Jayla Gellington - Moundville, AL

Bringing real-world learning into the classroom.

March 5, 2024 |

Jayla Gellington (far right) and the Hale County MS Project Grow team participate in professional development supported by the University of West Alabama.

Jayla Gellington is a standout 7th grade English & Language Arts Teacher at Hale County Middle School in rural Alabama. A graduate of the Black Belt Teacher Corps at RSC Hub Parter University of West Alabama, Jayla brings real-world learning into the classroom and is part of a thriving educational community.

Jayla Gellington in her classroom.

Jayla Gellington, the 7th grade language arts teacher at Hale County (AL) Middle School, recently drew headlines for being the first recipient of a home-ownership grant from the non-profit Famous Friends. The grant, which provides the down payment for a house to local heroes like teachers or firefighters, enabled Jayla to sink deeper roots into the community in which she teaches. Jayla is now thriving in her teaching career, living and working close to both where she grew up and where she received her transformative education in the Black Belt Teacher Corps at the University of West Alabama, part of RSC’s Alabama & the Black Belt Regional Hub.

For Jayla, school has always provided support and nurtured her future. She attended high school outside of Tuscaloosa, where she got her first taste of teaching: “I really feel like it prepared me for going to college and being in the workforce. I took my first education course when I was there. I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, but they had this program available where we could go out and be interns in schools, and it just really opened my eyes and showed me a lot of different things. [It] just kind of sealed the deal for me on being able to know that I wanted to be a teacher.” While interning, Jayla received both college credits and vital mentorship.

“The teacher, her name was Ms. Wysock. I love her. . . she immediately embraced me. The kids loved me because I looked like one of them; she taught me so many valuable lessons. Even after I got done working with her class, she stayed in touch with me. She invited me to come back to field days,'' recounts Jayla. Through intentional coaching and caring oversight, Ms. Wysock helped Jayla understand the realities of teaching and imparted crucial soft skills: “she would have legitimate talks and conversations with me about ‘why do you want to do this?’ She helped me with problem solving and how you deal with parents.” Jayla says the caring experience mirrored that of her pre-service training, which took her to nearby University of West Alabama (UWA) along the Mississippi border in Livingston, Alabama.

Lots of positive recommendations about UWA helped spark Jayla’s interest in attending, and an immediate feeling of home solidified her decision. The community immediately welcomed her, and “everybody was so warm and welcoming and it seemed very, very genuine.” Her professors supported and accommodated her membership with the school dance team, making a busy schedule work logistically. While leaving home and living somewhere new can be difficult, especially for a self-described as ‘family-oriented,’ the staff at UWA made it easier. As Jayla puts it, “they all knew me, they all checked on me. They were just really like my family away from home.”

Student teaching brought more of the same support, and opened Jayla’s eyes to the possibility of teaching middle school. At the University of West Alabama, pre-service teaching candidates are afforded the unique opportunity to work at the on-campus University Charter School. The proximity of the school to campus enables hands-on practicum experience and mentorship from cooperating teachers within UWA’s educational community, building a network of support for aspiring teachers. Her first encounter with 7th graders, the age she now teaches, still stands vivid in her memory, and watching her cooperating teacher informed the kind of educator she is today.

“It was just electrifying. Those kids weren't in seventh grade anymore. It was almost like their eagerness to learn [took] them back to kindergarten. She talked to them on their level. She related with them. She was understanding. They knew to respect her but they also knew that they could trust her and I immediately knew that I wanted to adapt that kind of persona in my classroom. There was nothing that they wouldn't come to her and talk about.”

Jayla initially entered the Black Belt Teachers Corps, which prepares and trains teachers to thrive in rural contexts, because of the scholarship it provides. Upon entering the professional learning community and working in a rural school, however, she began to see the advantages of the program. As she tells it, “it’s a network of young aspiring teachers in rural areas who go through the same exact things. We're always getting resources about funding or grants or PDs. . . Everybody's always checking on each other, and that's actually . . . how I got [connected] to famous friends because that came through the email thread of Black Belt Teacher Corps.”

The home ownership gift will let her fully sink roots into Moundville, AL, which is between Tuscaloosa and Livingston. At Hale County Middle School, she is able to apply lessons from the Black Belt Teaching Corps and learn on the fly in another empowering environment. Bridging her time at UWA and Hale County Middle School is a mentorship program; Jayla thrived from direct observation and feedback during her time at UWA, and worked with her new administrators to bring the same program to Hale County. As she describes, “I was so used to preparing myself for somebody to correct me– I didn't even think that this woman was going to uplift me and help me come into my own as a teacher, and she did. I mentioned it to my administration; we already had a mentorship program, but they got it one step further.”

Just as UWA was a home away from home while Jayla was at college, her administration here has nurtured her into a confident, skilled professional. They help her secure funding, encourage innovation, and invite teachers to bring their full selves to the work. “So my administration, I have to brag on them for a second. They are amazing. If it's something that we bring to them, as far as athletics or academics, they're going to do their best to go out there and support us. Even if we don't have the funds, they're going to find a way to help us get the funds” shares Jayla. This culminated in the creation of a dance team, which Jayla coaches and is now leading to high school nationals. That she is able to pursue bringing her same passion for dance to students who otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity underscores the school’s culture.

“I did a personal Go Fund Me and they encouraged it and they promoted it and they even helped me ask the school board for money. Now we're going to high school nationals in about three weeks and it's expensive– about $1,500 per girl– but they made sure that they knew that we knew we had their support and we have not been in this thing alone whatsoever. Every dime that we've raised, they have either gone into their own pocket or asked others that they knew or you know were sending me grants or they just really dove in and really helped us.”

All of this, of course, embodies the passion and creativity that undergirds rural schools. Rural teachers, as Jayla puts it, are able to “make a dollar out of fifteen cents,” and their most impactful lessons connect kids to their community. This positive, place-based education is something that she learned first during student teaching, and has continued during her time at Hale County. Describing her journey, Jayla notes that “I feel like I've learned a lot. We always look at the things we don't have instead of learning to maximize what we do have. So it's helped me as an educator because now when it comes to material, I maximize on what my students do know, not what they don't know or haven't learned or don't understand.”

Jayla Gellington (far left) and the Hale County MS Project Grow team.

Jayla describes that vision as being shared across her 7th grade team, as the teachers work together to make learning more engaging for students. Recently, they banded together and created a real-world scenario of choosing careers and buying a house in the area. The geography teacher had them explore the local real estate market, the math teacher covered budgets, and Jayla brought reading contracts into their English lessons. For students interested in agriculture, the lesson connected to science as well, and instructors tailored the project to individual students' interests.

This lesson was especially impactful for her boys, who Jayla says aspire to big houses and four-wheeled toys but don't always connect the steps to getting there. These interactive lessons both inject a dose of reality and make learning fun and true to the students' lives. “Suddenly learning is fun; suddenly it's relevant to them. My boys, you got to love them, they want a house like LeBron and anybody else who makes millions of dollars and we do have nice homes down here like that you're on Zillow looking at a, you know, $500,000 home and your salary is not cutting it” laughs Jayla. These lessons also connect students to career options, like in welding and electrical engineering, offered at the local technical college.

Connection to the community extends beyond class curriculum for Jayla and her fellow teachers at Hale County Middle School. In addition to seeing parents at the grocery store, “our school has an open door policy. We'll have parents where we're thinking that they're coming to eat lunch with kids, but they're coming to talk to us and see how our day is going. They drop off breakfast sometimes, and send us little care packages.” Through fostering positive relationships with parents, siblings, and extended families of students, relationships deepen, and talented young teachers like Jayla are more likely to stay in a rural district.

“It just really makes me feel good to know that we're appreciated, especially in a time where parents aren't as supportive as they could be or aren't as invested because of lack of knowledge. This community definitely supports the school and they come full-fledged behind anything that the school is doing. I've honestly never seen anything like it.”

Hale County Middle School Teacher of The Year Facebook page announcement. (Photo credit: Hale County Middle School)

Learning at Hale County Middle School, then, is a community affair. Jayla has learned on the job alongside her students, receiving encouragement and training from her fellow teachers and administrators. This past year, her hard work paid off not only in the form of the down payment gift, but another honor as well: Jayla was named Hale County MS Teacher of the Year for 2023-24. Both the grant and award are a testament to the work, effort, and dedication Jayla puts in every day for her students.

Through on-the-job learning, building on her education in the Black Belt Teacher Corps and during her high school internships, Jayla has benefitted from multiple professional learning communities. She passes that knowledge onto her students, and the effect spreads into the broader community: “what I teach, somebody takes home to teach their sister or their brother or their mom or whoever because they haven't been afforded the same opportunities as urban and suburban schools. So it's really community-based and we're really helping everybody.”

We are grateful to Jayla for sharing her experiences as a rural teacher in Alabama. Thank you to our Alabama & the Black Belt Regional Hub partners and Susan Hester for connecting us with Jayla.

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