Dr. Penny Ferguson, an alumna of the 2017-18 cohort of Tennessee Educator Fellows, is a beloved educator in the Maryville community. Dr. Ferguson is enjoying her 50th year in the classroom—serving all but her first year as an English teacher at Maryville High School. Julie Pepperman reflects on Dr. Ferguson’s profound influence on her daughters.

As an educator who also happens to be a parent of four daughters, I am aware of exactly how tremendous the influence of the right teacher is on a student’s desire to participate in their own education and their eventual academic success. Over the years I have been privileged to work with many amazing teachers, and I wanted amazing teachers for my girls— educators who are a combination of Mary Poppins, Mrs. Frizzle, and Jaime Escalante.

In 2003, our family moved to Maryville, Tennessee. Immediately after enrolling my girls in Maryville City Schools I started hearing about a teacher named Dr. Penny Ferguson. Keep in mind, at the time my oldest child was only in third grade and Dr. Ferguson was—and still is—a high school English teacher. Why was I already hearing things about this lady? Who was this person who produced such a combination of awe, excitement, and a little fear in the voices of parents and community members?

As it turns out, two of my daughters have had Dr. Ferguson’s class and a third is happily anticipating her class next school year. The impact she has had on my children has been immeasurable. Dr. Ferguson pushes her students to think, to take ownership, and to take notice. She holds them to high standards and expects their best performance, in and outside of the classroom. Her passion for teaching comes through in every assignment, class discussion, and project.

Dr. Ferguson is an understanding and caring teacher, but she does not coddle her students. One time, my oldest daughter, Kathryn, was feeling stressed and overwhelmed. She decided to talk to Dr. Ferguson about her feelings. Kathryn was hoping for a little sympathy, friendly commiseration, and maybe—just maybe—a little less work from Dr. Ferguson. Kathryn moaned about being overworked because she was a two-sport varsity athlete, honor society member, and an honor student. Dr. Ferguson listened, patiently empathetic, then reminded Kathryn that she too had been a varsity athlete and an honor student. She went on to say something that really stuck with Kathryn: “If it was easy, then everybody would do it.” Dr. Ferguson didn’t invent this phrase, others have used it, my daughter had probably even heard it before. But, it was the right thing to say at the right time.

I asked Kathryn, now a successful adult, to reflect on her time in Dr. Ferguson’s class:

I can’t recall every activity or assignment my classmates and I completed during junior year at Maryville High School, but I can never forget Dr. Ferguson’s passion and her belief in us. She never shied away from showing her passion to us. Dr. Ferguson strives to help her students harness their passions and to be proud of them. Knowing our course-load was immense, Dr. Ferguson pushed my classmates and me to be the best versions of ourselves and to rise to the challenges we face in our lives.

Now today, as a young professional, I look back on the work I put into her course and am immensely proud. I learned to push myself and to manage my time effectively. Aside from proudly owning my passions, Dr. Ferguson taught me how to formulate my opinions into strong, well-thought-out arguments. How to convey my thoughts, ideas, and passions in a way where I was perfectly understood. I use that skill every day. It opened doors for me in college and helped me excel in my honors business courses. I now have incredible opportunities in my career as well, and I believe that Dr. Ferguson helped build the foundation that supports me today.

Kathryn’s words remind me of how a teacher’s influence extends far beyond the time students spend in their class. I saw Dr. Ferguson’s passion and determination influence my daughter. The idea that accomplishing worthwhile things requires hard work took root in my daughter in a way it hadn’t before. The benefits and rewards that develop from hard work were no longer an intellectual ideal everyone spouts but has become part of who my daughter is as a person.

During the Thanksgiving season, most people take the time to reflect on their blessings and express their gratitude to the people who have positively impacted their lives. We are grateful for you, Dr. Ferguson. Our family thanks you for all you have done, for all you will do, and for your passionate dedication to education. We hope year 50 is the best year yet!

Julie Pepperman is a Blount County educator and member of the 2018-19 cohort of Tennessee Educator Fellows.