Lyndon Johnson was president when Carolyn Gray first began teaching in Philadelphia schools. A gallon of gas cost 33 cents when she first entered her classroom at Shawmont Elementary, a few months after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made an impassioned speech to students at Barratt Junior High in South Philadelphia.
The world has changed profoundly in 50 years, but some things are fixed. Gray is still teaching in the Philadelphia School District, her enthusiasm and skill undimmed.
That was evident on a recent day in her classroom at Masterman, the prestigious magnet school in Spring Garden. Gray stood in front of her class of fifth graders, seemingly unfazed by the heat in her second-floor classroom or the end-of-year vibe in the hallways.
“Now! When Ms. Gray talks to you about textual complexity, just bring it down to your level. Even if the topic is difficult for you, put it in your own words,” she told the students. All eyes were on her. She smiled at them, and many smiled back.
Gray is 71, and has her eye not on retirement but on how she can continue to develop her skill set, how she can challenge and aid Philadelphia’s children. She gets to work early — usually by 7:10 a.m. – and stays late, sometimes remaining in her classroom until 7 p.m.
“I love my job,” she said. “I have always loved teaching. I’m still excited about learning. And as long as they will have me, I will be back.”
Gray teaches literacy, science, and social studies to fifth graders, and to say that she has earned her pupils’ respect and affection is an understatement.
“Her students love her,” said Heather Marcus, Masterman’s counselor, who considers Gray especially skilled in helping students make the transition from top fourth graders at other schools to the youngest children in an elite magnet school. Gray has been invited to her students’ weddings and bar mitzvahs, remained in families’ lives well past the year she taught them.
Some say she has had profound influences in their lives. Take Max Feldman, now an English teacher at the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush in the Northeast.
Feldman was Gray’s student in 1995 and remembers a moment in her classroom as a pivotal one in his upbringing. Gray asked students to talk about themselves during the first week of class, sharing a fact about them and what their parents did for a living. One of Max’s classmates said her father was a truck driver.
Before Feldman, whose parents had white-collar jobs, could crack a joke, Gray jumped in. That must be terrific, she said — your dad sees so many interesting places, then tells you about them. Feldman’s classmate brightened, said she was proud of her father and his exciting job.
“You taught us a lot about English and social studies and science that year, but what you really taught us was about love, kindness, and compassion,” Feldman wrote in a note to Gray. “The example you set for us about how to approach every human being with empathy and compassion set the tone for me from that point in my life.”
That Gray has strong ties to children and families is not lost on Jessica Brown, the school’s principal. But she is also a stellar teacher, one who has won awards for her instruction in astronomy and geography, who has been recognized for her published work in project-based learning. Earlier this year, she won a Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching.
“She is tireless as she continues to be reflective and purposeful about her teaching,” said Brown.
Gray’s destiny seemed set early on. She grew up in Germantown, the youngest of three girls. School so delighted her that after returning home, she’d line up shoes and teach lessons to them. Eventually, she studied education at Virginia State University.
As a student teacher in Petersburg, Va., Gray was charged with helping to integrate the public school system there. Administrators knew she had grown up in Philadelphia attending schools with both black and white children.
On her first day, she organized a game of Ring Around the Rosie with her kindergartners, all white children.
“They didn’t know whether to touch me, because I was black,” Gray said. She didn’t hesitate — she used her brightest voice and biggest smile. “I put out my hands and said, ‘Come on, children.’ ”
Gray won the class over. After years spent teaching in Philadelphia, she attended graduate school in New York, taught in Newark, N.J., public schools, and ran her own school in Dallas. She returned to Philadelphia, and the district in 1986, teaching at Mann Elementary in West Philadelphia, and Hancock, in the Northeast. She arrived at Masterman 25 years ago.
Her classroom is a place of wonder, stuffed with books, bright with student work. Two rocking chairs sit in the front. Gray has — and uses — a smartboard but prefers the blackboard. She keeps a broom and vacuum on hand, and she and her students use them regularly.
She has accrued 280 sick days; she is almost never absent.
“I thank God for good health,” she said. “I am happy to come to work.”
Gray’s colleagues, many of whom were not born when she began teaching, regard her as a resource, a mentor. They consult her voluminous library of education books. But, she said, they help model things that are not quite intuitive for her.
“I do have a learning curve,” she said. “But I am able to navigate the world.”
That would be an understatement. Gray has traveled and taught in Japan and Australia, mastered Google Classroom, and manages report-card conference schedules in SignUpGenius, she notes.
There are things about the profession that have changed profoundly — teachers are asked to do more with fewer supports, emotionally and financially, she said.
“There is no margin of error,” said Gray.
But the rewards have not changed — the children who trust her, the parents who sing her praises. Gray wants you to see her students’ work: the books they wrote themselves, the historical dioramas. Her pride in them lights up her face and fuels her determination to keep going long past when most of her contemporaries have retired.
“They say, ‘Teaching is Carolyn Gray’s fountain of youth,’ ” she said. “I think it is.”