For 2020 Georgia Teacher of the Year Tracey Nance Pendley, the road to teaching was not easy. Pendley’s mother was a drug addict who was in and out of prison; when Pendley was 13, her mother died. Her father was not in the picture. She spent her youth shuffled between aunts, uncles and other family members’ homes. Thankfully, a beloved aunt and uncle took Tracey and her twin brother in before they entered into the foster system. By the time she graduated from high school, she had attended five elementary schools, two middle schools and two high schools.
But, along the way, a special teacher became a lifeline for Pendley—modeling the role she wanted to play in the future to students like herself.
“Dr. Bobbi Ford brought the magic,” Pendley said. “We didn’t learn about colonial days; we had a colonial fair. We didn’t color maps of the world; we created and painted giant paper mâché globes that hung from the ceiling. We didn’t just write essays and creative works for her; she submitted our writing for contests. She found opportunities for us to write for a real audience and purpose, and gave us confidence. She opened up the world to me.”
Dr. Ford took the time to build a relationship with Pendley. Often, she went the extra mile, picking Pendley up for events. Once, she even rushed to the car to get Pendley’s mother a replacement oxygen tank.
When Pendley applied to the University of Chicago Urban Teacher Education Program (UChicago UTEP)—a two-year Master of Arts in Teaching program—she had Dr. Ford as a guiding light for the type of teacher she wanted to be. Soon, the ethos of UChicago UTEP, based on Mahatma Gandhi’s words to “be the change you wish to see in the world,” would merge with her memory of Dr. Ford and become the foundation of her approach to teaching.
The Power of a Teacher Residency Program
In 2003, UChicago UTEP launched as one of the first teacher residency programs in the country, and Pendley’s experience there was transformative.
“At UChicago UTEP, I received constant mentorship and in-depth, hands-on training that you simply don’t get in a lot of other programs. I spent a full year learning foundational and academic coursework and engaged in community fieldwork, and then another full year in the classroom at two different locations,” she said. “The program also had—and continues to have—a strong commitment to education through an equity lens, which is how I approach all of my instruction.”
UChicago UTEP provides teacher candidates with training in trauma-informed teaching practices, and stresses reflection on and critical conversations about race, class and unconscious bias. Embedded into everything is the foundational belief that it’s not enough to know content; teachers also need to know the context of their students’ lives.
“When I started teaching in Chicago, I just assumed that everyone felt as I and my fellow UTEPers did: that our purpose was to make a long-lasting difference in the lives of our students through relationship building and equity-focused practices,” said Pendley. “I soon realized that not everyone in this profession has the same mindset. That made me value my UTEP relationships dearly. My advice to all new teachers is: Find your people, find your teacher tribe—even if they’re not at your school—and get plugged in.”
Paying it Forward
Today, Pendley is a fourth-grade teacher at Burgess Peterson Academy in Atlanta, Georgia, a high-achieving school where nearly 80 percent of students are Black and 45 percent are low-income. She believes that her upbringing and personal story helps her build strong relationships with her students.
“My ability to relate to my students and their experiences is key to the relationships that I build with them. I share my story as we encounter relevant literature or events in the classroom,” she explained. “In my classroom, talking about race and identity is not taboo. I am intentional in how I design activities that build self- and social awareness and push my students to analyze multiple perspectives as we examine current events. My students are always surprised when I first talk about my Whiteness or White Europeans in the context of early U.S. history. A part of being a disrupter in the broader context of social change, however, requires that educators name the actors and give children of all colors access to culturally diverse perspectives, literature and primary sources.”
Pendley is also a mentor teacher in the CREATE teacher residency program in Atlanta—similar to UChicago UTEP in its equity-centered approach—because she believes strongly in the power of having supports in the early years of teaching and ongoing development. The program is designed to “offer new teachers a comprehensive support system aimed at increasing teacher effectiveness” over three years.
“I help train educators to be reflective, connect with students, and to really bring magic into their classroom. If it’s done right, there will be a ripple effect that extends to other teachers in the building and, of course, to the students,” Pendley explained. “I learned those skills at UChicago UTEP.”
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