Thursday, June 14, 2012

Moving Day

On December 14, 2007, I had an altercation with a student that closely resembled a scene that had played out a seventh grade classroom in 1991. I couldn't believe that years after that first event, I had been insensitive as a teacher again. I was so distraught I decided to write about it, to try to work through it the best way I know how - in words. That day I wrote my first ever blog post on The Dream Teacher blog. A week later I wrote about some student holiday gifts that touched me so much. Those students will be seniors in high school next year, and I'm so glad I have the stories to remind me of their sweet middle school days.

I have been fortunate to have so many of you read my posts over the past four and a half years. The teacher stories keep popping in my head, and as long as someone besides my mother reads them, I'll keep writing. (Heck, I'll keep writing as long as my mother keeps reading, even if she's the only one...) But today I'm writing to announce that we've moved. My Dream Teacher blog is now on my website, and I hope you'll follow me there. I really want to take my virtual friends with me. 

Head on over to and check out what's going on from time to time. I still have more stories to share...

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Teacher Love

When I was pregnant with my second child, I had a two-year-old daughter who I adored. To me, she was the cutest, sweetest, and smartest child ever born. The way she would reach her arms up to me and say, "Hold you, Mommy, hold you" would make my heart melt. In many ways she was my whole world back in those days, but people told me that I would love my next child just as much. Although I could grasp that idea cognitively, it was really hard to imagine.

But soon my son was born, and what a sleepy baby! I don't think he opened his eyes until the third day in the hospital. I was holding him on that day when the phone in my hospital room rang. My husband, on the other end of the line, asked, "What are you doing?" at the same time my baby opened his eyes and squinted up at me in reaction to the light. My eyes locked with that little sleepy boy, and I answered simply, "I'm falling in love with your son..." It had happened. Without time to really get to know my second child and learn if he would be adorable and sweet and smart, I loved him. I loved both of them, and still do, just the same.

I'm reminded of that at this special time of year in a school. Teachers and students are counting down days; some schools are out already, and summer is upon us. Back when I had my own classroom, I experienced over twenty years of "last days of school." I've stood in a line of teacher-dancers on the cafeteria wall, kicking up our legs and waving to the exiting school buses, smelling that exhaust for the last time for over two months, seeing those grinning faces smashed to the windows, some I'll never see again as they go off to high school. I've look at some of those faces and have known the truth - summer will be difficult for those who go to school and "escape" from dismal situations at home. I wave at those kids the hardest, my hand reaching out to them, hoping to hold them under the safety net of the schoolhouse for just a little longer...

Every year I have reflected on the group of students leaving me and have said quietly to myself, "I'll never love a group of kids as much as this group. They were the best group I ever taught." One thing you may not know if you aren't a teacher...each school year brings a group of students with a "whole group personality." And in the middle school, we hear about them years before they get to us. Just wait until you get the group that's in fourth grade now...they're sure a bunch of talkers! or The kids you'll get next year are so sweet.. (and occasionally some rather negative descriptions are included during our conversations with those who have them before us.) 

Then every year, I look out over that classroom at the beginning of school and think, "I'll never love them like last year's group." 

But then it happens. A seventh grader says something endearing, like the year my student Tevin told me he had a friend who didn't celebrate Christmas; instead, "He celebrates Harmonica." And the student who answered to "What are the adverb questions?" (the answer is How, When, Where, and To What Extent) with "How, When, Where, and What's the Matter?" Okay, maybe you had to be there...

In every class there is a child who slowly wraps himself around my heart - "Mrs. Rigsbee, my family doesn't have things, and sometimes it makes me so mad, I think I may just go out and steal what I want" and those who do it a little more quickly - on the first day - "I'll try not to drive you crazy. I'm my parents' worst nightmare."

Then I watch them sing in the chorus concert, cheer at the football games, dance at their first school dance in the cafeteria. I read their journals and follow their little dramas; I watch them sit with no lunch because their account is out of money. I hear voices change, see pants grow too short, soothe the tears, and rejoice in the smiles. Before you know it, the year is almost over. Then you know what I think?

I think I'll never love a group of kids like this one.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Dr. LeRoy T. Walker, An Olympic Legend

We met while working together on an education committee in 1998. He was famous in my hometown, an Olympic track and field coach and the first black president of the United States Olympic Committee; I was in awe. I was a local middle school teacher, and he thought I was funny. Not to be outdone walking back from lunch to our committee meeting one day, he told a joke and gave me that trademark grin. I ran the length of the sidewalk and did a handspring in front of the UNC School of Education's Peabody Hall. Later, he would tell me that was the moment he knew we would be friends.

We would go to lunch, an unlikely dining couple: me, a mid-career white teacher laughing at the black Chancellor Emeritus twice my age at the University Club where he always took me. (We got some stares.) He would tell me stories of his early days, what it was like to be the baby of thirteen children, and his days in Harlem where he went to live with his brother after his father died. He talked about his years as an athlete and an award-winning coach, and his eyes would gloss over when he spoke of his wife Katherine, who died in 1978. I had little to offer in the way of comparable stories so I told him about my students. Many times he helped me understand how to reach a troubled one or laughed with me over a funny classroom story.

I was honored when he presented me with a signed copy of his biography, An Olympic Journey: The Saga of an American Hero. He also gave me a United States Olympic Committee medallion, something I cherish to this day. 

My friend, Dr. LeRoy T. Walker, the man of so many accomplishments and so many stories, died yesterday. It took me an entire day to summon up the courage to open the book he gave me and read his inscription:

I owe a debt of gratitude to the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program for bringing us together. It was a pleasure to work with you. Congratulations on your honor as an outstanding teacher and educator. Your school is fortunate to utilize your special skills this academic year. 

With every good wish for continued success in all of your endeavors, I remain


Dr. Walker, so many, including me, owe a debt of gratitude to you. The consummate teacher, coach, instructor, and educator, you have touched thousands. We will miss you.

Say hello to Katherine for us.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Teacher Professional Growth - What Matters?

I was 43 years old when I started working on a master's degree. These days it's common for teachers to pursue graduate degrees shortly after earning a bachelor's, but in 1979 when I started teaching, that was the exception. So I'd been teaching awhile when I applied to graduate school.

The program was new, the first cohort of practicing classroom teachers to pursue a degree in K-12 Literacy at the same university that awarded me a bachelor's degree in Secondary English Education. It was significant that the program was for teachers, in actual classrooms, because it made the work relative and meaningful. In addition, our schedules were considered so no classes started before we could get out of school, maneuver around car pools and buses, and meet together at an off-campus site that was convenient to us.

At the risk of being melodramatic, my master's program was life-changing to me, as a teacher and as a person. But last week, I heard a Superintendent of another state's Department of Education tell a room full of teachers that a master's degree doesn't make a difference in the classroom. He went on to add that a PhD doesn't matter either. Oh, and neither does National Board Certification. I'll get back to that...

But first, I'd like to let Dr. Superintendent, who, by the way, has never taught one day in a K-12 classroom, know that, as a result of my graduate degree, there are now hundreds of struggling readers who've been assessed and diagnosed, and, as a result of my ability to pinpoint their exact deficiencies in reading, have had the opportunity to grow by a grade level or more during my time with them. Because of my master's degree, I put my overhead projector away and stopped the "correct this sentence" daily warm-up because I figured out that my students were unable to make the connection to their own writing.

My research in graduate school, on the effects of poverty on reading, enabled me to better understand my students and the struggles they brought to my classroom. I literally left that program with an arsenal of instructional strategies that made me a better teacher.

In addition, the collaboration that occurred in that program helped me understand what my students were experiencing before they got to me in middle school - there were over twenty elementary school teachers in my cohort. We discussed, we bounced ideas off each other, and we listened to concerns, research results, and success stories. As a practicing classroom teacher, I was able to connect to every story, an experience that was different from when I earned my first degree and had never taught my own students.

My master's degree mattered.

Before I even walked across the stage to receive my graduate diploma in 2003, I had begun the process of National Board Certification, another growth experience that changed me as a teacher. I was able to take those strategies I learned in my graduate program and mold them to fit the needs of my own students. While writing my entries and viewing my videotapes, I reflected on ways to improve my teaching: I spent hours trying to determine how to help my students grow in reading and writing, an accomplishment that a candidate for National Board Certification must prove in order to be certified in English/Language Arts.

I was able to scrutinize every element of my teaching as I pursued National Board Certification, and at the same time I honed up on some skills I had learned back during my undergraduate days - I reviewed my content vocabulary and revisited my college textbooks in an effort to prepare for the assessments that are an integral component of the National Board process. I also reflected on my accomplishments as a teacher leader in my school and looked for ways to make a bigger impact on my profession.

I remember asking myself a million questions while planning each lesson: how can I teach this better? How can I raise my expectations for how I teach and how my students learn? National Board Certification was the reason I asked those questions.

When confronted by the teachers in the audience who disagreed with the Superintendent's opinions, he answered, "The research does not show that master's degrees and National Board Certification make a difference. It is clear that the really good teachers are the ones who pursue higher degrees and national certifications anyway. They're already good."

Well, Dr. Superintendent, I may not have numbers and percentages and data. But what I do have are stories. For every negative thing you can say about the ways that we grow as teachers, I can tell you a specific story about a specific teacher who made a difference to kids who aren't numbers, kids who have actual faces and names. I'd love the opportunity to sit down with you and tell you those stories.

Just so you know, when I wrote my National Board Certification entry and chose the one thing that was the most meaningful in reference to my growth as a teacher, I chose my master's degree. If I had gone through the National Board process first, and had been asked to reflect on my growth while writing a graduate paper later, I would have named National Board Certification as the most significant. Both experiences changed me as a teacher and impacted hundreds of students as a result.

Shame on you, Dr. Superintendent, for not listening to what the very teachers you are supposed to represent are trying to tell you. Sometimes it's not about the research, the data, and the numbers. Sometimes it's about real classroom teachers and their real life-changing experiences.

And's about the faces of the students who learn as a result.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Finding Miss Kilpatrick

My sister in elementary school...such a cutie!

Picture this: you're a little girl, seven or eight years old, and you share a bedroom with your sister. Every time you try to enter your own room, you're met with a shriek: "GET OUT! I'M PLAYING 'MISS KILPATRICK!!!'"

Or what if you say to your little sister, "Do you want to play with me?" and she always, always, says, "Yes, let's play Miss Kilpatrick!"

My sister Lisa had every reason to adore her first grade teacher because like me, she actually had two first grade teachers. And like me, she had a rough start in school.

If you've read my book Finding Mrs. Warnecke: The Difference Teachers Make, or have heard one of my keynote speeches, or have stood in the same room with me for over five minutes, you know that I started out first grade with a teacher who wasn't very nurturing and encouraging. But after a stroke of luck, fate, and fairy dust, I was removed from that class and sent to Mrs. Warnecke's room in the basement. It was there that everything changed.

My sister's story is almost identical, except in her case it was the teacher who moved on, not her. Lisa's first first grade teacher was even less nurturing than mine if that's possible. There are horrific stories of a stick, a bamboo rod maybe, that stood in the corner threatening the roomful of six-year-olds. She tells that although her body wanted her to write with her left hand, her teacher grabbed her right hand and tried to make it write. She especially remembers the day she glanced at the boy in the seat behind her, never saying a word. But she and the boy were made to stand by the concrete wall during recess so that the other kids could look at them and laugh.

(Another teacher came by and spoke in a soothing manner to my sister that day - my own Mrs. Warnecke - who continued to make a difference with children even after I had finished my first, and second, grade years.)

My mother recalls taking a ride in an administrator's car back then, an attempt to get him off campus so she could tell him what was what about that classroom. His words to her? "That teacher will be gone soon." It seems my mother wasn't the only parent complaining about the situation in my sister's class.

Exit mean teacher with the bamboo rod. Enter Miss Kilpatrick.

By this point Lisa was terrified of school, too scared to speak, but Miss Kilpatrick encouraged her, made her feel safe, even allowed her to actually enjoy school. For that reason, the "Miss Kilpatrick" game of lining up stuffed animals and baby dolls and teaching them from a small chalkboard became Lisa's favorite pastime.

Fast forward forty-five years. Again Mrs. Warnecke has made a difference. It was she who sent "Miss Kilpatrick" the book Finding Mrs. Warnecke, the story that took place in an elementary school in the sixties. It was she who enabled a little first grader, now a grown woman, to find her beloved teacher.

Miss Kilpatrick (now Dr. Bradshaw) is a recently retired career educator. Over the years she taught children (like my sister) how to have confidence, and eventually she even taught adults how to be leaders in schools. She, too, has made a difference.

Our correspondence has been similar to those early conversations with Mrs. Warnecke - stories from the "old days" at Bragtown Elementary, reminiscing about former teachers and students we can recall. For example, Dr. Bradshaw remembers, as my mother and my sister do, a student in that first grade class who used to climb out the window. I was able to tell her the "rest of the story" - that student grew up to go to jail and, at one point, even escape from prison. I ended with "some things never change."

And it is true....some things don't the thrill you get when you reconnect with a teacher from your childhood. That experience has changed my life, and as a result my sister has been able to reflect on her early days as a student and think about what shaped her - as a student and as a person.

Thank you Mrs. Warnecke and Dr. Bradshaw for the care you gave to two troubled little girls in an old elementary school building. We've never forgotten...

Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Letter to the Youth Correctional Facility

Dear Curtis,

What were you doing a week ago right now? Were you hanging out with friends on a lazy Sunday afternoon? Were you talking with your family, maybe your Dad, about what you had coming up in the week? Did you ever, for even a second, picture yourself sitting in jail in five short days? Did you ever think that so many lives would be devastated in a mere three days because you would have your hands on a gun?

What were you doing five years ago right now? I know the answer to that one. You were taking your time walking to my class every day and swearing over and over that the cigarette smoke I smelled was on someone else's clothes. You were sitting in my seventh grade class with your entire life ahead of you. Is this how you thought it would turn out?

Do you remember that our class song was Natasha Bedingfield's Unwritten? Do you remember that we talked about the lyrics - "Today is where your book begins; the rest is still unwritten" - over and over? Remember how I would play the song and we would dance and sing around the room? We were Glee before Glee was cool. We were Middle School Musical! You didn't so much sing and dance as stand in the corner and grin, looking at your crazy teacher and your classmates who would shout "THE REST IS STILL UNWRITTEN" until the windows shook.

Remember how we wrote timelines of our lives? We started on that day in that classroom and mapped out everything we thought we'd be doing the rest of our lives. You struggled with that assignment. While other students plugged in high school, college, playing professional sports, and getting married, you kind of stared at the paper. I tried to help you, encouraging you along, but you told me you probably wouldn't go to college, maybe wouldn't finish high school. You did want to get married and have a wrote that on your chart, but other than that it wasn't very clear for you. I promised to help you feel more comfortable with schoolwork so that maybe college could be in your future. You reluctantly placed that on your chart. We compromised later when you erased "college" and wrote "community college."

But nowhere, Curtis, nowhere on that paper did it say "life in prison." Nowhere.

You may be surprised to know that I cried when I found out that you were arrested. I was with my grandchildren, taking them shopping for a "peasant" - that's what my granddaughter calls a "present." I read the news article on my phone and was so alarmed I scared two little girls with my immediate sobs.

Curtis, I cried in the Hello Kitty store.

I knew you were troubled in seventh grade, but I wasn't expecting it to come to this. You knew you were struggling, too, but I can't imagine that you ever dreamed your life would take this turn. I cried for three straight hours the day you went to jail. I couldn't stop thinking about our conversations about your life, how I never thought to say, "Curtis, you won't murder anyone in the future, will you? You won't shoot someone's father and grandfather in the back of the head for the $200 you'll get out of the cash register, will you?"

No, I never thought to ask that. And neither did the other teachers who've had their hearts broken over this news. I bet you'd be surprised that we've talked about you, sharing memories and stories of you, and that we can't even grasp what has happened. Curtis, we had dreams for you even if you didn't have dreams for yourself. And it hurts when dreams must know how that feels now.

I have to ask you what I could have done to change the rest of your story. You knew I cared about told me you didn't want to let me down. So what didn't I say? What didn't I do? What elements out there were stronger than a school full of encouraging teachers pulling for you? Whose voice was louder than mine?

I need to know so I can help the next troubled student write a different ending. Today is where his book begins...

Friday, January 13, 2012

Identity Crisis

So I'm not standing in front of my own classroom anymore. I'm proud to be a teacher-on-loan to my state's department of education (emphasis on teacher.) I'm still very connected to my identity as a teacher, so much so that I tend to tell my teacher stories in present tense (when I assign homework, I....) and so on.

But the truth is I don't have my own students now, and the last ones I officially taught are now eighth graders. Luckily, I'm still based at my school and so I still get to see middle schoolers and my colleagues. And sometimes I find myself walking down the hallways of the school, just inhaling.

Because the truth is that I miss them, every one of them, every day. I miss how they're so goofy that my days were full of laughter. I miss them caring so, so much for the teacher that they made the bad days better and the sad days endurable. I miss them so much that sometimes I forget that the students in my school aren't mine.

I tend to lay my hand on their shoulders as I pass them in the hallway: "Excuse me, honey," and I'm confused when there's no reaction. There's no "Hey, Mrs. Rigsbee!" along with hugs and squeals and "let-me-tell-you-what-happened" stories. Yesterday I was so excited to be invited to a science classroom - I was a guest judge for some amazing project presentations! I stood at the front of the room waiting for instructions when a student said, "I like your shirt." I started explaining how the shirt was one of the first "spirit gear" shirts sold by our school, but I was interrupted: "Um, I was talking about Mrs. White's shirt."

Ouch. He was talking to his REAL teacher, the one he actually knows and has a relationship with. I had a Personal Pity Party and went on with the judging.

Later, I worked with a couple of students who were testing, and I used the Literacy Coach's office. Probably not the best idea. I had forgotten that I donated (loaned?) all of my classroom library to the Literacy Coach when I packed up my classroom. I glanced over at the bookcase and saw my entire career lined up on shelves.

There sat Martin Luther King, The Peaceful Warrior. If I had students, we'd be reading that now and writing our Dream Speeches. I saw Master Puppeteer and remembered a grade level unit we did that included Japanese kite flying, origami, and a trip to a Japanese restaurant. I saw the Bluford series and Sharon Draper books like Forged by Fire and Tears of a Tiger, all books that I used in my remedial reading classes - high interest books for my middle schoolers - chosen with care...because I cared.

So...all this is to say...if you find that you are standing in front of a classroom of children every day, remember that you're doing the most important job there is. Cherish those faces looking back at you, and embrace those relationships.

You'd miss it if you were gone...