I feel inspired to continue to push myself to be the best educator I can be and to prioritize learning about and implementing equitable and inclusive practices.”