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In Conversation With ... Donnie Piercey

Donnie Piercey

Kentucky School Advocate
May 2021

In Conversation With features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.

Donnie Piercey, a 5th-grade teacher at Fayette County’s Stonewall Elementary, is the 2021 Kentucky Teacher of the Year. As we celebrate Teacher Appreciation week this month, he reflects on a year of remote learning, technology’s role in education and what the pandemic has taught us about teaching and learning.

Q. What inspired you to become a teacher?

My route was a little different. My undergrad degree was in theology at Asbury College in Wilmore. My senior year, my wife – we weren’t married yet, had just started dating – was going to Auburn to get her master’s, so after graduation I followed her. I had spent seven years working at a summer camp in the Boston area and people were always telling me, ‘Hey, you're really good at working with kids.’ So I got my master’s and certification in elementary education at Auburn. I like to think of myself as a nontraditional teacher. Seventeen years later, I definitely made the right choice.

Q. A lot of teachers do decide after a few years that teaching’s not for them. What has kept you at it?

The students, definitely. I've always felt education and being a classroom teacher is a creative field. Being a classroom teacher has given me so many opportunities where I haven't had to follow the regular patterns of the classroom. I think of my classroom as a creative space where I can create lessons, experiences, slide shows or fun, little goofy videos for my students. I feel like my students realize that ‘Mr. Piercey takes time to create this stuff for us.’ It keeps me sane. If I had to teach out of a textbook for seven hours a day, doing exactly what was written down, I would not have made it more than a couple of years.

Q. Being creative gives you energy, but it also takes energy, I would think.

When you’re being creative, you fail a lot. I’ve told my student teachers, I know I won Teacher of the Year, but I don't even think I'm the best teacher in the building. I promise you’re going to see me fail. A lot. The question is what do you do when you fail? If a lesson isn’t going well, do you adapt on the fly or just kind of push through and think, “I’ll just move on from here.” To me, the best teachers are the ones who are willing to pivot.

Q. The first week in May is Teacher Appreciation Week. Do you think parents have a new appreciation for teachers after nearly a year of remote learning?

I feel the public now understands everything teachers do, from lesson planning to the little things we do for students every day. Granted, over Zoom, it was totally different. It might be like a little video message we would send or a drive-by parade in their neighborhood. Or, dropping off something on their porch; all those little things teachers do to make a difference.

Q. How does it feel back in the classroom now after a year of remote learning? How did it feel for teachers too, to finally see students, most of whom you hadn’t met face-to-face?

You know what April's usually like in a classroom, right? Kids are excited. They’re starting to think about summer, but this year, because we’ve been virtual for so long, it still feels like the third week of school. The students have missed being connected, that feeling of walking into school every day. And from talking to teachers and seeing what they are posting, they’re so excited to see their students come down the hall every morning. When Fayette County opened up, we decided let’s pretend it's the middle of August and this is the first day of school. We wanted to recapture as much of that feeling as we could.

Q. In your teaching career, you’ve been on the cutting edge of using technology. During the pandemic, you did training to help other teachers learn to teach remotely. Do you think the pandemic has made more teachers feel comfortable using technology in the classroom?

. Last March, all of us were thrown into the fire. We realized, ‘we've got to figure this out.’ And as a whole, we were willing to do it. Educators knew they were going to need to learn this stuff if they wanted their students to know that their teacher cared about them and valued their education. Every teacher, not just across Kentucky but around the world, has learned the basic tech skills. My hope is next year we’ll use that technology to redefine what our lessons and experiences look like in the classroom. Instead of using technology as a substitute, we’ll use it to modify and augment instruction, to enrich the experience.

Q. But despite all of the technology, you say that pencils and paper and books aren’t going away.

Every student in my classroom is not going to become a computer programmer. Because of that, it’s about a 50-50 split in my classroom as far as using technology like a Chromebook versus reading in a book and using pencil and paper. I’ve got three kids of my own, and I would not want them staring at a Chromebook seven hours a day. I want them to learn how to use the tools to create, as opposed to just consume. We’ve learned it is not the only answer, because if it was I could just record a seven-hour YouTube video every day.

Q. What else was missing with remote learning?

I like to move and to have my students do the same. Recess is still my favorite part of the day because it's when I can see what the kids are actually like, whether it’s from playing kickball or just sitting out on a bench talking. Those social interactions are next to impossible to do successfully over Zoom. And as a teacher, my job is to teach content, but it's also to develop positive relationships with students.

And, little silly things like putting stickers on student work to celebrate what they did. They missed that kind of stuff coming from a positive adult in their life. Showing a picture of a good job sticker is a lot different than actually handing them one.

Q. You've been a teacher for more than 15 years and have also taught in the Woodford County and Eminence Independent school districts. Do you have any recommendations on how school board members can support teachers?

Professional development is important. And thinking about what comes next after the pandemic. Every teacher and principal over the last year has had to sit down and ask, ‘What really matters in the classroom?’ Relationships matter, being face-to-face as safely as possible matters. There’s also the importance of working with a team of teachers. The more of those opportunities that school boards can provide for teachers the better.

A lot of teachers retired this year so we’ve got a large influx of new ones who are walking into a profession where, if they were teaching in Fayette County or Jefferson County, have only had three to four weeks of in-person experience. That’s also something boards need to consider – opportunities for these new teachers and how might we help them adapt to the classroom.

Q. As we move toward a new normal, what is the biggest challenge facing Kentucky public education?

To make sure we’re taking as much time as possible to focus on those positive experiences in the classroom. Sometimes that means stepping back from the content a bit, to give teachers a chance to connect with our students. So when a student asks a tough question, as a teacher, you feel you can spend 20 minutes talking about it if your students are engaged with that question. To be able to think, ‘OK, I planned on going this way, but I can tell this is something the class is passionate about so I’m going to pivot and have this discussion.’ I feel like teaching over Zoom showed us that you can’t just do the 40-minute slide show every day. You’ve got to be able to adapt on the fly.

Q. When you were named Teacher of the Year you could choose an ambassadorship or equivalent resources for your classroom.

I will be taking a sabbatical from mid-July to mid-November to work on a project I started planning earlier this year. My goal is to talk to 50 teachers K-12 from across the state to gather ideas for teachers to implement coming out of the pandemic. If teachers want to see change and do things differently, what better way than by learning from some of the best. Three- to 5-minute videos will be posted on a website where teachers can watch and learn. The Department of Education will help promote the site. Anyone interested in the project can contact me at [email protected] or on Twitter at @mrpiercey.

Top photo: Donnie Piercey, center, a 5th-grade teacher at Stonewall Elementary School (Fayette County), was named the 2021 Kentucky Teacher of the Year and Elementary Teacher of the Year on Oct. 22. He received a special visit, from left, from Fayette County Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk, Valvoline CEO Sam Mitchell and Education Commissioner Jason E. Glass. (Provided by KDE)

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