Savannah native Jaleisa Gilbert comes from a long line of educators.
Her mother, Dr. J'Nai Gilbert-Collins is the principal at Port Wentworth Elementary, while her grandfather, Dr. Robert Gilbert, worked his way up from teacher to associate superintendent. Her grandmother, Florence Murdock, was a special education teacher for more than 30 years.
Knowing her family, it might be easy to assume the 26-year-old teacher at New Hampstead High School is exactly where she had always intended to be – in the classroom.
To that, Gilbert might flash her megawatt smile and concede it was the farthest thing from her mind even five years ago.
“I was going to be an abstract artist, it was absolutely my passion," she said. “I was in the International Baccalaureate program at Johnson High School when I took art as an elective course and just fell in love with it.
“Of course, having a passion for art and making a living as an artist are two very different things. But I knew early on that my interests were definitely in the creative arts."
As she began to look at colleges – and subsequent career possibilities – she quickly realized Savannah College of Art and Design had everything she wanted.
“Music was my second love and SCAD offered so many different ways to combine visual arts with sound," Gilbert said. She decided to major in sound design with a minor in music production.
Once she graduated, Gilbert was off to Los Angeles, where she interned at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences – the same organization that produces the Emmys – and landed a job with Larson Studios, a major Hollywood sound studio.
“I learned so much – from creating file sessions to re-recording dialogue and creating sound effects," she said. “But the job was a temporary one. When it ended, I came home, fully intending to go back."
For the next year, she freelanced to keep her photography, videography and music recording skills sharp.
It was then that her mother called to tell her about a job opening with the school system that sounded custom-made for her.
“New Hampstead High was looking for an audio visual and film technology teacher," Gilbert said. “It was a pretty rare opening – New Hampstead and Savannah Arts Academy were the only two high schools offering the program."
She applied and was hired.
“I really never saw myself teaching, but I went in with an open mind," she said. “I thought 'this will be fun and maybe I can inspire someone.'
“I came down off my idealistic cloud in a hurry," she said, laughing. “I realized I had to create lessons and plan them out. I was basically building a program for high schoolers from scratch based on my own interests and skills.
“It WAS fun, but it was also really tough. In the beginning, I think the kids were teaching me as much as I was teaching them."
Then, in the middle of that first year, the Covid pandemic hit. Her second year was virtual – “which is especially challenging when everything about your class is hands-on."
Now, wrapping up her third year, Gilbert is beginning to experience some school-year normalcy, enough to take a step back and evaluate the influence her classes are having on her students.
“I'm more realistic now – I know I'm not going to reach everybody. But I do still feel I'm making an impact."
Her students would agree.
On a recent morning, seniors Kael Cobb and Alex Cogar had received their assignment to record and edit a short video and were gathering the cameras and other equipment they would need before setting out within the school.
“We get a script to follow, but we're also expected to be creative," Cogar said. “Ms. Gilbert makes it fun while we're learning."
In another part of the spacious classroom, junior Cyla Burnett and senor Teiara Singleton had their heads together over a laptop screen, editing a project they had shot earlier.
“You'd be surprised at how much of this film class is science-based," said Singleton, who is headed to Georgia Southern University to study nursing and biology. “I know I've learned a lot."
DiNaja Singleton agreed. The senior has been accepted into the honors program at the University of South Carolina Beaufort, where she will study nursing.
“I've learned a lot about collaborating and the social skills you need to work with other people to accomplish a task," she said. “In Ms. Gilbert's class, we're so busy having fun that we don't even realize how much we're learning."
Here are some videos from Ms. Gilbert's classes:
See more pictures from Jaleisa Gilbert's film class here.