Friday, January 25, 2008

Mrs. Rigsbee, Git Yer Gun!

I used to think I was smart - street smart that is. I worked in an inner city school with kids who taught me what was what on the streets. I knew which neighborhoods I couldn't drive through at night, I knew where the drug deals went down, and I knew the colors, signs, and handshakes of four different gangs. Nothing surprised me.

I've changed schools now. I'm in the country, and I love it. Our student, Filemon, lives next to the school, and no one has taught his roosters that they only are supposed to crow in the morning. So they cock-a-doodle-do all day long. It's nice background music for my reading class.

Last year we had a guest speaker come to talk to our student body about organic food. I watched as the same kids who couldn't name a state in the USA that started with "A" (they said Africa and Australia) jumped up and down in their seats when the speaker asked them what they could do to make sure their crops were healthy year after year. ("Well, you could try crop rotation," they said.) Hmmmm. Who woulda thought of that?

Another thing that I've noticed: we have numerous boys in our school who wear hunting camouflage. I'm talking pants, jackets, hats...the whole school! Are they planning on bagging the big one between first and second period? We even have several students named Hunter. And not because it's a popular name, they tell me. Because that's what they are.

Today I grew a couple more brain cells because of my student Bradley. When my first period class entered the room, I noticed they all had gum (who gave out gum in homeroom, you guys?) I dutifully told them to spit it out. They all, obedient gum chewers, walked one by one to the trash can...except Bradley.

"Bradley, I told you to spit out the gum," I warned.

"I don't have gum," he replied.

"Bradley, I see it. It's bright green." I was proud. I had evidence!

"It's not gum," he said.

Okay, I'll bite. "What is it?" I asked.

He was very excited to share. "It's a turkey call." (The entire class nodded.)

"A what?!"

Bradley repeated what he had said, only he did it by making a noise that sounded like what I heard the night my cat Fluffy had kittens. I must've looked confused because the remainder of the class all spoke together, "It's a turkey call."

Then he started gobbling. Straight up gobbling as in "Gobble, gobble - it's Thanksgiving."

Finally, I caught on.

"Bradley," I said. "All of the turkeys in those woods out there are going to hear you and come scrambling to get in this room." I thought that would stop him. Not a chance.

"I hope they do!" He jumped up and ran over to the window. "I'll grab one and break its neck and...."

"Whoa, stop there! I can't stand it," I pleaded.

I continued to try to teach, periodically interrupted by a gobble here, a gobble there, a ....

Well, you get it.

At the end of the class, Bradley told me that he was being signed out early. He was going shopping - for more turkey calls.

As he left my room, he turned around and gobbled at me. Another student interpreted.

"He said, 'Mrs. Rigsbee is the best teacher ever!'" Christian said.

In turkeyspeak. Heaven help me.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


I love teaching.

That’s what I was saying to myself as I walked into Harris Teeter this morning. Then I realized that what I really meant was that I love that I have been a teacher for so long. I’m finally at that point in my career that I run into former students periodically. It’s like having moving memories - photographs that live, breathe, and smile like those Harry Potter has.

I pulled into the parking space and immediately felt eyes on me. I looked left and saw the familiar fuzzy hair and toothy grin. For a moment, it felt odd – seeing a seventh grader sitting in the driver’s seat of a car. Then I remembered: she’s not twelve anymore.


I used to sing her name to the tune of the 1960’s song Corinna, Corinna by Ray Peterson. Kacheena, Kacheena. She had no idea where I got the tune. And as we stood there in the parking lot, she had no idea how important she had been to my life as a teacher.

Kacheena was one of my two “focus students” when I went through the National Board Certification process. Little snapshots of memories jumped around in my head – an essay she wrote about snow, a project she did on the book Freak, the Mighty, but mostly I thought about the day I videotaped for my National Board entry and how 3.2 seconds before the camera began rolling, I was crying…

My school was in the middle of a huge renovation that year. Each wing of the building was completely gutted, one at a time. Teachers and students on that wing were temporarily sent to trailers until their new classrooms were finished. And that’s where we were on the day of the taping.

If you’ve gone through the nerve-wracking experience of taping for National Boards, you know about the preparation for that day. For me, I had struggled to make sure that everything was in place. I had checked every plug, battery, and microphone. I had frontloaded my students with all of the prior knowledge they needed for our group discussion. But when I arrived at my classroom that morning, there were problems.

First, I walked out to that trailer and saw what appeared to be yellow crime scene tape around the platform at the bottom of the ramp that my students would need to enter my room. (There was no crime…just construction.) I knew that I’d have to lead them through weeds and trash (it was, after all, a construction site) so that they could enter through a back door to the trailer, a door they’d never used before. I was afraid that this small change would throw my students – adolescents don’t always adapt well to variations from the norm…

But they did great! They entered the room, sat down quietly, glanced over at the camera, and waited. I gave instructions and passed out materials. At the last minute, three of my students decided they did not want to be videotaped. Even though they had signed permission forms, they had suddenly developed stage fright. I was a little rattled, but soon moved the students out of the view of the camera and prepared to begin.

We were on go! And then…just as the videographer pressed “record,” the trailer began shaking violently. Someone said, “Earthquake.” Someone screamed. (It may have been me.) It was not, in fact, an earthquake. It was a jackhammer.

A jackhammer was breaking up the concrete platform at the bottom of my trailer ramp. The videographer pressed “Stop.” My chin began to tremble. My eyes were stinging. I stood frozen and looked at the floor. The videographer (also known as a tutor in my classroom) walked outside to ask Mr. Jackhammer-er to postpone his hammering for thirty minutes. I wiped my eyes.

Kacheena took control. She quieted the students, told them to be ready for the discussion when taping resumed, and then handed me a tissue.

“It’s okay,” she said. “We’re ready.”

My tutor came in (the back door), saying that Mr. Jackhammer-er had taken a break. We taped, successfully, for the next thirty minutes.

Today I looked at 16 year old Kacheena and thought about 12 year old Kacheena. As I walked away, she called out, “I miss you, Mrs. Rigsbee!” I returned the sentiment, walked toward the store, and thought, “Kacheena, Kacheena…I miss you, too…” to the tune of Ray Peterson’s song.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Struggling Teachers

I was a struggling teacher once. Twenty years ago…and then yesterday, during my first period class. And several times in between. The difference between the way I dealt with the struggle as an inexperienced teacher and the way I dealt with it yesterday is considerable. To me, it’s all about relationships.

In 1987 I began teaching a class of eighth graders in February. They were quick to tell me that they had “run four teachers off already.” That class made me realize something that has become a mantra throughout the course of my professional life: “If you make them the enemy, they will win.” Those eighth graders were the enemy that year. Each day was a battle, and if I was able to drag my weary body out of the school every afternoon, having only cried once, I considered myself a winner. The next year, and every year after that, I did what was necessary to build relationships with my students.

I started small, throwing out compliments here and there. I soon found out that if I told a girl she had pretty hair or that she had on a nice outfit, she was a little more attentive when I was teaching. And the boys? I noticed that if I told them they were athletic, they didn’t only listen, they made sure their friends did, too. It was difficult with some students, but I managed to find one nice thing to say to every single student, every single day.

Soon I wasn’t only telling the boys they were athletic, I was attending their ballgames and making sure to comment on their performance the next day. I found their parents in the stands and made only positive remarks about their children. As tempting as it was to say, “He never brings a pencil to class,” that just wasn’t the place. And all of that praise? The students knew all about it when they got to my class the next day.

As the years went by, I found it easier to recognize the positive characteristics that each and every student brought to me. One student I taught a couple of years ago came in angry every day. He would turn my homeroom upside down ranting and raving about his bus driver. He never owned a pencil that I didn’t give him, and during class he drew orange stick people. One day I told him that he drew the most beautiful orange people I had ever seen. (I now am the proud owner of thousands of Orange People Pictures.) That was a turning point for us. After that, he gave me the best work he could, every day. Later that year, I saw an Orange People Picture in my school district’s art display at my local mall. I cried right in front of the exhibit.

Now, in the middle of all the stress of high stakes testing and all of the instructional demands that are placed on us, I can feel my blood pressure lowering when I see my students coming down the hall to me. Those goofy middle school kids are my family during the day, and they know we’re in it together. Our class motto is “Whatever It Takes.” We’ll do whatever it takes to be successful, together, like a family. That motto is hanging on the front wall of my classroom. Right beside it is my message to my students: “I believe in you.” And they know I do.

Oh, I did struggle yesterday. I watched as a grumpy and not-quite-awake seventh grader attempted to disrupt the learning of others. A grumpy and not-quite-awake teacher almost made a seventh grader the enemy. Instead I walked over to him, spoke calmly, and wrapped my arm around his shoulder. In three seconds he was grinning, and we were all back to work.

Whatever it takes. That’s my advice to all of us who struggle.