Donnie Piercey works with his students on a project in a classroom.

Donnie Piercey, the 2021 Kentucky Teacher of the Year and Elementary School Teacher of the Year, works with his students on a project at Stonewall Elementary School (Fayette County). Piercey has taught 5th grade at Stonewall since 2018.
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  • Donnie Piercey, a 5th-grade teacher at Stonewall Elementary School, is the 2021 Kentucky Teacher of the Year and Elementary Teacher of the Year.
  • Piercey is his school’s technology coordinator, and quickly set up a Google site to keep students and parents in touch with the school when in-person classes shut down in March.

By Jim Gaines

As much as the COVID-19 school shutdowns hampered many educators, it helped Donnie Piercey come into his own.

On Oct. 22, the 5th-grade teacher at Stonewall Elementary School in Fayette County was named the 2021 Kentucky Teacher of the Year and the state’s Elementary Teacher of the Year.

When Kentucky schools suddenly closed in March, Piercey realized the school needed to set up an online hub – not just for remote teaching, but also to share information with parents and keep students connected to teachers.

As Stonewall’s technology coordinator, Piercey created a Google site where each grade level had its own page. Links to the site were included in all emails, posted on the school’s website and circulated in every way he could think of.

“We got it up as a school in about a week,” Piercey said.

Stonewall Principal Bill Gatliff recalls that Piercey had the website running within a couple of days and was immediately setting up virtual classrooms for other teachers and training sessions on how to teach remotely.

Piercey’s Path to Stonewall
Piercey, 38, who lives in Lexington, has been a teacher for 13 years and has been at Stonewall for two years, teaching English, social studies, math and science.

Originally from Massachusetts, he spent six summers as a camp counselor outside Boston working with 10- and 11-year-olds.

“I was always told ‘Hey, you seem to be pretty good at this,’” he said.

Piercey went to Asbury College – now Asbury University – in Wilmore, Ky., as a theology major, but decided about three months before graduation in 2004 that he didn’t want to make a career of it. His wife and parents encouraged him to look into teaching, so he earned a master’s degree in education at Auburn University in Alabama in 2006.

His first teaching job was at Long Cane Middle School in LaGrange, Ga., but he returned to Kentucky when his wife entered a doctoral program here. Piercey taught at Simmons Elementary School (Woodford County) for seven years, then at Eminence Elementary School (Eminence Independent) for four years before coming to Stonewall in 2018.

“I’ve always worked with a strong team of teachers who understand the importance of developing relationships with students first,” he said.

He believes it is important to show students that he cares by taking interest in their interests and spending time with them. That in turn, he says, makes students care about what he’s teaching.

Piercey enjoys being able to teach remotely, Gatliff said. But since he was technologically adept before the COVID-19 shutdown began, Piercey took on a leadership role in working with teachers as well as students.

He holds twice-monthly technology workshops for other teachers after school and has done multiple presentations on digital classrooms.

He said all his technology work mirrors what he tries to do in the classroom every day.

Donnie Piercey stands on a rocky beach with penguins and records a scene in Antarctica in 2018.

Donnie Piercey, the 2021 Kentucky Teacher of the Year and the Elementary School Teacher of the Year, records a scene in Antarctica in 2018. He was one of six teachers who received a National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship. Piercey traveled to Antarctica with researchers and recorded their answers to his students’ questions.
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Teaching Style and Projects
Piercey said he encourages his students to think like explorers. In 2018, he was one of six teachers worldwide to receive a National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship, accompanied by an invitation for a 2 1/2-week field trip to Antarctica with National Geographic researchers.

Before he left, Piercey had his students research Antarctica and develop questions about the continent. They were recorded on the video sharing site FlipGrid, and he brought back answers recorded by National Geographic personnel.

And several years ago Piercey watched a documentary on the successful use of design-based thinking. He’d used that technique before, but the documentary inspired him to propose that Stonewall do a “Demonstration of Learning Nights.” The event involved shutting down traditional classes for a week and pairing students with teachers of similar interests to develop projects. Students were encouraged to think big.

Then the school opened to the community to show off the results. It was a huge success, both in projects and enthusiasm, Piercey said. The initiative led to one student updating local Google mapping pictures, winning a state championship in the Kentucky Department of Education’s Student Technology Leadership Program, he said.

Praise from Parents and Colleagues
When Piercey applied to work at Stonewall, Gatliff called people he knew at Piercey’s previous schools. First on his list was the superintendent in Woodford County.

“He couldn’t say enough about him,” Gatliff said. Everyone else Gatliff called was just as enthusiastic.

“You’re very comfortable around him, and he’s very, very intelligent but not at all in a condescending way,” Gatliff said. “If you are someone who is not tech-savvy, he will not make you feel stupid.”

Piercey is the best technology resource at the school, Gatliff said.

He uses technology “nonstop” in the classroom and oversees the school’s Student Technology Leadership Program, Gatliff said. He teaches technology skills his students will need later in life, even training a group of them to help teachers with basic computer problems.

Laura Hunt, chair of the Department of World Languages and assistant dean for accreditation at Georgetown College, said her son, a Stonewall student, is “thrilled” by Piercey’s project-based instruction. In a recommendation letter, she praised his real-world and current event lessons, saying Piercey motivates every student to learn.

Marty Park, chief digital officer in the KDE Office of Education Technology, said in a recommendation that he’s known Piercey for more than a decade. In that time, Piercey has been a “teacher, colleague, an employee, a coach and close advisor” to Park and many others.

Reflections on Winning
As Teacher of the Year, Piercey said the message he would like to spread is that teachers can help students navigate and adapt to a changing world as the teachers themselves have adapted to the disruptions of COVID-19.

When Piercey learned in September that he was a semifinalist for Teacher of the Year, he considered it quite an honor. But that wasn’t all.

“The more that I thought about it, the more that I realized that it wasn’t just me that was nominated,” he said. Piercey said the honor also belongs to his students, and that he has learned from every student who has come through his classroom.

It was a big deal for Stonewall to have a teacher named as a semifinalist, Gatliff said. Winning the overall Teacher of the Year award will be a similarly big deal for Fayette County as a whole, he said.

“I’ll be honest. It does scare me a little bit, because I think people will start trying to recruit him,” Gatliff said.

Piercey could probably find a job easily with a private technology company that pays many times more than teaching, but has not, Gatliff said.

Piercey said teaching is a job in which he finds joy in showing up to work every day.

“This I really what I picture myself doing 10, 15, 20 years from now,” he said.