It all started with a zine: a miniature magazine that held poems, personal essays, and other writing assignments—all of which were delicately decorated and illustrated by the meticulous and artistic hands of a student in a Creative Writing class.
The fiercely adored English teacher Lisa Penninga accredits the start of her career to one of her very own English teachers: Mary Haab. The desire to become an educator first blossomed within Penninga while she was taking Haab’s Creative Writing course at her alma mater, Portage Central. As an indispensable member of an “eclectic, Breakfast-Club group,” the sensation of belonging that she felt in that classroom inspired her to one day cause students of her own to feel the same way—a feeling that can only be elicited by the support given by an English teacher.
Though she expected to one day have a class of her own, the student in that Creative Writing class never would have expected to one day be nominated for Teacher of the Year, an accolade that would recognize her as the statewide representative for teachers all throughout Michigan. Even today, with a classroom and curriculum of her own, Penninga was still shocked after receiving an email detailing her nomination.
“It’s a huge honor [to be nominated], and it’s very sweet,” Penninga said. “[It’s] a huge surprise because 2020 hasn’t been filled with a lot of joy, so [this nomination] was exciting.”
As the teacher of one of the most widely-taken AP courses at FHC, AP English Literature and Composition, Penninga tries her best to immerse her students in the subject she fell in love with when she was in their shoes years ago. In the eyes of her students, Penninga not only succeeds in teaching the beautiful intricacies of English literature but also creates a warm, welcoming learning environment.
Though this is only her third year teaching AP Lit, her mastery of the subject and its curriculum has led her to take many ambitious approaches when teaching the course—one of which being a book club project where she teaches three classic novels simultaneously. Her teaching style plays an integral role in her earning the admiration and trust of her students while also being something Penninga herself can be proud of.
“AP Lit is my own baby,” Penninga said. “I’ve created it from the ashes; it’s like a phoenix [rising from the] ashes of the teachers of the past, and it’s mine. I think that’s why that class has such a fantastical element to it. [The class] has so much of me stamped into it, and I’m really passionate about what we do because I’ve spent so much time on it.”
Her dedication to her craft is apparent in the instruction of her AP Lit course as well as the second course she teaches, AP English Language and Composition. Despite these two classes being the two most rigorous English courses offered at FHC for both teachers and students, Penninga cherishes the ability to facilitate the growth in writing skills, reading comprehension, and overall mastery of the English language of some of FHC’s most gifted English students.
In Penninga’s eyes, one of, if not the most, rewarding parts of being a teacher is watching her students transform after following in her footsteps for two semesters. For her, an entire school year culminates in one specific moment at the end of the term.
“Seeing the growth from the first day of class to the last day—there’s just nothing like it,” Penninga said. “I don’t want to say it’s an adrenaline high, but to see that last essay that [my students] write is just this shining moment where I’m like, ‘We did it. It wasn’t just me. It wasn’t just you. It was us together.’”
The growth that Penninga is a part of in her English classes, however, is not the only growth she experiences as a teacher at FHC. Penninga believes that “no two classes have been the same,” and because of that, she has changed alongside her students.
When she first entered Forest Hills Central High School as an English teacher 15 years ago, she was only at the beginning of her journey to becoming the accomplished, organized, and encouraging teacher she is today.
“Chill out,” Penninga laughed, “that’s what I would tell [myself in my first year of teaching]. I feel like new teachers need to realize that you just have to be flexible, and sometimes what seems like a really big deal really isn’t.”
Though Penninga’s rocky start is synonymous with that of any first-year teacher, what made her teaching journey unique are the people who guided her along the way. She gives a lot of thanks to the administrators and fellow teachers who have made her teaching career that much more enjoyable, but she owes her greatest appreciation to two colleagues in particular.
“Ms. Scobell and Ms. Dolce were like my big sisters because they were really harsh but also loving,” Penninga said. “I learned from them in a lot of ways; they kept me grounded, but they also showed me what it would be like to have wings later in my career. I think it’s really great for a new teacher to see that you don’t have to fly right away. You can find your footing, develop who you are, and then you really take off.”
Penninga’s odyssey in becoming such a life-changing educator is admirable and inspiring. With a beaming smile, Penninga has done the impossible of making Zoom classes seem just as valuable as in-person instruction. Despite all the obstacles thrown her way this year, Penninga persisted, and her Teacher of the Year nomination is a reflection of the tenacity that she’s showcased this year and throughout her career.
For Penninga, winning Teacher of the Year would mean everything, but it’s not the title that means the most to her. Rather, she is focused on the big picture and how she could use her influence to change the teaching world for the better.
“I think more than ever before, [new teachers] need a positive light,” Penninga said. “There’s just so much negativity in the teaching world for future teachers, and I would love to [reinstate] a passion for teaching because it’s a great career, and it’s so purposeful. Every day is a great day as a teacher. I would love to be that voice to new teachers; that would mean a lot to me.”
As a teacher, Penninga is able to maintain professionalism in her classroom while still developing deep relationships with her students. Every student that has had the honor of having her as a teacher has gone on to tell the tale of the wonders they experienced in her classroom.
For as much as her students and former students admire her, Penninga’s adoration for her pupils transcends words, but her Teacher of the Year nomination inspired her to leave her students with one message.
“I always say to students that once you’ve been in room 142, you have a place in my heart forever, and it sounds cliché, but it’s true,” Penninga said. “I want my students to know that I’ve learned a lot every year, too, and I’ve grown as a person. I [want to say] thank you to all of [my students] for coming into my classroom every day and making it a great place to be because it’s not just about me—it’s about the community.”
Mrs. Penninga in the eyes of her students:
“You can tell Mrs. Penninga is doing something she truly loves every day. She is such a genuine and caring person who wants to connect with students and share her passions with them. She has so much love to give and has a positive impact on every person she meets.” Sammie Wing, class of 2022
“Mrs. Penninga is the warmest, most welcoming teacher I’ve ever had. Even through the computer screen, I can feel her genuine excitement to teach us, hear about our days, and get to know us. Her passion for the English language is evident in each and every class session we have; it’s hard not to share that excitement with her. She makes it easy to love learning. I’m so thankful she is my teacher.” Remmie Gavle, class of 2022
“During this pandemic, [Mrs. Penninga] has been the most flexible of all my teachers. She’s incredibly accepting of all of her students and really makes sure that our voices are heard.” Alyssa Cheslek, class of 2022
“Mrs. Penninga is a wonderful teacher. I was told I would have her if I took AP Lang, and that was one of my deciding factors in taking the course. Her class is the one I feel most engaged in despite the lack of in-person communication, which I think goes to show how incredible she is as a teacher.” Samantha Franklin, class of 2022
“Mrs. Penninga is fun, compassionate, approachable, creative, wise, lighthearted, intelligent, cheerful, supportive, and flexible.” Roman Kalaczinski, class of 2022
“Mrs. Penninga is such a happy and positive person and teacher. Over time, she connects with every student in her class and makes everyone feel loved and comfortable. She makes coming to school fun and [makes] learning exciting.” Julianna Hahn, class of 2022
“Mrs. Penninga was the first teacher I ever had in high school, and she instantly became one of my favorites. Her genuine concern for the well-being of her students, in addition to her sweet and passionate demeanor, separates her from other teachers and truly makes me appreciate her as both a teacher and person.” Sukhpreet Singh, class of 2021
“Mrs. Penninga’s class is the highlight of my day. I can always count on her to put a smile on my face and cheer me up.” Anika Garter, class of 2021
“I really appreciate Mrs. Penninga as a teacher because I can tell she is extremely knowledgeable and very passionate about what she’s teaching, so it’s hard not to enjoy being in her class—it’s hard to not have that passion rub off on you. She just cares so much about every single one of her students and really tries to get to know them—not just as a teacher figure but as someone who really cares.” Mina Siebert, class of 2021
“Mrs. Penninga’s influence [has been] so great on me, and I appreciate her so much because she really cares about her students and always wants to check up on us. At the beginning of class, she’ll always ask how we’re doing and what we need. Sometimes when I’m struggling and I get something in the mail from her, it cheers me up and means a lot.” Matthew Mahoney, class of 2021
“Mrs. Penninga is the type of teacher that will ask how you’re doing and actually care about your wellbeing. She also puts a lot of work into her presentations and lesson plans. Her presentations are amazing, and she has her little Bitmojis in them—I kind of love it. I don’t know how she does it; she’s just a great teacher and a great person and brightens up my day every day.” Audrey Sidebotham, class of 2021
“Mrs. Penninga helped me fall in love with reading and literature again. She showed [me] that teaching can be full of love and passion. I hope that I can make as much of a difference as her!” Anna Breaugh, class of 2020
“It’s hard to describe a person who you look up to since there are an endless amount of adjectives to describe [their] passion, kindness, and authenticity. Mrs. Penninga has never fallen short of these qualities, radiating kindness and care to her students. I’m lucky to have been able to spend a class with her and encourage many others to do so if they get the chance.” Aaron Jachim, class of 2020
“Mrs. Penninga is a passionate, fun, inclusive, kind, and amazing teacher! She [makes] her curriculum and units so every student has something to look forward to, and she makes sure each student can participate in class. She’s so supportive outside the classroom, too, and really cares about how people are doing. I’m so glad I got to take her classes and got to know her.” Jackie McLaughlin, class of 2019
“Mrs. Penninga has such a special ability to share her love for English so intensely with her students. You can always feel her excitement and passion [for] English when she teaches, and it’s truly infectious. It inspired me personally to put my best effort forth in my learning, as I’m sure it did with the hundreds of other students who have been lucky enough to sit in her classroom.” Nisha Rajakrishna, class of 2019
“I had Mrs. Penninga’s class first hour, and even though it was 8 am, I never dreaded it because of her positive attitude and kindness made every morning better. You can tell she truly cares for her students, and she diversifies their education in a way that betters them as a person and as a student. To this day, she is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had.” Sarah Wordhouse, class of 2019