Reflecting on 49 years teaching and counting: A conversation with Dr. Penny Ferguson

Dr. Penny Ferguson has been teaching students English for 49 years, with all but her first year at Maryville High School. She’s been honored with many awards along the way, and she’s collected even more wisdom. Leigh Cooksey, deputy director of educator engagement, sat down with Dr. Ferguson to learn more about her remarkable career and her passion for her continued work in education.

Why did you want to become a teacher?

From the minute I started school, teachers were my heroes. I do not remember a time in my life when I didn’t want to be a teacher. I was the student who was always helping other students with their homework. Everyone else thought I should be a teacher too. I knew from the start that this was my passion; this is what I wanted to do with my life.

Why did you choose to teach high school English?

I had an inspirational high school English teacher, Herma Cate. She was the teacher who prepared students so effectively for the rigors of post-secondary education. I thought, “That’s what I want to do! As an English teacher, l could have more direct impact on the lives of America’s youth than just about any other chosen field in the world.” Now I teach eleventh grade English just like she did.

What do you love about Maryville High School?

I love the kids—they inspire me to keep learning; I love the legacy of excellence that Maryville is known for; I love the community—if you host an event, they show up to support and help you. I also love the fact that over 40 of my former students now serve in the Maryville City School System. They are my legacy, and sharing in their growth and accomplishments is the greatest tribute that I could ever receive.

What wisdom do you try to pass on to your students?

Empathy and an open-mind are necessities for today’s global citizenry. Approach everything you do in life with passion. Be a lifelong learner. Plan, prepare, and network for success. Be kind. Laugh every day!

What kind of change have you seen over the years?

So many people are afraid of change, and I am not. Whatever new initiative has come along, I’ve volunteered as an early adopter—every single thing. When computers were first introduced into the Maryville school system, teachers in my department were reluctant to take the 5 classroom stations. I said, “I’ll take them,” and soon my students were using them for everything. I told my principal, “don’t ever discount me because of my age or my point in my career.” I hope to be a role model as a lifelong learner.

What keeps you pursuing new challenges?

I am a staunch believer in being a lifelong learner. I try to emulate Michelangelo, who at age 87 said, “I am still learning.” That is why I have pursued my education so relentlessly, and even after 49 years of teaching, I continue to stretch my mind and pursue new teaching strategies to use in the classroom. My summers consist of 3 to 5 workshops or professional development opportunities that renew my passion for learning.

You’ve worked with many different leaders, and you’re a leader yourself. What do you think are the most important leadership qualities?

I’ve learned along the way that you have to listen to people. I used to say, “All right, this is what we need to do.”  Now, I always end my suggestions with “What do you think?” As a leader, you have to include people in the conversation. You also have to be a good role model. How can you ask people to follow you unless you have spent time in the trenches?  Taking the time to reflect on your teaching, your meetings, your projects, and your actions is the key to success. Decide what went well and what could be improved for the future, and get feedback from others whenever possible.

What do you say to people who ask you why you haven’t retired?

I say, “As long as I have my mind, my body, and my passion for teaching, I want to keep teaching. I believe that I still have the energy, the enthusiasm, and the vision to affect the success of public schools. Teaching is not merely a vocation for me, but a way of life.”

You’ve won countless awards and recognition for your work as an educator. Which ones are most meaningful to you?

Two awards have forever touched my life—The Disney American Teacher Award and The National Teachers Hall of Fame. These are so special because of the people involved. I love that part of it—it’s less about the award you received and more about the people you met. I still network with the other recipients—they are my extended family.

What would you say to someone considering a career in teaching?

Number one: You have to love kids. Number two: You have to be willing to change and adapt with the times. You cannot stay hung up in the past. Number three: You have to be willing to collaborate and work with other people. My best teaching has been team teaching with a U.S. History teacher (Mark White) for the past 20 years. I think teaching is the best job in the world. You’re going to touch so many lives, and your life is going to be touched in many ways. You have the opportunity to shape the world.