If one word described Maryville High School English teacher Dr. Penny Ferguson, it would have to be enthusiasm.
The trait is so important to her and the success for each class, she makes the students memorize two quotes related to enthusiasm.
“Enthusiasm is the greatest asset in the world. It beats money, power and influence.” -- Henry David Thoreau
“Nothing great was every achieved without enthusiasm.” -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
For those without a natural love of her subject, Ferguson said she’s always had this advice. “If you don’t have enthusiasm for what we’re doing, fake it and pretty soon it will become natural. You’ll work harder and want to do your best,” she said.
Ferguson, English Department Head at Maryville High School, has been in the business of educating teens for more than 30 years.
For her efforts, she was recently recognized by being inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame. Former colleague Mary Barth had nominated her for the honor. Ferguson will be honored during a celebration June 18 - 21 at the Hall of Fame in Emporia, Kansas.
Ferguson said she knew she had made it to the final 25 candidates and expected to hear something near the end of March. After a trip abroad in early spring, she returned and expected to find a rejection letter.
“So, I looked through the mail and nothing. I wasn’t going to get my hopes up,” she said.
Ferguson found out she had won almost by accident. “We had a department chairs meeting, and (MHS principal) Mike Casteel said ‘You probably all know this, but Dr. Ferguson is going to be inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame.’ I said, ‘No, I didn’t know.’”
Casteel said he was told Ferguson knew about the award. “There’s no doubt Penny has dedicated herself to education as a lifelong learner,” he said. “She’s a perfect example of an educator who loves to grow and take on new challenges.”
Ferguson said there are 80 people in the National Teachers Hall of Fame. She is the third teacher from Tennessee inducted into the Hall of Fame. “A lot of times Tennessee gets a bad rap. I like to see Tennessee teachers get recognition,” she said.
Ferguson said she considers herself a product of the Maryville City School System. “I had great teachers and preparation. I did my student teaching at Maryville High School. Then I got hired to teach in the Maryville City Schools. I have spent my lifetime at Maryville City Schools. I have a great passion and love for Maryville City Schools and definitely for my kids.”
Ferguson said her honor is for the students. “I said my students are my legacy, that is the greatest legacy I can receive,” she said.
Since news of her honor was made public, students have taken the time to contact her. “I’m getting email, and they’re saying, ‘You helped me so much.’ That’s the part that touched my heart the most -- to have those kinds of responses from my students,” she said.
Ferguson said she tries to push students to do their very best. “I know they’re capable of so much more than they’re putting forth. I challenge them to take the high road, don’t just be someone who is willing to do the least possible to get by,” she said. “
That enthusiasm for English is contagious. “I’m pretty successful in getting students to do far more than many think they can do. They know I’m hard on them. They think I challenge them and make them work hard,” she said. “They never fail to come back and say they were so well prepared. They’re proud of what they can do.”
Ferguson said she has had students who weren’t the most talented regarding the subject content but became English teachers because that was what they were most successful at in college.
“They have a lot of confidence they can do well,” she said. “We have a great program K through 12. It’s a building block process - every teacher is preparing them more and more.”
A willingness to use new technology has always been one of Ferguson’s strengths. While other teachers resist technology and are afraid of it, Ferguson said she has never been that way. “My big thing is technology. I think it’s important,” she said. “You’re not going to keep students interested if you can’t keep up with technology that they’re interested in. You can’t stand up with kids and lecture and think they’re listening.”
Ferguson was one of the first teachers at the school to get an LCD projector, and she has applied for one of the Promethean Boards that the Maryville Schools Foundation is raising funds to put in each classroom at the high school.
Ferguson said her enthusiasm for learning and teaching came early in life.
“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher from the time I was in elementary school. It’s something I have a lot of passion for. I always helped other students,” she said. The veteran teacher said the Hall of Fame funded a one-time, $1,000 scholarship in Ferguson’s name that she could give to a student preparing to become an English teacher. “I awarded that to Krisin Hatten. She was so surprised, she cried,” Ferguson said.
Maryville Schools Director Stephanie Thompson praised Ferguson for constantly pushing her students to achieve. “I was just very excited for Penny. She has worked so hard for 39 years. She is always changing how she does things and rejuvenating herself in the classroom,” Thompson said. “Her expectations, just like the expectations of the rest of our staff, are high.”
Mark White, an American History teacher who often collaborates with Ferguson on projects, said he was excited for her. “She got this for Maryville High School and for Tennessee,” he said.
White said the award reflects on the school system. “I’ve worked in other environments where it’s very difficult to teach, where there is not as much community support. The little things seem to matter (here), and Penny has benefited from that. You can stretch yourself as a teacher,” he said of Maryville’s school system.