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.”
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.