Georgia Teacher of Year passes along the love teachers showed her as a girl

Tracey Pendley, a fourth-grade teacher at Burgess-Peterson Academy in Atlanta Public Schools, is the 2020 Georgia Teacher of the Year. PHOTO COURTESY OF APS
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Tracey Pendley, a fourth-grade teacher at Burgess-Peterson Academy in Atlanta Public Schools, is the 2020 Georgia Teacher of the Year. PHOTO COURTESY OF APS

During Tracey Pendley’s chaotic childhood, she had one constant. Her teachers.

Her mom was a single parent and addict who spent time in and out of jail and died when Pendley was a young teen.

Teachers provided stability and encouragement as Pendley attended nine schools throughout metro Atlanta.

“They brought us food at holidays, took us to performances. They were everything,” she said.

Now, Pendley provides that comfort and unconditional love to her fourth-grade students at Burgess-Peterson Academy, and she just got the opportunity to share her teaching philosophy with an even larger audience.

Pendley, 35, was recently named 2020 Georgia Teacher of the Year. She will take a sabbatical next school year and spend it talking to teachers, students training to become teachers, and administrators.

Tracey Pendley, an Atlanta Public Schools fourth-grade teacher at Burgess- Peterson Academy, is the 2020 Georgia Teacher of the Year. PHOTO COURTESY OF APS
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Tracey Pendley, an Atlanta Public Schools fourth-grade teacher at Burgess- Peterson Academy, is the 2020 Georgia Teacher of the Year. PHOTO COURTESY OF APS

During appearances around the state, she will discuss reading and writing, but also integrity and the importance of building relationships with students.

She is only the second Atlanta Public Schools teacher to win the state's top teaching honor. An Atlanta teacher last won in 1981; the award began in 1971. APS Superintendent Meria Carstarphen called Pendley a "shining example of what teaching excellence is and should be."

Pendley brings her passion for students and personal history to her classroom.

Atlanta Public Schools teacher Tracey Pendley reacts to being named the 2020 Georgia Teacher of the Year at a ceremony May 18, 2019. Photo courtesy of Georgia Department of Education
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Atlanta Public Schools teacher Tracey Pendley reacts to being named the 2020 Georgia Teacher of the Year at a ceremony May 18, 2019. Photo courtesy of Georgia Department of Education

Every day she tells her students she loves them.

She celebrates their mistakes, urging them to learn from errors instead of feeling ashamed. When a student made a phonics flub earlier this year, Pendley’s response was: “This mistake is glorious.” She really believes it, so the children do, too.

Her students are silly. They dance on tabletops. They have fun.

She knows their hobbies and sparks interest in new ones. She started a 4-H Club at Burgess-Peterson.

“One of my goals every day is to bring magic into the classroom,” she said.

Atlanta Public Schools teacher Tracey Pendley was named the 2020 Georgia Teacher of the Year.
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Atlanta Public Schools teacher Tracey Pendley was named the 2020 Georgia Teacher of the Year.

Credit: Atlanta Public Schools

Credit: Atlanta Public Schools

Pendley started at APS in 2012 and previously taught in Chicago Public Schools. She received a bachelor of arts degree in sociology and religion from Furman University in South Carolina and a master of arts in teaching from the University of Chicago.

Her husband is the medical director of the Emory University Hospital emergency department, and they have two daughters.

She didn’t plan to be a teacher. She wanted to change the world. She thought she could do that by studying sociology and taking up social justice causes. But then she felt called to the classroom where she hoped to help students the way her teachers championed her.

Pendley, a strong advocate of neighborhood public schools, was drawn to elementary students. Those years were a formative, character-building period in her own life. One moment in particular stands out: Pendley was on crutches, and her mom had dropped her off at a Dairy Queen. She recalled the ice cream running down her hands as the hours ticked by waiting for her mom to return.

“I remember thinking this woman isn’t going to help me get out of here,” she said.

In that moment, she knew she had to be an achiever. She turned to her teachers for help.

AJC reporter Vanessa McCray covers Atlanta Public Schools. If you have a news story you’d like to share, email vanessa.mccray@ajc.com