Jennifer Lay ’98, ’21 M.Ed. is a veteran teacher, most recently with Alamance Elementary School in Greensboro, North Carolina. She enjoys leading academically gifted students to their “aha” moments and supporting them through their student journeys. Learn more about Lay, her advice to current students and her gratitude for the Cato College of Education.
How long have you been an educator and what roles have you had?
I have been teaching for 23 years. I have taught third through fifth grades, middle school math and science and the academically gifted — working with Guilford County Schools, Wake County Public Schools, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Lynchburg City Schools (Virginia). I’ve also served as the academically and intellectually gifted program facilitator for Guilford County Schools.
What is your role at Alamance Elementary School?
This is my ninth year as an academically gifted teacher. I teach math and reading and work to develop talent with students in kindergarten through fifth grades. In the fall, I will begin a new job as a curriculum facilitator at the Academy at Lincoln, a magnet middle school for very strong gifted students, performing arts and global studies.
Why did you choose to go into this field?
I chose to go into gifted education because I have often found many gifted students who felt like they never had a chance to learn anything new in their previous classes. As a regular classroom teacher and now a gifted education teacher, I made it my practice to differentiate in my classroom and to assist teachers in the school system with understanding how to meet the learning needs of their gifted students. I have written curriculum units, led professional learning communities and facilitated professional development courses for the AG department. I also have presented at the North Carolina Association for Gifted and Talented conference and for a teacher toolbox event for the Kappa Delta Pi education honor society.
Assuming there is such a thing as a typical day at work, what does yours look like?
My five days of the week are all different. On Mondays, I work with kindergarteners and first graders to develop their giftedness. I see fourth grade AG students for advanced reading on Tuesdays and advanced math on Wednesdays. I teach fifth grade AG students for advanced reading on Thursdays and advanced math on Fridays. These are all in the mornings. After lunch each day, I work with a group of third graders and then a group of second graders. I also teach a talent development class for a third-grade class, a fourth-grade class and a fifth-grade class. It is very nice to have the opportunity to work with gifted students across all grade levels, but it can be challenging to prepare for 12 different groups.
What is your favorite thing about your job as an educator?
My favorite thing about teaching is that each day is different and gives students a chance to have do-overs. I teach my students that we are not perfect, but we must always do our best and never give up. I also love seeing my students get those magical “aha” moments!
What was the biggest challenge you have faced as an educator?
My biggest challenge as an educator was switching to online teaching during the pandemic. As a specialist, I had to be creative in reaching my students. At the beginning of the pandemic, I held my classes live once a week during the dinner hours instead of the normal workday. This was because many of my students were sharing devices with their working parents and their siblings. I also had working lunches with themed days where we dressed up in tropical clothes and brought ice cream to the live meeting while we learned. It was a challenging time to learn a ton of new technology apps and put them to work with the students, but it kept them motivated in a time of distress.
Do you have a favorite memory from your work experiences?
One of my favorite memories as a teacher was seeing four of my students win scholarships as fifth graders. Another is that I was able to be the gifted education teacher for my youngest son.
In what ways did UNC Charlotte help prepare you to work in this field? Were there any specific classes, faculty members, trainings, recognition programs, etc. that helped you excel?
I received my bachelor’s in education and master’s in special education from the Cato College of Education at UNC Charlotte. The education program here is one of the best in the country. My professors had real-world knowledge from working in the classroom, which still guides me in the many decisions that I have made as an educator. We are very lucky to have renowned professors such as Dr. Michael Matthews, Dr. Cindy Gilson and Dr. Ya-yu Lo who have taught me to understand and value field research in education. I also am very thankful for the support of Dr. Misty Hathcock, who is our national Kappa Delta Pi president as well.
What advice would you give to students currently pursuing a degree through the Cato College of Education?
I would tell them to become active members in Kappa Delta Pi if they are invited. Also, attend as many professional development and conference opportunities as you can. Join professional teaching organizations and read the magazines — you learn so much from them. Lastly, make friends with the support staff at your school. The custodian needs to be your best friend because they know where everything is.
How can those outside of the classroom help support teachers?
Parents and community members can support teachers though advocating for the learning needs of all students, being present in the schools as much as possible and working to build trusting relationships with those who work in the schools.
Do you have any other personal achievements or words of wisdom you would like to share?
For students — take a deep breath often! Never forget your “why,” meaning your reason for going into the field of education. This is the profession where you make the biggest difference every single day you walk through the door.
As far as achievements, I currently serve as the graduate liaison for the Omicron Pi chapter of Kappa Delta Pi at UNC Charlotte, received the Sally Mae First-Year Teacher of the Year Award from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and was nominated for the North Carolina Association for the Gifted and Talented's Teacher of the Year award in 2017 — all of which I largely credit to the foundation I received from Charlotte.