Pennie Gregory’s main goal is to develop a culture rooted in love within the education ecosystem of Indianapolis. From the time she was in kindergarten, she knew that she wanted to be an educator, and she has spent the last 25 years of her life cultivating warm and loving learning environments for students across the city. Today, Gregory serves as the Assistant Director of Special Services at the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township and this summer she will head to Massachusetts to join the Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In her work, she strives to support staff in creating the spaces for students that she needed as a child.
Born in Inchon, South Korea and raised in Gary, IN by an immigrant mother, Pennie Gregory is no stranger to challenges. As a child with one of the only Korean mothers in the neighborhood, Gregory found that she had a different experience than many of her peers and she often felt othered because of it. A child of both Korean and Black-American heritage, she often found herself battling with low self-esteem and struggling to find where she belonged.
As a student, she studied her teachers and noticed that there was an art to teaching. The effective teachers commanded the classroom like an orchestra and she thrived on that stability. She decided that she wanted to command classrooms like they did while providing children with a place to grow and belong.
Though most of her teachers provided her with the support she needed, Pennie Gregory also remembers some of her teachers prioritizing obligation over nurturing. These teachers did not encourage students to have a voice or be seen, and students were encouraged to sit quietly not having any input in their education. The main objective was keeping students in their place and getting through lessons. Beyond that, students were not given many opportunities to engage in enrichment activities, critical analysis or community work. This regimented approach to teaching was discouraging but Gregory was determined to fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher. In middle school, after writing an essay about wanting to become a teacher, her teacher read her essay and promoted it, making her feel proud. This affirmed for Gregory that teaching was a profession that was perfect for her.
In 1999, Gregory began her teaching career in Baltimore, Md school #235 Glenmount. During her first year, she excelled in the classroom and built many meaningful relationships with the students, some of whom she still speaks with today. Creating spaces of belonging and love, Gregory decided to be an educator that saw children completely—-not as percentiles, but as human beings.
Years into her teaching career, she attended a conference hosted by the Indiana Council of Administrators of Special Education where she learned about the opportunities for students to thrive in special education. As one of the only woman educators of color present, she felt empowered to bring more educators like herself into the special education conversation. In her current work as the Assistant Director of Special Services at the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, she strives to lift the voices of special education students by providing them with what they need to thrive while cultivating a culture of love that sees students as human beings with inherent value.
As she has continued her educator journey, Gregory and teachers across the nation have been presented with significant challenges. For one, teacher burnout remains a major barrier to success and k-12 educators are faced with a whole host of barriers related to burnout. The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed greatly to these issues and has exacerbated existing concerns. Things such as the mental and physical health of teachers, students’ social and academic preparedness for the classroom, and COVID-19 protocols have contributed greatly to teachers’ anxieties nationwide. According to the 2021 RAND State of the Teacher Survey, nearly one in four teachers felt it likely that they would leave their jobs at the end of 2020-2021 school year (compared to one in six during years prior) with a particular emphasis on African-American teachers. In addition, mode of instruction and health were the highest-ranked issues that contributed to teacher stress, and one in three teachers were caring for their own children while teaching.
Gregory believes that there are a number of ways that the current education system in Indiana contributes to teacher burnout. For one, getting educators and administrators to coalesce across public, private, and charter school boundaries is incredibly challenging. This disunity creates friction within the system and ultimately poses harm to student learning. In addition, there is a need for educators to cultivate a growth mindset in themselves where self-development, continued growth, and life-long learning are priorities. It is imperative that educators keep children at the center.
In Gregory’s ideal world, there would be equitable education for all students. No matter where the students come from, educators would feel respected and supported in their work. They would also work together to develop what she calls a “critical love theory”- a pedagogical framework that prioritizes seeing students as human beings filled with academic potential, personal excellence and the capacity to greatly contribute to society.
Throughout her educator journey, Pennie Gregory has learned that there is no such thing as failure. If she didn’t win in the traditional sense then she definitely learned. Every day there are lessons to be learned and all educators should feel empowered to keep learning. Indianapolis has the tools to create an equitable education system for all students. Let’s work together to make equity a reality.