Gabby Taylor, Bach first grade teacher

By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News Editor

Gabby Taylor is a first grade teacher at Bach Elementary who was raised in a family of helpers who all work with schools, mental health, non-profits, or children with special needs.  Growing up in Holland, Michigan, she stayed busy with travel soccer, show choir, and theater.  

In her senior year at the University of Michigan’s School of Education, Taylor says she scored the best student teaching gig in the city by landing a spot with Jamar Humphrey’s third grade class at Bach Elementary. She’s never left.  Five years later, she’s the teacher playing guitar for the first graders and ruthlessly scoring goals on them on the blacktop.

Several parents recently nominated Taylor for the AAPS Excellence in Virtual Instruction Award.

Rich Retyi says that when his daughter Sasha returned to in-person classes the first day, he asked her to name her Number One highlight. Her answer: “Seeing Mrs. Taylor in person.”

“From the very first day of school, Gabby’s enthusiasm for the kids in her class has shone through,” says Retyi. “This year stinks, but Gabby came in with positivity, enthusiasm, and boundless energy, which made the inevitable disappointments and lulls in distance learning a little easier for Sasha to cope with. Even just through Zoom, Sasha thinks Gabby is the coolest and is developing her first real strong and positive connection with an all-time favorite teacher, which are memories and associations I know will stick with her well into her life.”

He says Sasha counted the days until she could return to the classroom.

“And, yes, part of that was to see her friends again, and part of that was hot lunch and recess,” he says, “but a very big part was seeing and interacting with Mrs. Taylor in person—something she’s wanted so badly to do since September.”

Parent Megan Dorsey says Taylor has done exceptional work all year virtually and that she has managed to keep her students engaged every day, pulling in real-world connections, such as maps of the school neighborhood, a scavenger hunt at school, collaboration with special guests and high school helpers.

Other comments from parents include:

  • Despite a screen full of Zoom boxes, and trying to get through the regular curriculum, Gabby has shown attentiveness and care when it comes to kids she perceives might be having a hard day or struggling. I’ve received emails throughout the semester with little notes about behavior or questions about things my child has said or done on Zoom that show that she’s looking out for kids in this difficult time.
  • My child consistently talks about Gabby outside of class and about how much she likes her. My child also has a decent grasp on some of the things Gabby likes and does outside of school, which shows a vulnerability and level of intimacy shared with the kids that has helped my child connect more with her as one of the few people my child interacts with outside the home these days.
  • Ms. Taylor NEVER loses her cool and uses her expert knowledge of the tech to help alleviate common problems (e.g. disables annotate, can mute all, and go back in a flash). She is sensitive to those who are not able to share as much as others, as well as those whose need to share is boundless.
  • She is an extraordinary person and teacher. I hope she can stay in the classroom for many years to come.

Taylor, her wife Emily, and their “fearful mutt” Penny Lane live in Ann Arbor and enjoy attending the University of Michigan women’s soccer games. Now a frequent goalkeeper at Wide World of Sports, Taylor promises her teaching persona is very different from her soccer persona.  

What will you always remember about this past year of teaching?

I’ll remember all of the ways we tried to make the best out of a weird situation.  I organized neighborhood scavenger hunts, virtual family baking nights, photo contests, and occasional trips to students’ front doors to wave from afar.  It has been surreal, but totally unforgettable. 

Did you develop any new methods or practices that worked so well, you’ll continue them indefinitely? What’s this we hear about the blurt blocks?

Haha, I actually started using “Blurt Beans” during my first year of teaching and adapted it to “Blurt Blocks” for virtual learning because I left all my beans at school.  Essentially, when a student blurts out or interrupts, you add a bean or a block to a jar.  With some goal-setting, my class this year has made incredible progress.  I made the mistake of telling them their reward would be choosing something for me to dump on my head on camera.  The first time they reached a goal, I had to teach with a head covered in maple syrup.  The second time, they voted to turn me into a human sundae.  I had chocolate syrup, whipped cream, and sprinkles.  It was delicious.  I’ll probably keep that going for years to come.

When a student blurts out or interrupts, a bean is added to the jar.

How has it been to transition back to the classroom?

As with anything new, it has its obstacles.  It feels like there’s a lot of pressure to get this right, and we have some bugs to work out.  It’s been scary and overwhelming, but there were many smiling faces in the classroom on Day 1 though, so I’m going to call that part a success!

What are the biggest challenges with the hybrid schedule?

We have 20-plus kids, some with additional services like reading intervention, occupational therapy, speech/language, or trailblazer mentors from Pioneer.  It’s definitely tricky figuring out where everybody needs to go when some of them are on zoom, some are in person, and you need to log a kid into a separate zoom meeting while you are teaching the rest of the class.  My desk is covered in sticky notes with all the reminders I need throughout the day!

When you recall your first year of teaching, what memories stand out?

It was a lot of treading water and staying at school till 7 p.m. to plan lessons.  However, it was also my funniest class with some of my most rewarding moments.  I had a student who would yell out in the middle of our lessons, “Miss, we are never giving up on you!”  I think of that when things don’t go as planned.  I’m grateful to that class for never giving up on me.

What was always written on your report card in grade school?

Probably whatever way they could nicely call me a “teacher’s pet”

What advice would you give to a first-year teacher?

Find a teacher who will answer your millions of questions, and then ask those millions of questions!  My first grade team got me through that year, and now they’re my two best friends.  They were so patient and selfless.  They taught me that doing our job “perfectly” is impossible, so you have to acknowledge that truth and just do the best you can.

What inspired you to become a teacher?

I was a camp counselor for six summers.  After that first summer, teaching just made sense.  It felt natural.  People often tell me I relate to kids because I am a kid, which I totally take as a compliment.

In your five years in AAPS, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned about teaching? About learning?

I have learned that you always worry about the wrong thing as a teacher.  I will spend an entire summer or weekend or sleepless night freaking out about one thing, and it turns out I should have been way more worried about something entirely different.  You just never know what this profession will send your way.  Maybe that’s true about learning, too.  You worry about what you don’t know or don’t understand yet.  But you have to just dive in and figure it out.  You were probably worried for nothing. 

What’s the happiest part of your day?

I’m probably supposed to say something like “when a kid has that AH-HA moment,” or “teaching math,” but the honest answer is recess.  I love games.  I love playing with the kids, teaching them to throw a football, and watching them explore the world around them.  It feels like the most authentic part of the day.

What makes teaching at Bach unique?

Bach is such a tight, supportive community.  Over the years of coming out to staff and families, they have given me rainbow candles, put up rainbow flags, and always made me feel accepted.  Even the kids are cool about it.  I got married my first year of teaching, and one 1st grader told me that girls can’t marry girls.  But another student stood up for me and said, “You marry whoever is in your heart!”  I can’t imagine teaching anywhere else.

How do you keep students engaged?

My trick is being a goofball.  If you use silly voices and pour syrup on your head, you’re going to get their attention.

What is the most rewarding part of teaching?

The relationships are by far the best part.  I still reach out to my first and third grade teachers.  They meant the world to me, and I’ve always wanted to be that person for my students.  Making those connections that (hopefully) can last a lifetime and show someone, “Hey this is an adult who cared about me and my life” is the best thing I could possibly do with my life.  

What do you wish everyone realized about the work of a teacher?

I think a lot of teachers are hurting right now.  I don’t know a single teacher who didn’t consider leaving the profession this year.  We read comments online calling us lazy, selfish, that we don’t deserve a paycheck, and that we should quit if we’re not willing to sacrifice even more for our students.  It takes a toll, especially when we are giving 100 percent of ourselves to 20-plus kids and their families instead of to our own.  In a year where everything feels like a lose-lose situation or that people are constantly mad at us, the moments of community support have made all the difference. I’m extremely grateful for the families who have reached out with compassion and encouragement.

How do you recharge?

I eat a lot of donuts.

How do you spend your summers?

We try to make it up to Glen Arbor each summer.  Also, see question above.  

What’s most exciting about your professional life right now? Your personal life?

I’m vaccinated!  Science is truly amazing!

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