I had little idea that winning this prestigious award would propel me into a thrilling, empowering yearlong process that would end with me becoming the 2020 Georgia Teacher of the Year.
4-H CLub Project
My TOP Award for Excellence in Education project was more successful than I could have ever imagined. With the grant’s $2,500 project stipend, I started a 4-H club at Burgess-Peterson Academy for 4th and 5th grade students. The goal of this club was to boost student engagement, grow self-esteem, and offer students opportunities for recognition beyond the mostly academic focused awards at school.
As a child, 4-H had an incredible impact on my life and academic trajectory. From 4th-10th grade, I was an active member of my schools’ 4-H clubs, where I grew my leadership skills, appreciation of volunteerism, and understanding of the value of community. As a teacher, I knew my students could benefit from similar experiences and opportunities, but it wouldn’t come without a price tag.
Not only was I able to form a 4-H club at the school that met weekly, but students received scholarships for Junior Project Achievement competitions and a summer 4-H Summer Camp experience. As part of the Junior Project Achievement Competitions, students accepted medals at both the county and district levels for projects such as Cooking, 3D Optical Illusions, the Megalodon, Team Cheerleading, Dance Performance, and the Uses of Computers. And remarkably, the project funds funded ten students’ attendance at 4-H Cloverleaf Camp at Rock Eagle! At camp, students experienced camping, hiking, art activities, swimming, canoeing, archery, and team building.
The Teach On Project asks all winners to closely track data to evaluate student growth. As a result, I conducted both a pre and post Student Engagement and Social Competence survey. These surveys reflected an increase in student engagement, self-esteem, and social competence over the course of the school year. This finding is strongly supported by the literature examining both the effectiveness of positive afterschool youth programming and of 4-H curriculum and programming specifically.
The $2,500 professional development stipend enabled me to access a wealth of new learning opportunities and form profound personal connections with other educators. In March 2019, I attended the ASCD Empower19 Educators Conference in Chicago, Illinois. This experience was extraordinary - both thought-provoking, inspiring, and energizing. I returned to Atlanta more committed than ever to be an advocate for equity, along with a fresh take on understanding my students’ behaviors and identities. Additionally, I learned new instructional tools at that conference that pushed my growth in the classroom. This growth was evident across the board, from my students’ performance to my own performance evaluations on the TKES (GA state teacher professional) standards. Indeed, my students’ STAR benchmark (standardized assessment) scores reflected an average growth in reading of +1.5 school years and an average growth in math of +1.7 school years. Remarkably some of my students grew three school years. My growth was not merely as a result of the ASCD Empower 19 Educators Conference, but a result of TOP’s Teacher Leader Collective. Winning this award gave me immediate access to an abundance of magnetic, passionate, and successful educators who had previously won the award. Not only did I learn from these educators, but I was also able to grow my leadership skills alongside them as many of us presented at the ECET2 Atlanta Conference, hosted by TOP, last December.
Winning this award not only elevated my professional development and 4-H project - it elevated my voice. Throughout the year as the project developed, I watched as other educators peered into my classroom, watching how I was teaching and leading. By the end of the year, I was chosen at Burgess-Peterson’s Teacher of the Year. This propelled me into multiple rounds of essays, lesson videos, and interviews, ending with winning the Atlanta Public Schools Excellence in Teaching Award, which highlights the district’s best, brightest and most accomplished classroom educators. And finally, in May 2019, I sat in the audience as a finalist for the Georgia Teacher of the Year. Introduced to the stage by my favorite childhood teacher (who was the 1996 Georgia Teacher of the Year!), I was named the 2020 Georgia Teacher of the Year. I could not accept the award for myself alone, as countless individuals and organizations are responsible for who I am today, from my uncle Pete and Aunt Nancy, to my colleagues, student teachers, and the CREATE teacher residency program. And of course, the Teach On Project family, who stood in that auditorium with me, cheering me on and celebrating this incredible honor.
The Teach On Project’s rigorous application process, from essays and interviews, was an invaluable learning experience that prepared me for future award processes. Additionally, the prestige of winning the TOP Award for Excellence in Education amplified and legitimized my advocacy for teacher empowerment, educational equity, and excellence for all students. As the Georgia Teacher of the Year, I am now traveling the state as an ambassador for teachers and public education. I get to share my story and celebrate students and the hard work that educators do every week. Serving in this role is an incredible honor, and an experience that is challenging me to learn and grow in important ways. It turns out that my eighth grade Public Speaking 4-H project has come full circle!
I know much more about teacher impact now than I did before winning the TOP award. I see up close every day the staggering power of investing in the ideas of teachers. It doesn’t only impact them as educators. Nor does it stop with their students or school. The impact of investing in teachers ripples out into the community, through generations of students and their families, and across classrooms and schools.
I am forever grateful for the investment TOP made in my students and me, and the investment that it continues to make in Atlanta’s educators. The seeds TOP plants will continue to grow and multiply, boosting achievement, socio-emotional development, and collaboration far beyond Atlanta. As I advocate for Georgia’s students and teachers this year, I will continue the mission of elevating teachers and working to expand their impact, knowing that Georgia teachers are incredible and our students are the most important people in the world.
Tracey Nance Pendley