Meet the Chicago educator who is a finalist for Illinois Teacher of the Year

A teacher in a red dress demonstrates how to play a ukulele for her fourth grade classroom.
Anne Gray guides her fourth grade ukulele class through chord progression for Bruno Mars’ “Just The Way You Are.” (Mauricio Peña / Chalkbeat)
How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

A gaggle of fifth graders – members of a rock band at Franklin Fine Arts Center – buzzed with energy as they walked into a second floor classroom holding a large hand-drawn banner. Its message: “Congratulations, Mrs. Gray!”

Magnus Gray, a first grader at the Near North Side School, followed shortly after with a handwritten note on an 8x10 sheet of paper: “Congratulations Mommy.”

The moment late last week brought veteran music teacher Anne Gray to tears, she later recounted to Chalkbeat.

The Chicago Public Schools teacher of more than two decades was among 13 finalists for Illinois Teacher of the Year announced on Thursday. Every year, the State Board of Education awards educators across the state who are making lasting impacts on their school communities.

“I’m in shock,” Gray told Chalkbeat. “I’m just touched, and honored, and grateful. I’m excited for my students and the program to be recognized.”

Franklin Fine Arts Center music teacher Anne Gray was among the 13 finalists for Illinois Teacher of the Year. (Mauricio Peña / Chalkbeat)

Gray joins other educators across the state recognized for their dedication to teaching including Madeline Woods of United Community School District No. 304; Briana Morales of East St. Louis School District 189; Eugene Calingacion of Freeport School District 145; and Amber Jirsa of Batavia PSD 101.

The state also honored nearly 500 educators for their contributions to education across the state. 

Gray is still processing the honor, but said it felt validating, especially after the past few years marked by pandemic disruptions.

For the last 18 years, Gray has taught music classes to kindergarten to eighth grade students at Franklin Fine Arts Center, a magnet school on Chicago’s North Side. During that time, she’s expanded her lessons beyond traditional choir classes, teaching students how to play ukuleles and guitars, and currently overseeing five different rock bands at Franklin. 

Gray believes all students have musical abilities and that her role is to spark their interests, according to a press release. She realized early on that her students weren’t interested in European classics, so she took summer classes to learn how to teach blues, samba, jazz, and rock. 

Gray’s love for music and dedication to her students caught the attention of colleagues who nominated her. 

Every student deserves a teacher like Gray, drama teacher Betsy Williams said in a press statement: “Someone who will teach them the skills to find their own talents and then cheer from the audience while they share that talent with the world.” ​

The Franklin family was extremely proud of Gray and her commitment to developing young artists and teaching literacy through music, Principal Liz Wontor-Leach said. 

“It’s no surprise to us that Mrs. Gray is receiving this,” Wontor-Leach said. “We’ve always known she’s amazing.”

Over the years, Wontor-Leach said, Gray has helped put together events and concerts. She also works to make sure there aren’t scheduling conflicts and all fine arts have time during the day and “all kids have access,” she added.

The school also had a few “conferences” with the Department of Fine Arts and gave feedback at a district level. It’s cool to see her interacting and influencing positive change outside of Franklin, Wontor-Leach said.

“Her impact goes beyond Franklin,” she said.

Students in Anne Gray’s fourth grade ukulele class pair up to practice a chord progression at Franklin Fine Arts Center on Chicago’s North Side. (Mauricio Peña / Chalkbeat)

Gray believes the Teacher of the Year honor is further proof that consistent art programming is important for students’ social and emotional learning and is needed in every school. 

“I hope some principals can see what can be done if music teachers have regular access to their students,” she said.

Inside Gray’s second floor classroom Thursday, she pulled baritone ukuleles mounted on the wall and tuned them before handing them one by one to her fourth grade students.

She then invited students to warm up for a few minutes before guiding them through the hand placements. 

“Make sure you’re in the third fret,” Gray said in a sing-song voice. “Looking good! Very nice hand distinction.” 

Students strummed a G chord as she walked around, before asking them to transition to an E minor chord. “Make sure your elbow is a little bit in — a nice curve, a nice C-shape,” she said.

Music teacher Anne Gray helps her student with hand placement on a ukulele before the class practices together. (Mauricio Peña / Chalkbeat)

Her students watched as she steered them through the chord progression, before they tried playing Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are.”

Gray selected a contemporary song that students know because they’ll easily pick up the chords, she said. But she often surveys students to see what songs they like. 

“Do we feel good going right away into eight strums?” she asked the fourth graders seated in a row of chairs with ukuleles in hand.

“Yes,” the students said.

“OK,” she responded, holding a ukulele and ready to play along with her students. “Let’s try it.” 

Samantha Smylie contributed to this report. 

Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at mpena@chalkbeat.org.

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