“I care about my students, believe in their potential, and try to give them opportunities to develop the skills that could affect them for the rest of their lives. You can’t always have that effect on every student that you teach, but when you start getting notes, letters, phone calls, and emails out of the blue from students that you did not even realize you had inspired, then these are magical moments in your life as a teacher, especially when they are saying, ‘You helped me. I never would have made it without you.’ “
Penny Ferguson teaches 11th grade English at Maryville High School in Maryville, Tennessee, where she has been since 1970. Since 1991, she has also taught prospective educators as part of a teacher education program at Maryville College. In all, Dr. Ferguson has taught for 41 years, and has received numerous awards and recognitions for her devoted service to education.
Among Dr. Ferguson’s most distinguished accolades are the 2008 National Teachers Hall of Fame, 2007 Tennessee Education Association Teacher of Excellence, the 2003 Disney American Teacher Award, the 2003 National Education Association Foundation Award for Teaching Excellence, and the 2002 Chevy Malibu / TIME Teaching Excellence Award. In 2006 she was also recognized as a National Facilitator by the National School Reform Faculty, and in 2003, she received an honorable mention by USA Today’s All-American Teacher Team.
On Becoming a Teacher
Penny Ferguson doesn’t remember a time in her life when she didn’t want to be a teacher. “I think it was more organic. I always wanted to be a teacher. I was the student who was always helping other people with their homework. Even in elementary school, students would come to me and ask if I could explain things to them. In the sixth grade we had a musical at school, and I was even cast in the role of the teacher. So it was just something that I always wanted to be. I never considered any other occupation.”
Dr. Ferguson completed her undergraduate education at Maryville College, where she has worked extensively throughout her teaching career. She received a liberal arts degree in English with Secondary Teaching Licensure, and she completed her degree in three years by attending summer classes. Having known all along that she wanted to become a teacher, she started teaching immediately. Many consider it strange that she has spent her career teaching at her alma mater, but to her it feels like home.
Penny pursued her education to the fullest extent straight from her undergraduate career. Without ever taking time off, she completed a Master of Arts degree in English, an Education Specialist (Ed.S) degree, and a Doctorate of Education (Ed.D). She attributes the strong liberal arts education at Maryville College with helping her to be a better teacher,and her advanced degrees have also been hugely important. “I think in some ways it showed that I was a lifelong learner. It opened a lot of gates and other opportunities for me, and it made me a role model for the students that I teach. It showed them that you can set goals and achieve them. It also opened doors to other professional opportunities, such as serving on a Language Arts Advisory Board for the State Department of Education and serving in various leadership positions in my state and national English teacher associations.”
Dr. Ferguson is a staunch believer that we are all lifelong learners. She wishes to emulate Michelangelo, who at age 87 said, “Ancora Imparo” (I am still learning). That is why she has pursued her education so relentlessly, and even after 41 years of teaching, she says that she continues to stretch her mind and to pursue new teaching strategies to use in the classroom. This emphasis on lifelong learning is something she tries to instill in her students.
Lifelong learning is part of what inspired her to instruct future educators in Maryville College’s Teacher Education Program. Specifically, she works with those who want to become English teachers, preparing them for student teaching.
In her high school classes, Dr. Ferguson maintains an active and engaged approach to keep her students interested in learning. She has collaborated with her colleague in the history department for the past 16 years, and they coordinate their curriculum and combine their two classes occasionally for projects or lessons. “For example, we bring our classes together to create an 1850 Presidential Press Conference in which students campaign for two American writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, for the offices of President and Vice President. The time period comes to life as the students research, write speeches, pose as advisors and members of the press, and finally re-enact an actual press conference open to the public in the school lecture hall.”
On Technology in the Classroom
“I believe you have to incorporate technology into the classroom today, or you will lose your students.“
Dr. Ferguson has been the Chair of the English Department at her school for 35 years, and she actively utilizes technology in her own teaching. “I have always been a firm believer in technology, and even though I’m one of the senior members of the staff, I’m probably more up to date on technology than many teachers in the school. In the American Studies classroom, our students are constantly at work on projects and presentations that involve technology. Right now they’re working on creating film trailers and virtual museums about different time periods in U.S. History and about classic novels that we have read in class. The students also blog and have forum discussions on the school website.”
“I believe you have to incorporate technology into the classroom today, or you will lose your students. The learning styles for today’s students are different. They are fascinated by technology, and they immerse themselves in it. If you want to rope them in, you’re going to have to figure out a way to use technology.”
On Impacting Students
Having been a career teacher in one school and in one community, Dr. Ferguson has touched the lives of countless students over the years. “One of my recent students aspired to be a writer, and I encouraged her efforts, nominated her for a national award, and then kept up with her throughout college where she majored in English. I just attended her wedding, and now she and her husband are teaching English in China. I have been keeping up with her teaching efforts on her blog. To have been an inspiration for her has touched my heart. Such instances make teaching worthwhile.”
“I care about my students, believe in their potential, and try to give them opportunities to develop the skills that could affect them for the rest of their lives. You can’t always have that effect on every student that you teach, but when you start getting notes, letters, phone calls, and emails out of the blue from students that you did not even realize you had inspired, then these are magical moments in your life as a teacher, especially when they are saying, ‘You helped me. I never would have made it without you.’”