Changing lives with love: Gena Kelley sacrifices to positively impact her second grade students

Published 2:30 pm Wednesday, March 27, 2024

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Names of students in the story have been retracted upon request of Gena Kelley

Gena Kelley is a second-grade teacher at West Bainbridge Elementary School. Though “teacher” is her job title, she takes it to another level. 

“She is more than just a teacher to her students,” said Emily Avery, a second-grade colleague of Kelley at West Bainbridge Elementary. She’s more like their second mom.”

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Kelley said she loves teaching all children and has a passion for those who “may struggle academically or behaviorally.” These are students who may be below their grade level in an area of academics, behind in social or emotional skills or come from less fortunate circumstances. Every year she personally requests to have these children in her classroom, and every year she changes their lives.

She began her teaching career in 2012 as a kindergarten teacher, eventually moving to third grade and then second grade. In her second school year, she had a few students in her class who struggled. She taught them, loved on them and got to watch them grow as the year progressed. She said that class made her fall in love with working with students who may struggle.

Kelley started requesting these children in her class after that year, and every year she gets a class with a handful of children who need her help. She said teaching these children can be more difficult at times, but she wouldn’t want it any other way.

“I’m very stubborn when it comes to them, I don’t want these children going to anybody else,” Kelley said. “It’s harder for me, it’s very stressful… There’s a lot of days that I go home, and I cry. Or I’ll go home mad as a hornet, and my husband says, ‘Why do you keep doing this to yourself?’ Because that’s where my heart is… showing them love and affection because a lot of them don’t get it [outside of the classroom].”

Kelley goes “above and beyond” for her students, according to Avery. She will anonymously buy shoes, clothes and other items for children who come from families that can’t afford them. 

“A lot of times as educators we see students come from backgrounds that are not very good as far as maybe, their home life,” Avery said. “If she sees a need that she can fill, like, it’s nothing for her to purchase clothing for children or purchase school supplies and things like that that they may need to come to school with. She really takes care of them in that way.”

“I’m very blessed to have a supportive husband that allows me to do that,” Kelley said

She also tailors lesson plans and teaching strategies to meet the behavioral needs of some students. She’s attended events outside of school to support her students, and the biggest thing, Kelley said, is that she loves them.

Every day, Kelley gives her students hugs as they come in in the morning and leave in the afternoon. She said some students can be apprehensive to the affectionate ritual, but with time and consistency, she gets to watch them warm up to receiving love.

“I had a child, two years ago, and when I hugged him it was like a stiff block of ice,” Kelley said. “He was Ice cold, and he did not want you hugging him, and I realized right off the bat, you’ve got to back up and let him learn you before you love on him like that. It was less than a month later, he came up to me and said, ‘Mrs. Kelley?’ I said, ‘What buddy?’ he said, ‘Can I give you a hug?’ The first time he did that I just bust out into tears… then it was like two hours later he came back and he said, ‘Mrs. Kelley?’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Can I give you another hug?’ It was like that for a week, just constant hugs. But after that, there was not a day that he walked in this room or a day that he left this room that he was going to find me before he left to give me a hug.”

Amy Bennett had a daughter in Kelley’s second-grade class in 2021. The 2021 school year was her daughter’s first year back to school after the COVID-19 pandemic, and Bennett was worried she’d have a difficult time readjusting to the school environment.

“After COVID, my child was- she didn’t get to have the social interaction and she was kind of- it was hard for her,” Bennett said. “My child walked in at the beginning of the year and she was, she was just this little clam. She couldn’t move out of her shell and she didn’t have confidence in reading and that went into math when they started word problems.” 

Kelley worked with Bennett’s daughter to build her confidence and show her she was able to overcome any challenge she faced.

“[Kelley] changed my baby’s life,” Bennett said as she started to become overwhelmed with emotion. “When she left that year, she excelled. And when I tell you, like, it wasn’t just [Kelley] teaching her, it was [Kelley] loving my child and showing her that she could do anything… Now, she always says, ‘Mrs. Kelley said that I can do anything,’ and I say, ‘Yes you can do anything.’”

Bennett’s child is out of Kelley’s class, but that doesn’t stop Kelley’s love and support of her. She starred in a play in March 2024, and Kelley showed up to cheer her on. After the performance, Kelley found her on stage to surprise her.

“When I was walking through the crowd, I could see her looking around saying, ‘Where’s Mrs. Kelley, where’s Mrs. Kelley,” Kelley said. 

“When my daughter saw her, she just broke down in tears,” Bennett said. “She ran and hugged [Kelley] before she hugged us… She is the true definition of love.”

Rebecca Kearns had a son in Kelley’s third-grade class. Her son was a bright student but had trouble behaviorally. He was diagnosed with ADHD shortly before the school year, and was behind socially as a result of being homeschooled since kindergarten.

“The transition, we knew it was going to be a little different,” Kearns said. “Gena was just integral in being patient with him, teaching him a little more how school works. She was also the first to notice his giftedness and she encouraged his uniqueness.”

Kelley said she knew Kearns’s son was special early on.

“That boy is a stinkin’ genius,” Kelley said. “I knew it the first week.”

Kelley encouraged his academic ability and got him involved with the state technology fair. He’s participated every year since and has made it to the state level competition twice.

Kearns said her son might not be where he is today if it wasn’t for Kelley and her ability to teach him in the way he needed to be taught.

“Out of all the teachers he’s had, [Kelley] was one of the most patient teachers in knowing how to deal with him,” Kearns said. “She just knows how to deal with children who are unique and may need a little extra attention. She can speak their language somehow, I don’t know how.”

The biggest help for Kearns was the peace of mind Kelley gave her. Coming from a homeschool environment, Kearns knew her son would struggle to acclimate to a classroom environment. She said that she didn’t have to worry about that process, because she knew Kelley would love him and give him the care and attention he needed.

“It alleviated so much stress for me,” Kearns said. “Knowing that I had someone that I know for a fact would die for my child, like, she will go and fight for my kid, that was invaluable to me.” 

Kelley is a Christian and said her relationship with God is the reason she’s able to do what she does. 

“I just do what the good Lord blesses me with and that’s just the ability to love them, most importantly, to respect them and try to teach them everything I can teach them,” Kelley said.

She said she uses Christ’s love for her as an example of how she loves her students.

“I do push [my students] even though they may have the challenges that they do,” Kelley said. “I do not let that challenge be a crutch. I let that be motivation or an incentive to push them just a little bit harder to show them what they can do. And I think about all the times that the Lord has forgiven me and how, you know, unhappy he’s been with me and I stop and I think, ‘you think about how many times you’ve been forgiven. You’ve got to let up, and you’ve got to show some more love for these children.”