Words of wisdom from three veteran teachers

Recently, three outstanding veteran teachers reflected with us on how they’ve changed and grown during their careers as educators. Dr. Penny Ferguson, Harriet Medlin, and Charlene Schwenk have a combined 148 years of classroom experience, and we’re thrilled to share their thoughts with you in this collaborative blog post.

What’s the biggest shift you’ve made in your own teaching over the years? And how have you seen that impact student learning?

Dr. Penny Ferguson

Penny: One significant shift has been in my role as a teacher. Starting out, I think I spent more time as the “sage on the stage,” and my lessons were often textbook-centered. Now, my classroom has become student-centered and collaborative, with hands-on projects, simulations, and opportunities for differentiation and the joy of discovery. I am now the motivator and the “guide on the side.” 

Harriet: The biggest shift I made over the years was toward more student-focused activities that involved higher-level thinking skills. I saw that students were more engaged in the learning and that they retained the information longer. I learned that if I set high expectations for all students and helped them to reach those expectations that the students really did enjoy coming to class more.

Charlene: The biggest shift I made in my teaching was to leave the textbook behind! As a new teacher in 1977, I quickly found out you cannot be an excellent teacher simply by using the teacher’s manual. Now, I’m better at teaching math conceptually, and engaging lessons that dig in to those concepts have such an impact on my students. Students at every level have been successful, and one left a note that simply said, “I loved doing this!”

What keeps you excited about teaching?

Harriet: The students keep me excited about teaching. I love to see them grow and mature, and I love to see the look in their eyes when they learn something new or when they make a new self-discovery. Every day and every year are different, and it’s exciting find new ways to help students learn and grow.

Charlene Schwenk

Charlene: My excitement for teaching comes from my search for the perfect lesson plan, and I work toward that every day. I want a lesson plan that is exacting to meet the standards being addressed, effective so that no time is wasted, and includes activities that are engaging and delivered with enthusiasm and energy. I have a quart-sized bag filled with flash drives that are filled with lessons from the past 11 years. I refine and change my work over time, returning to the work again and again and again as I get new students each year. That search for constant improvement is what keeps me excited about teaching.

Penny: I love the kids—they inspire me to keep learning. They are my legacy. Sharing in their growth and accomplishments is the greatest tribute that I could ever receive. I try to emulate Michelangelo, who at age 87 said, “I am still learning.” And that is why, even after 49 years of teaching, I continue to stretch my mind and pursue new teaching strategies to use in my classroom. Teaching isn’t merely a vocation for me, but a way of life.

What’s the biggest success you remember in your classroom, and what did you learn from that?

Harriet Medlin

Harriet: The biggest success for me was teaching juniors to debate as part of their research project in my English class. These students worked harder than they ever had before because their research had meaning – and their peers were grading them! The students owned the entire process, from topic selection to writing debate cases, and the class served as the judges. Parents later told me that their students loved the project and that, for the first time, they talked to their parents about current issues.

Charlene: The biggest successes in my classroom happen when I make learning relevant. We practice reading and writing large numbers by using statistics from college football stadiums or census data. We understand perimeter and the metric system by measuring our school’s playground and walking track, and we learn that area helps farmers determine the number of cows that graze in the fields surrounding our school. I’ve found success in relating students’ learning to the world around them rather than teaching skills in isolation.

Penny: My biggest successes come when I find ways to connect my students to the community around us. In my AP language class, we examined current educational issues in TN as one of our units of study. Before students wrote their argumentative essays, we invited legislators and district administrators to visit our class for a panel discussion and mini-debates. The room was buzzing because everyone was participating, adults and students alike, and the lesson culminated with a debate between a legislator and a student. It is a day that the students still talk about.

What about your biggest failure or challenge?

Charlene Schwenk

Charlene: My biggest failure came from misunderstanding a student’s struggle or behavior.  I can distinctly remember specific students’ behaviors, and as I reflect I know that my reaction and my interpretation of their behavior wasn’t right. I now know how important it is to think about each individual student in my classroom. After all, the word “each” is in “teach.” I want to make each student feel special and make a distinct and unique connection with each one every time they enter my classroom.

Harriet: My biggest challenge came as a first-year teacher at Franklin High School in 1968. I was one of 18 first-year teachers assigned to teach reading at the Franklin High School Vocational Annex, and I was an English major who had never had a reading class. I was simply not prepared for what I had to face that first year. The developmental reading class was a brand new course that had no text book or curriculum guide, and I had a lot of new equipment that I didn’t know how to operate. I learned so much from facing those first-year challenges!

Penny: Each year can bring its own challenges. Recently, I started the school year with 208 students on a variety of schedules and a new learning management system for which I had no training. The first weeks were often stressful, but I focused on bringing my “why” to work each day and eventually brought my best self as well. My “why” sustained and fueled me. I know I was doing this because the kids deserved it!

If you could go back in time and give your early-career-self advice what would you say?

Dr. Penny Ferguson

Penny: Find a mentor in your school to go to for advice, encouragement, and to use as a sounding board for teaching ideas. And while experienced educators have a wealth of experience and knowledge, it takes all of us working together to address the challenges in education. Use your energy, enthusiasm, and vision to affect the success of public schools!

Harriet: Find a good balance between school and personal life. Don’t spend all of your time at school or attending every event at the expense of time with family and friends. Finding the right balance will help you be an effective teacher and stay close to the important people in your life.

Charlene: Invest in your teaching talent by always working to improve. Talk to others about what works in their classrooms, follow great education blogs, and stay on top of the latest education research. Don’t be afraid to abandon what doesn’t work and keep what does, and always focus on ways you can improve your craft.

When you choose to retire, what will you hope to see us continue?

Penny: We need to continue to diversify our profession and recruit top-notch teachers; we need to increase the early post-secondary opportunities for high school students; and we need to foster a culture of support and cohesiveness among teachers and administrators. The adage that it takes a village to raise a child is still true, perhaps more so now than ever before. In the hierarchy of influence, the teacher falls second only to parents.

Charlene Schwenk

Charlene: I hope we stay the course on work we have done in assessment. Using TVAAS data made a real different in my own instruction as I reflected on which strategies or methods were most effective for my students, and the only way for us to get great data like that is by assessing our students every year with a test that is aligned with what we teach and what our students will be expected to do and know.

Harriet: I would love to see us continue to recognize student achievement and honor outstanding students, and I would like to see us do more to recognize teachers and publicly honor their achievements as well.

Dr. Penny Ferguson is a product of the Maryville City School System and is in her 50th year as an 11th-grade English teacher at Maryville High School. She chaired the English department for 35 of those years and coached tennis and directed plays along the way.

Charlene Schwenk just began her 42nd year of teaching. In her career, she has taught first through sixth grades, both self-contained and departmentalized. She’s been teaching since 1977, and you can easily spot her on the road – her license plate is “Teach77.”

Harriet Medlin is in her 51st year of teaching in Williamson County. She taught English for 37 years until she became a full-time gifted support services teacher in 2004. She has been at Brentwood High since the school opened in 1982 and currently works with gifted students and coaches’ debate.