Everyday Heroes: Brence Pernell, Ed.M.’09By Jazmin Brooks
“Everyday Heroes” is a continuing series that tells the stories of Ed School alums who are focusing their considerable talents and efforts on teaching, administration, counseling, and other areas that impact students and their learning on a daily basis. These are the people, as we noted in a 2003 Ed. magazine feature, “leading our nation from its classrooms.”
Brence Pernell, Ed.M.’09, approached his first assignment as a teacher with the same balance of passion, humility, and determination that graced him during his academic career. “I practiced in the mirror for an hour before class,” says Pernell of his preparation for the first day of school. He explains how important the first encounter a teacher has with his or her students is: “It sets the tone for the entire year.”
Pernell is a history teacher at York Comprehensive High School in York, S.C., a rural, socially conservative, tight-knit community with roots in the mining industry. Pernell’s students reflect the struggles and achievements of their town.
“Two of my students have children and one works the third shift before coming to school,” he explains. The real-world challenges his students face create a deeper layer to Pernell’s curriculum. “Learning how to engineer opportunities for students to authentically learn new knowledge is the most intellectually engaging thing I’ve ever done,” he says. It is about finding symmetry between accountability and encouragement, and about being creative and making the material accessible to the students in order to keep them interested.
It gives him great joy to see the awakening students experience when they are taught something either they did not know before or that challenges their knowledge, says Pernell. So far this school year, Pernell introduced his students to W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington, and engaged them in a discussion about Thomas Jefferson and the affair Jefferson had with one of his slaves. The students have also compared the current economic crisis to the Great Depression, and the ties that both financial catastrophes had on the town of York.
Pernell is aware that teachers with his educational background are not the norm in schools in small, rural, working-class towns like York. That is part of why he is so passionate about creating a classroom that gives his students the opportunity to picture themselves as part of a bigger world and show them that they can accomplish any and all feats because they are worthy and capable of greatness. This lesson – one that Pernell learned growing up in the similarly tiny town of Blackville, S.C. – is one he kept with him during his undergraduate work at Duke University, and his graduate work at HGSE, and one he has returned to South Carolina to share.
In addition to teaching in the classroom, Pernell’s dedication extends to his school’s Home Bound Program. For several hours a week he provides additional tutoring to those who need the extra assistance at their homes. Pernell says it not only helps the students but also shows the parents that the school cares about their children’s education, and hopefully encourages parents to become more involved.
Pernell is keeping a journal chronicling his first year of teaching. He says other teachers had advised him to keep track of all the positive encounters, lessons, and epiphanies he will experience, because the first year can be filled with hurdles and negativity. Even with the bumps in the road, Pernell says the immense support from his colleagues has made all the difference in the world. He says the sense of community amongst the teachers at his school motivates him daily. In order to give the lessons he learns depth, Pernell believes reflection is key. His journaling has brought a calming perspective to his teaching career and the direction of his future. “It’s given me so much that I decided to start having my students keep reflection notebooks.” It’s another lesson of passion and purpose that Pernell shares with his students.