After Owning a Successful Business, Rebecca Penniman ’16 Plunges Into Teaching

By Jim Campbell

After Rebecca Penniman sold the environmental testing business that she had owned and operated for seven years, she had what she called “this funny moment where I was completely free to decide what my next career choice would be.”

For Penniman, who has a graduate degree in English, it came down to one choice: she wanted to teach high school English in Baltimore City where she felt she could do the most good toward closing the achievement gap.

“During the high school years, kids are really capable of abstract thinking,” she said. “It’s enormously important to help young people get excited about learning. As a teacher, I want to give students the tools to be citizens of the world.”

Penniman decided on the School of Education’s Master of Arts in Teaching program to accomplish her goal. The 39-credit degree program prepares candidates for their initial teaching certification, and attracts undergraduates who are starting careers and older adults who are changing professions.

“I was looking for a challenging and rigorous program, and the MAT, with its mix of theory and internships, was the one I wanted,” she said. “I also liked the fact that the program was full-time and could be completed in one year.”

Bill Sowders, an assistant professor and program coordinator for the School of Education’s teacher-preparation program, said he enjoys working with career-changers, like Rebecca, because they bring a different perspective to his classes and internships.

“Most have rich life experiences and a wonderful work ethic that rubs off’on some of the more junior members of a cohort,” he said.

Penniman said it was a gift being the oldest student in her cohort. With her experience in managing employees and raising children, many of the discussions around student behavior, classroom management and lesson plans felt natural and intuitive.

“Hopkins has done a really great job of putting MAT students in real-world classroom situations as much as possible,” she said. “I got a lot of experience teaching in diverse settings, including children with special needs and English language learners. We were always in the classroom in each of the three semesters of the program.”

Penniman found the evening classes a complement to her internships. She would learn a new theory or teaching strategy in class and was able to try it out the next day. She could see what worked and what didn’t and discuss it with her instructors the next day, many of whom had public-school teaching experience.

When Penniman graduated last spring, she was chosen student speaker for the 2016 graduating class. In her remarks, she said she was the least likely to be the class representative. “I am quite a bit older and come from the corporate world, but no one is more honored than I am to be in the company of such talent and accomplishment.”

Following graduation, Penniman achieved her goal of becoming a teacher at City College. She likes that the school is one of the oldest high schools in the country, with a long proud tradition. Many of Baltimore’s prominent civic leaders graduated from City, including former Mayors William Donald Schaefer and Kurt Schmoke who is now president of the University of Baltimore.

Another plus for Penniman was that the school requires students to own their own their books. She wants students to be able to write in them, put sticky notes on them and even dog-ear the pages. “I think book ownership is critical.”  She adds the school finds ways to assist student who have trouble paying for their books.

She was also very impressed with the principal – Cindy Harcum. She is a 2005 alumna of the SOE’s school leadership program. “Ms. Harcum is terrific. She’s perceptive, intuitive, thoughtful, and incisive.  She is very visible and present in the school — she visits classes regularly — and solves problems swiftly.

At the start of school last month, Penniman collected as much information as she could on each of her students. Her work experiences taught her that patterns emerge when you aggregate large amounts of data. She hopes the information will provide clues on how each student learns. Her objective is to have individualize instructional plans for each student.

“I have purchased five notebooks and will set several pages aside for each student,” she said. “I will note items, such as when they raise their hands, what questions they ask in class and what their home life is like. Anything I can glean to better understand my students.”

Penniman says likes the energy and earnestness of her students. “I like that every class and every period has a different trajectory, because each group of kids brings something different to the school.”

She said that because of her experience, “kids just don’t get under my skin.” She has the ability to stay calm and detached, and had only a few classroom management problems. “It doesn’t hurt that I’m old enough to be their grandmother, and most of them would never mess with their grandma.”

She said the School of Education did a great job of preparing her. “The crucible of the one-year MAT taught me how to think on my feet, how to adjust instruction and how to create engaging and substantive lessons.”