by Cindi Rigsbee
Reviewed by Gail Tillery, NBCT
High School English & Literacy (GA)
Teacher Leaders Network
Every day in this country, it seems that teachers are being bashed somewhere. Budget cuts are affecting every school system in the country. A Georgia leader was recently quoted as saying, “Teachers will have to make the sacrifice” as the state legislature fought to balance the budget. Entire faculties are being fired in the name of not achieving “adequate yearly progress.” Across the nation, it seems that teachers are being blamed for all the ills of public education. As a result, morale is hitting an all-time low as we struggle to maintain our positive attitude and continue to persevere and do what’s best for kids. Increasingly, we feel powerless—as if our voices are going unheard and our needs and those of our students are being ignored.
In the midst of the angst, a refreshing book has arrived which reminds its readers of the true power and magic of what we do every day. Cindi Rigsbee’s new memoir, Finding Mrs. Warnecke, is a lovely little book which sends a message of the positive power which every teacher can tap into—if only we can learn to find it.
Rigsbee’s story reads like a movie. She went from scoring at “below standard” on an early teacher evaluation to becoming a finalist for National Teacher of the Year in 2009. As a child, after a dismal beginning in first grade, she was rescued from a cold, militant teacher when the principal removed her and several other children from the classroom, one month into the school year. She and her classmates followed her principal to a dank, dark, basement classroom, where she met Mrs. Warnecke, the teacher who would transform her life and inspire her for years to come.
Besides describing her “magical” year with Mrs. Warnecke, Rigsbee also recounts her early career as a teacher. In her first school, she was given five class preparations and three coaching/sponsoring assignments. While this should not surprise any veteran teacher, it still qualifies as teacher abuse. At the end of that year, facing a forced transfer, she resigned and did not return to teaching for seven years. When she did return as a sub, her first class literally left the room and ran away. When she got her own classroom in February, she was the fourth teacher in that position in a year’s time. It would be an understatement to say that she got off to a rough start.
Rigsbee’s determination and perseverance, however, proved invaluable. She writes more than once, “I asked for help.” She tried different methods and lesson plans; she looked for ways to connect with her students, and over time her practice began to bloom. She began to receive accolades (she was twice named a regional North Carolina Teacher of the Year), and she continued to work with students to help them achieve their full potential.
Rigsbee is at her strongest when she writes about her love for kids. The theme that permeates her work is to build strong connections and relationships with all students. She writes about the importance of making the kids feel as if everyone is on the same side. She realizes that making kids the enemy will cause her to lose. She has learned that connecting with students keeps her classroom from being a battlefield, and it is obvious that her students over the years have responded to her unconditional love and care for every one of them.
I especially liked the idea of mood cards. Rigsbee's students choose these color-coded cards to place on their desks when they enter the classroom. For example, red means, “I’m angry, so leave me alone.” Blue means, “I’m sad,” and so on. In the spirit of student-teacher connection, students asked Rigsbee to indicate her mood to them on the board, and she obliged.
At the end of the book, Rigsbee recounts her efforts to locate Mrs. Warnecke with the help of ABC’s Good Morning America staff. In this moving section, she describes her terror of nerves at appearing on the show and her delight when Mrs. Warnecke arrived on the set, after she’d had been told that her beloved teacher couldn’t be found. These two women have renewed their relationship and now stay in regular touch, and it is evident that Mrs. Warnecke made a lasting impact on Rigsbee both as a teacher and a valued human being. As she tells readers about this connection, Rigsbee encourages her readers to tell the story of their own Mrs. Warnecke by visiting her blog.
In the section titled “Whatever it Takes,” Rigsbee does seem somewhat inclined to uphold the myth of the “super-teacher.” One story she writes is about one of her students, Joey, who told her he was going to kill himself. She ended up accompanying him to the hospital and helping him get help, arranging for her own children to be picked up by someone else. As I read this section, I was reminded of the struggle for balance between work and family that every conscientious teacher must face daily. At the Teacher Leaders Network (Rigsbee is also a member), we have discussed this tension more than once, and I know that it will continue to be a concern even for teachers who work in super-supportive and positive environments.
I also have a different view than Rigsbee of teachers who leave the building as soon as the afternoon bell rings. Rigsbee's perspective seems to be that good teachers must come early and stay late. However, I know many teachers who leave the building with the students, only to go home and work for three or four more hours a night on school work. It’s not necessarily true that, just because teachers leave the building at the last bell, they’re not working as hard as those who stay late.
In spite of these mild criticisms, I loved this book. It’s an easy read, and it’s an inspiring one. Every teacher should read it because it reminds us of the power we have to help children’s lives be better or worse. As I was reading, I was reminded of my own Mrs. Warneckes. I’ve been lucky to have more than one. But I also remember the day I was shamed in front of the entire class by my first grade teacher. Forty-one years ago, I made an innocent mistake, and she yelled at me in front of everyone. I’ll never forget that day as long as I live because I'll never forgot how ashamed and stupid she made me feel.
I never want to make a student feel like I felt that day. Reading this book reminded me of the power of my words, my actions, even my body language. Rigsbee does a beautiful job of pointing out the power every teacher has to make students' lives magical. No teacher should ever feel powerless. No matter what the media and politicians might say, or however they might make us feel, we do have power. We should always use it well.
Gail Tillery teaches at North Forsyth High School in Cumming GA, where she was teacher of the year for 2009-10. Among her many roles there are British literature lead teacher, literary coordinator, and mentoring coordinator. She earned National Board Certification in 2002.