Felicia Gray’s story as told to Beth A. Messner
I was born with a teacher’s heart. It spoke to me when I was in kindergarten and “taught school” on my back porch to other neighborhood kids. I apparently took my “job” very seriously. One neighbor called my mother and asked permission for her daughter to visit. Apparently, I told my “student” that she couldn’t come to class unless her homework was done.
My teacher’s heart spoke to me when, at seven years old, I told my father I wanted to be a teacher. I was always finding a way to teach. As a teenager, I coached a recreation soccer team for younger children when adults didn’t want to do it, and I routinely helped classmates with their studies.
I didn’t always listen to my teacher’s heart, however. Sometimes its voice was overpowered by other voices. For example, my father discouraged me from becoming a teacher: “You’re too smart. You don’t want to be a teacher.” He wanted me to pursue a career that he viewed as far more challenging, like becoming a doctor or a veterinarian: “Now THAT would be an accomplishment.” My father and others kept moving the bar, challenging me to be more, do more, accomplish more. But I didn’t need something more challenging. I just needed somebody to listen and to encourage me to follow my teacher’s heart.
Eventually, I found my way back to my teacher’s heart. When I first entered college and had to decide what to study, I considered options such as medicine and law school. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized my calling. A little voice inside me spoke and told me I was going to be a teacher.
Even after 21 years as an elementary school teacher, that voice is as strong as ever. Thinking about teaching excites me. I’m always planning for the next lesson, for the next school year. When I’m with my kids, I feel energized and compelled to do the best I can each day.
My teacher’s heart is fueled by those moments in the classroom when I know that I’ve connected with my kids. Whether they are learning academically or learning life lessons, you know they are having an “aha” moment when your eyes meet and a bit of “electricity” passes between you. The child typically gets excited and smiles or laughs. This happened recently when I introduced the “I Can Tie It’ challenge. When my first-graders could show me they could tie their shoes, they got to put their name on a cardboard shoe and post it on our bulletin board to celebrate their accomplishment. This generated an unexpected learning frenzy across my classroom. Students were stopping me in the middle of other lessons and in hallways to show me they could tie their shoes. They discovered alternative ways to tie their shoes and even helped other classmates learn to tie their shoes. Moments like these are little gifts from above that keep you going.
I facilitate these moments by creating a classroom environment that is colorful, welcoming, and kid-centered. The kids and I live there, so I want it to be a place they want to be. There are lots of bright colors and space to interact. We have a reading nook, plants, and a class rabbit. I affirm them by displaying their projects and applauding their accomplishments. I encourage them to take the risks needed to learn. I remember what it’s like to be a student who is reluctant to try something new for fear of failure or of embarrassment. Most of all, I want to empower them to discover the answers for themselves. My greatest reward as a teacher is to see students take something you’ve taught them and own it with confidence.
My teacher’s heart compels me to make deep emotional investments in “my kids.” I don’t see them as my students. Like my own four children, they are my kids. I talk about “my kids” all of the time. I hope and dream for them. I reassure them and hold my breath when they step off a precipice to take a learning risk. I soar with them when they succeed. I hurt with them when they encounter disappointment. I grieve with them when they face loss.
This emotional investment extends beyond their time in my classroom. As I say, “Once you’re one of Mrs. Gray’s kids, you’re always one of Mrs. Gray’s kids.” Even when they move on to other teachers’ classrooms, they don’t leave my heart. I always want to be there for them, whether it’s in good times or bad times. I cry when I read their name in the newspaper because they’ve made poor choices. I glow with pride when they earn a scholarship to college. I show up at their high school graduations, even the commencement ceremony of my very first students from Union City. They remembered me and said that they knew that I would be there.
Sometimes those graduations are bittersweet, however. That was true of the graduation of a former first-grade student whose mother died when she was in my class. I needed to attend that graduation. I kept thinking about how this young lady would feel without her mother there at that special moment. Even though my student hadn’t seen me for years, she told me, “I knew that you would be here.” In that moment, I knew I could let go, that she would be okay. That moment was really sweet; it was worth everything.
My teacher’s heart couldn’t make this kind of commitment without the support of my incredible husband. Jerry is the best teacher’s husband ever because he gets it. He exercises his love for children by helping me. He may listen to ideas for a lesson, help me build things for my classroom, join me on zany trips to collect needed items for school, or accompany me on a “mission” like attending a former student’s concert or graduation ceremony. No matter what I’m about to embark on next, I know he will always be by my side.
When I went into teaching, I didn’t realize the type of impact that students would have on me and how long-lasting that impact would be. This still catches me by surprise. I carry so many students with me. Their stories lay upon and are deeply embedded in my teacher’s heart. It’s very grounding and at times very heavy. My humanity emerges when I remember these kids. They make me a better person.
My name is Felicia Gray. I am blessed to be married to my husband and life partner of 29 years (and counting). I am the the proud mother of four children and grandmother of two. Teaching is my calling and how I have impacted the world around me for over 20 years.
This story originally appeared in Facing Teaching, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.