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Meet Kayla Hughes: First Grade Teacher

“Kayla exudes confidence and energy while bringing out the best in each of her students. Her commitment to instill a desire to learn and achieve in her students is an inspiration!” - Rhonda Helms, Lower School Principal

Grab some tea, sit down, and have a conversation with any of our teachers, and you're certain to hear remarkable stories of a deep commitment to excellence, service, and faith. First grade teacher Kayla Hughes is no exception.

In every aspect of her life, Mrs. Hughes strives for brilliance. Originally from New Jersey, it was her gymnastic skills that landed her on a spot in one of the nation's top collegiate programs, ultimately winning multiple titles, including the Honda Award, which is essentially the Heisman of gymnastics. Educationally, she holds an advanced degree in early childhood education and a bachelor's in early childhood development. 

A wife, mother, athlete, and educator, Mrs. Hughes is a remarkable individual who has learned a thing or two about what it takes to succeed. Her story is amazing, and we are thankful it led her to GAC.

To learn more about Mrs. Hughes, read through the Q&A below:

Tell us a little more about your upbringing and family life. Where are you from? Where did you grow up?
I am from New Jersey. I grew up there with my mom, dad, and younger sister. I was very close with my sister and had an unusual childhood as I was homeschooled in order to be a competitive gymnast. Now I Iive in the Atlanta area with my husband (who is a GAC alum (2006)) and my son Sawyer (3) who attends GAC. I currently have son number 2 on the way who will attend GAC’s Young Learners in August. 

As a child, what did you dream of becoming? 
I feel like I was always changing my mind. My opinions changed from author to teacher to journalist. 

Where did you go to undergrad? Why did you choose that university? 
I attended the University of Alabama on a full athletic scholarship for gymnastics. Alabama had a consistently top ranked program and they recruited me to go there.

What is your degree in? 
When I arrived as a freshman, I told our academic advisor that I wanted to be an elementary school teacher. She promptly explained that as a gymnast I would not be able to declare that major because the school of education held most of their classes during our gymnastics practice time. I found the closest thing I could to education and studied early childhood development.

While I was there, I also fell in love with a slightly different field of study while taking these classes. I ended up with a double concentration in Child Life Studies as well. Child Life is a field of study that focuses on the psychosocial support of children in the hospital setting.

For example, one might help calm and distract a two year old during a scary procedure, educate a 9 year old in a child-friendly way about what surgery they need to have, or provide game time, learning activities, or a support system for a child who is hospitalized long-term. I completed two internships in undergrad—one in a preschool on Alabama’s campus and one at Johns Hopkins Children’s Hospital in Baltimore, MD for child life. 

Additionally, I won 2 SEC championships and a national championship competing in gymnastics. My senior year I was awarded the Honda Award, which is basically the Heisman of gymnastics. Juggling athletics and academics prepared me to always strive to be excellent at everything I do. 

Do you have an advanced degree? 
I have my master’s in Early Childhood Education from Towson University. After interning and working in both the hospital and classroom setting, I knew the classroom was the place for me. I completed my masters while teaching Pre-K and took time off to complete student teaching. 

What motivated you to go into education?
I think the relationships and opportunities for impact make me feel absolutely on top of the world. There is nothing better than feeling like you made a difference in a child’s journey through life.

Did you ever imagine you would find yourself in teaching?
I had originally wanted to be an elementary school teacher entering college, but when that door was shut, I opened myself up to other possibilities. It makes me chuckle a bit at the very round-about way I found myself in education, despite seeming like it was not possible.

I’m very thankful for my diverse educational background. I feel like I definitely bring different perspectives to the classroom having studied both how a child develops holistically, and the specific pedagogical strategies of teaching. I also think working with children in the hospital who were typically dealing with multiple stressors in physical, emotional, and social well-being gives me a heart for teaching to the whole child.

What do you enjoy most about education?
I think imparting knowledge and empowering students is the most magical way to spend the day. I live for the “aha” moments. I love when former students say, “I remember when you taught us that.”

What do you do to connect with students?
I am very big on greeting the students each day. They get to choose between a high five, hug, or wave. They then “check in” on a board that is for my eyes only to let me know how they are doing that day. If a student put their tag on sad, I always go check on them and find out why if they feel comfortable sharing. Usually it’s something like they wish it wasn’t raining outside or that they could have ice cream for breakfast, but I’ve learned that those things truly make a first grader sad. I choose to have lunch in the cafeteria with my students each day. I move around and sit with new people daily. I also host book clubs and give out reward coupons of eating lunch with me and a friend out in the elementary gallery area.

I cherish these times to get to know each student deeper and what their lives are like outside the classroom. I also get to share with them about my life and connect with them aside from the academic day. They love seeing how I am a real person with funny stories about my family life and that I have unique interests just like them.

What do you love most about 1st grade?
I love helping students bridge the gap between foundational knowledge and becoming a real analytical learner. It’s their first year in the elementary building so I get to see them grow up through the fifth grade which is really special.

What classes do you teach at GAC?
First Grade (Bible, Math, English Language Arts, Science, Social Studies)

What drew you to GAC?
Being from New Jersey, I only knew about GAC through my husband going to high school here. 
Once I started my Master’s degree, I knew we were planning to move and settle down in Atlanta. I also knew, given the opportunity, I wanted to teach at a Christian school. I treasure the gift that it is to teach my students Bible daily and infuse Christianity throughout the entire school day.

When I came to GAC’s campus for the first time, I just knew I had to be here. Something in the air, something about the students, this place is so special. GAC is a Christian educator’s eutopia.

How does GAC provide professional development for teachers? 
Our leaders provide opportunities to research STEM trends through school tours, take full training courses specific to our grade level needs, and provide continual in-house development that ensures that we are all constantly striving to be better educators and stay challenged and fresh in all of our roles.

What would you tell a parent or friend considering sending their child to the Lower School?
All our Lower School teachers are nothing short of excellent at what they do. We put value in key areas that often are lacking in other schools (physical fitness, Christianity, and specialty areas like music and art.) I don’t know many other schools that provide learning opportunities in an on-site greenhouse and a floating classroom at the lake.

We manage to maintain a very high standard for academics while supporting all of these other daily activities we offer. There is definitely a clear “GAC difference” compared to students who come to first grade from another school. It’s really a testament to how the Lower School prepares and challenges students academically. Christian faith is not just sprinkled in the classroom, it’s completely infused in everything we do. If families want a true Christian experience, I feel like we deliver better than anyone.

How would you describe the culture at GAC?
The culture at GAC is so uplifting and family-oriented.

How have you participated in the GAC community? (Mission trips, co curricular, etc.)
Unfortunately, with a young family (toddler and baby on the way) and a husband who travels, I have put my family first and have not taken on co-curricular responsibilities or Mission trips yet. I have volunteered to speak at both elementary chapel and high school chapel. I competed as a contestant on GAC’s Got Talent last year where I walked on my hands through an obstacle course. I love GAC and the community we have. I hope to take on more when I enter into a slightly different life stage.

Where would someone find you outside of the classroom? What are your hobbies? 
I love spending time with my family and friends. We love exploring local parks and the awesome Atlanta food scene. I love snuggling my cat. My favorite place is the beach.

What is a book you’ve read recently? 
"The Whole Brain Child," by Daniel J. Siegel, ‎Tina Payne Bryson

What are you listening to right now? 
I’m usually listening to worship music or children’s music in the car. I listen to podcasts with the theme of parenting or spiritual growth.

What’s one thing that’s still on your bucket list?
I look forward to a life stage where I can travel more. I want to see the incredible world that God created. Italy and Japan are on the top of my travel list.