Stories From Our Schools: How One Teacher Returned To Her Neighborhood To Teach The Next Generation

Gloria Taylor is a first grade teacher and Rochelle Lee Teacher Awardee. In this story, WITS highlights her path from student to teacher at Sawyer Elementary. 

We all have those certain people and places that molded our childhood experiences. While these influences vary on an individual basis, formidable events often take place in one’s neighborhood or school. School can be a place of safe exploration where one first starts discovering the first outlines of their identity. For most of us, primary school is a jumping off point, and the memories fade as we embark on other endeavors.  For Gloria Taylor, her career path led to the very school she attended years before.

Gloria Taylor is a 1st grade teacher at Sidney Sawyer Elementary school in the Gage Park neighborhood. She and her siblings attended Sawyer as kids, and her mom worked in the school cafeteria. The family walked together early to school, since they weren’t supposed to walk alone due to nearby gang activity.  While she admits safety was a concern in Gage Park, she has many positive memories of her time in her neighborhood and school. She recalls fondly, “I always loved school. I always did really well, and I had amazing teachers.  I think that’s what fueled my love of learning.” She remembers discussing class texts like Animal Farm  and The Outsiders, and making connections to her class texts by watching Simon Birch and an episode of The Twilight Zone. She also remembers Ms. Rosenberg, now Gloria’s co-worker, who had her dramatize a text about a skater ballerina girl and show off her performance to the other classes.

Gloria’s passion for theater developed then and there. “Sawyer had a lot of activities,” she explains, “I was in drama, speech contest,  and we had a math decathlon I participated in. I had a lot of teachers telling me, ‘you’re going to be an actress!’” she reminisces. Over time though, Gloria looked for what she felt was a more stable profession, eventually leading to her participation in the Urban Teacher Education Program (UTEP) at University of Chicago. While she no longer acts, her theatrical background proves useful in the classroom. She says, “When teaching the little ones, you have to put on a show for them sometimes. I like dramatizing while reading the book, turning into a character. I think that’s my way of being the actress I always wanted to be.”

Gloria’s teaching career led her to experience in both neighborhood and charter school contexts. However, she felt compelled to return to Sawyer. “My love of learning started at Sawyer. I’ve always had a connection to the school. I’m just very fortunate that I had the opportunity to come back and actually teach where I grew up.  I talk [to students] about what I used to do in the neighborhood. I often know their parents or other family members. Students connect with me knowing, ‘If she can do it, I can do it too.’ Hopefully, they equate me with success. I show them a picture of my college graduation, so that they know they can graduate too. That personal connection really helps.”

Gloria hopes to one day become a principal, and believes that classroom experience and continual growth are necessary to becoming a successful administrator. This commitment to life-long learning led Gloria to apply for the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award Program (RLTA), where she participated in professional development that she found useful for her classroom instruction.  Gloria concludes, “I have to know how to be a teacher first, and how to help myself first, before I can help anyone else. And just knowing that I’m making a difference in someone’s life, that I have a part in teaching someone how to read or do math, or learn their letter sounds –that is very satisfying to me.”

Gloria recognizes that in Chicago, many families are making the decision to enroll their children in charter schools. As a teacher who has worked in both contexts, she understands there are different viewpoints. However, she warns others not to paint all Chicago neighborhoods with a broad brush. “I encourage people to actually go visit their neighborhood school. Every school is different and unique. They each have their own successes and challenges.”

In educators like Gloria you see the commitment to the future generations of Chicago’s neighborhoods. “A lot of people are contributing back to their school and neighborhood. I want [others] to take pride in their neighborhood school, and to know that the people working there that are going to help their child succeed.” People and places change over generations, but because of the people like Gloria, the sense of community remains strong.

By Shawn Bush
Program Coordinator
Blog/Newsletter Co-Editor in Chief