Professor has a ‘soft spot’ in her heart for students

Dr. Amanda Pendergrass is an associate professor of early childhood education.

Story: Phillip Tutor | Photo: Betsy Compton

Upon hearing that she’d won the University of West Alabama’s most prestigious faculty award, Dr. Amanda Pendergrass walked to the lectern and addressed the commencement crowd.

Her first words focused on people she holds dear. 

Her students.

“I am absolutely honored that I get to be a part of your special day where you all are being honored and you took the time out to honor me,” she said.

Pendergrass, an associate professor of early childhood education, received the William E. Gilbert Award during one of UWA’s May 5 commencement exercises. Given annually by the student body, the Gilbert Award recognizes outstanding teaching and excellence in undergraduate classroom instruction. 

“They keep that award super secret, and I was completely mind blown,” she said. “I thought I was going to fall off the stage. I had no idea.”

Originally from Birmingham, Pendergrass joined the faculty of UWA’s Julia Tutwiler College of Education in 2013 after a 10-year stint as a first-, second- and third-grade teacher in Hoover City Schools. She also worked for a year in Okayama, Japan, teaching English in five different nursery schools — using lessons based on shared reading and math games — and counseling Japanese nursery school teachers.

Dr. Amanda Pendergrass receives the Gilbert Award from UWA President Dr. Ken Tucker.

Fourteen hours and nearly 7,000 miles separate Livingston’s campus from Japan, but Pendergrass’ experience in foreign classrooms changed the arc of her career. It’s central to her professional story. Before going to Asia, she was adamant that she preferred teaching the youngest children. “Little people are where it’s at,” she remembered thinking. But instructing nursery school teachers and college professors in Japan sparked a thought: What about teaching adults? What if the Japanese educators who were telling her she should earn a Ph.D. and seek a tenure-track teaching position were right?

What if fate delivered her to a college classroom?

“They planted the seed,” she said. “When I got home, I thought, well, what the heck? I love going to school. I’ll go back and I’ll work on a Ph.D. — not because I ever thought I would leave the classroom, but it was just a personal challenge for me.”

Life then moved fast. Pendergrass enrolled in graduate school at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. She met her future husband, whose job grounded him in Demopolis. She earned her doctoral degree, joined her husband in Marengo County, fought urges to remain in elementary school classrooms, joined UWA’s faculty, and started a family.

Beforehand, Pendergrass never envisioned leaving Birmingham or the first-grade classroom. Teaching future teachers at UWA wasn’t part of the plan, until it was.

“When I got that job, that was like God telling me, ‘This is the right move for you,’” she said. “Everything is falling into place.”

UWA’s renowned history as a training school for teachers is embedded in Pendergrass’ appreciation for the university’s College of Education. Though she admits missing her former elementary school classrooms, she admires how UWA’s education faculty sets clear expectations for students and guides them through difficulties that occasionally appear.

“I tell them straight up: ‘This semester is not going to be easy. There will be times when you are going to cry, but that is because it’s a lot of work,’” she said. “But that’s what teaching is, setting those clear expectations. I feel like our department does a great job.”

Because it’s selected by a committee of select UWA undergraduates, the Gilbert Award winner is recognized not only for the technical aspects of teaching, but also for how he or she connects with students. “It is not lost on me, absolutely,” Pendergrass said, given that teaching awards in most K-12 school systems are often picked by administrators.

The Gilbert Award is, by design, different.

“These students are in there with me,” she said. “I pour my heart and soul out, but whatever it is that I give in the classroom, they noticed. I have a soft spot in my heart for all of these students, and they know that I treat them just like own kids.”