Putting Relationships First Earns Southwoods’ Penning Iowa Safe Schools Educator of the Year Award

Making Spaces and Connections

In modern equity work and the discussions around it, the term “space” has taken on new meaning. Space is more than the moon and planets, and taking up space doesn’t always mean occupying a physical area. Making space for something means giving it your attention and energy, giving it room to exist and grow.

Valley Southwoods Freshman High School reading resource teacher Ryan Penning has a skill for creating spaces like that. From his first teaching jobs to his twinkling and cozy classroom at Valley Southwoods, he creates environments and connections that welcome his students as they are and help them to develop and thrive.

Penning was named the Iowa Safe Schools Lynn Reinicke Educator of the Year for 2019. The award recognizes one education professional each year “who has contributed to creating a more inclusive and supportive learning environment for LGBTQ youth.” Penning was presented with the award at the 2019 Iowa Safe Schools Spirit Awards on Oct. 4, an annual awards ceremony that celebrates individuals and organizations significantly impacting LGBTQ+ youth.

“I create this environment for all students,” Penning said. “Everyone needs a place to feel comfortable, a safe place, because they can’t learn if they don’t have that emotional connection.”

To develop those relationships, Penning finds one thing he can connect with for each student, even if that means doing extra research to learn about new topics. His students are not always used to opening up to adults, but he is invested in helping them develop the ability to communicate with and trust adults in a school setting. Especially for ninth-grade students, learning to talk with adults is a crucial part of preparing them for life as they enter high school.

“You want to set them up for success and just let them know that people are here for them, that they have somebody to connect with in the school,” Penning said. “You look back on all the research, and it shows that you have to have that component of safety for them to be at the most potential to learn.”

"I want to meet all students where they are, and that's what is so important for me."

—Ryan Penning

From Baggage to Inspiration

One group that conducts and promotes research on social and emotional learning—a technical term that encompasses Penning’s relationship-based approach—is CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. According to their 2015 Guide to Effective Social and Emotional Learning Programs: Middle and High School Edition, strong social emotional learning can lead to better academic performance, improved attitudes and behaviors, and reduced emotional distress for students.

A 2011 CASEL meta-analysis showed that students who participated in social and emotional learning (SEL) experienced an 11% gain in achievement in not only social and emotional skills, attitudes, and behaviors, but academic performance. A 2017 meta-analysis showed that the students experienced an even more dramatic 13% gain in achievement long-term.

Source: www.casel.org.

The importance of social and emotional skills and student-teacher interaction is supported by a vast body of research, but Penning has a more personal connection to feeling safe in school. Growing up, he was bullied for having a high voice and friends who were mostly girls. He’s thankful he had, in his words, “a rather aggressive mother” who supported him and demanded that the bullies be held accountable. But he also credits past teachers for making him feel safe.

“It really hits close to home for me because of teachers I had growing up who protected me and made me feel comfortable and stood up for me,” he said. “I kind of have that lens to look through—my experiences, my baggage from when I was growing up. So I can kind of translate that and remember that myself and then be able to provide students with a safe place where they won’t get made fun of, or they won’t be judged.”

"He accepts all people. He makes a comfortable environment (and) brings so much light to everyone around him.... He makes time for people to be with him.... Most of all, he loves who he is and wouldn't want to change."

— Penning's nomination

Originally a music and theater student in college, Penning first encountered teaching when he was invited to coach an Iowa High School Speech Association group. The experience opened his eyes to a new opportunity, and he became an education major. He completed his student teaching at Waterloo West High School, and was the first person in his family to graduate from college. Upon his graduation, Waterloo West created a position for him.

Since joining the West Des Moines Community Schools, Penning has taught reading, speech, theater, and English in many different combinations—first at Valley High School, then at Valley Southwoods. At one point during his time at Valley Southwoods, he had to relocate classrooms to accommodate all the students who wanted to talk with him. He moved to his current room, where the walls are painted with colorful murals that feature inspiring quotes and lyrics. Strands of lights and a vast selection of books invite visitors to choose a seat and read. Penning endeavors to let all students know they are welcome to be around him and to be themselves.

Decor in Penning's classroom.

“(Penning) is a student relationship-first teacher,” Valley Southwoods Principal Mitch Kuhnert said. “He takes his personal experience and creates an environment that is comfortable for all students. Just the feeling and tone in his room is calmer because of the importance he places on it.”

Long-Lasting Impact

Earning the award, and even the nomination, have only reinforced to Penning that his relationship-based approach is important. A former student who Penning worked hard to connect with nominated him for the award, going so far as to make sure they were allowed to submit a nomination, even though they are not LGBTQ+ themselves.

“It was actually surprising because it was a previous student who nominated me for it, which makes it even more special,” Penning said. “I think that’s even more impactful, that a student took time to write an essay about me to this organization and just wanted to say that they were so comfortable with me.”

“It’s always been really important for me to show that My life isn’t so different. We’re all so unique, and We all have different backgrounds. I just want to create a safe space for all students to learn.”

—Ryan Penning

Penning’s goal is to make his students feel safe and comfortable, but he also had to get comfortable with himself. He spent many years struggling with his sexuality and believing he should deny his feelings, finally accepting himself while in college. Now happily married and a stepdad, he made sure to thank his husband and daughter while accepting his award. He also thanked his colleagues and other educators.

“I think that I was fortunate enough to be nominated for this award,” he said before the ceremony, “but you look around in this district and there are so many incredible educators who do the same thing that I do—provide that relationship piece, that safe adult to talk to, somebody to go to. It’s a team effort, from the top to the very bottom. It’s all of us just trying to impact who we’re working with and help out students in any way we can.”