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What It Means to Be a Teacher: The Cindi Rigsbee Interview

TeachHUB Interview

TheFormer teacher of the year and author Cindi Rigsbee makes a difference, both in the lives of her students and in the lives of teachers.

After being named the North Carolina Teacher of the Year in 2008, Cindi began a year of reflection on what it means to be a teacher. This led her on a journey to find the teacher that changed her life, Mrs. Warnecke. Cindi wrote Finding Mrs. Warnecke about her favorite teacher and how she found the inspirational, life-changing teacher in herself.

Cindi shares her experiences and insights into teaching with us in this TeachHUB interview.

What inspired you to write your book about this influential teacher in your life?

The year I served as North Carolina's Teacher of the Year, I was constantly reflecting on teachers and teaching: what is a good teacher? What qualities does that teacher who makes a difference have? In addition, people were always asking me "who was the teacher who made a different to you?" During that time I wrote an article entitled "Five Tips for New Teachers" that was published on Teacher Magazine online.

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Jossey-Bass publishers saw it, and called me to see if I'd like to write a book about those tips. I replied that I did have a book inside me, not so much about tips, but about the difference teachers make, and that I wanted to tell the story about my own first grade teacher. Now when teachers write me needing some inspiration, I can direct them to a certain paragraph or a certain chapter. My goal is to enable teachers to understand the impact they have on their students. I hope the book does just that.

Why did Mrs. Warnecke stand out among all the teachers you had?

I'm sure Mrs. Warnecke would have stood out no matter when she taught me, but the fact that she was my first teacher means that I compared all the ones who came later to her. She was the epitome of a caring, nurturing teacher who didn't play favorites and who genuinely worked to ensure that six-year-olds were learning to read, learning to do math (I remember we had an abacus in that basement classroom), and learning to play together and share. She taught us such important things, things we would carry with us forever, and she did it in a way that made us all feel important and loved.

How did it feel to be reunited with Mrs. Warnecke on national television?

I have to say that just being on national television was nerve-wracking! I'm accustomed to standing in front of middle school children, not an audience of thousands!

But once I saw Mrs. Warnecke come through that door, I think I was, more than anything, relieved. I had thought of her for over forty years and had searched for her for so long that I was able to think finally ... finally I have found Mrs. Warnecke!

As the North Carolina Teacher of the Year, what makes you different from other teachers?

I got that question often during the year that I held the honor of serving as my state's Teacher of the Year. Once I was introduced to a third grade class, and the teacher said,

  • "Class, this is the best teacher in the state."

Then she looked at me and asked,

  • "Why are you the best teacher in the state?!"

First of all, I wasn't the "best teacher in the state" that year or any other year. Instead, I represented the best teachers in North Carolina. Every time I was asked that question, I would wonder myself: what am I doing here? And then it hit me: no one has ever accused me of being shy or quiet. In fact, my school report cards always said, "Cindi talks too much." I believe it was my job to be a voice for teachers. In other words, I was out there "talking too much" and making sure that policymakers and community members understood the job we do.

As far as what makes me different, I'm not different from any teacher working up and down the halls of my school. We all care about kids, we love what we do, and we work every day to make a difference. I may just be a little more vocal about sharing those feelings.

How has your life and your job changed since you were named the 2008 Teacher of the Year?


My life has changed a great deal since the 2008-2009 school year. Everywhere I go someone says, "You're that Teacher of the Year." Opportunities have come my way time and time again. I just returned from New York City, for example, where I witnessed the first ever International Symposium on the Teaching Profession. Education leaders from 16 countries, including our own Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, sat around a table and shared their visions for teaching.

In 2009, I met President Obama in the Rose Garden,and I attended a reception at the Vice President's home. These experiences have moved me beyond the four walls of my classroom and have enabled me to have a hand in impacting education policy.

As for my job, I now work with teachers instead of students, providing trainings and ensuring that beginning teachers are supported. Although I miss having my own students (my office is still in my school so I see kids all the time), working in a way that will make a difference to the profession that I love is very meaningful for me.

On your blog, you’ve shared other people’s stories of teachers making a difference in their lives. What story stands out the most to you? Why?

It isn't surprising to me to find out that everybody has a Mrs. Warnecke. People everywhere tell me about the teacher who made a difference to them, and I love to hear the stories. I have many favorites but one is included in my book.

Stephanie Doyle, the Virginia Teacher of the Year in 2009, tells about Mrs. Dehart, the teacher who was able to teach Stephanie, a struggling reader, to read the word "crysanthemum" in the fourth grade. After years of being overlooked as a "non-reader", Stephanie finally began reading because a teacher cared enough and didn't give up on her.

This story is special to me because, as a reading teacher myself, I understand all the doors that are unlocked once a student is able to read. Since every class is a reading class (you can't do word problems if you can't read; you can't read science and social studies textbooks and articles without reading skills), we can't give up on our students who need more help. Stephanie grew up to be an amazing teacher herself, and it all started in a fourth grade classroom years before.

Describe a challenging classroom moment when you had difficulty living up to your teaching ideals.

I can remember two separate times in my career when I "lost my cool" with a student. There may have been other times in the past 24 years, but two of them really stand out as times when a student just "pushed my buttons" and I found myself reacting in a way that's against my teaching ideals. I do not believe in embarrassing a student in front of classmates, but in these two circumstances I was angry, and although I don't remember exactly what I said, I do remember feeling bad about it two seconds later.

I now know that when I'm in a conflict with a student, I don't need to allow the entire class to watch the drama play out. Removing the student to the hallway and speaking one-on-one in quiet tones can diffuse a situation so much more quickly than raised voices. In both of the situations I'm referencing, I did follow up with the student, and we had a nice, calm conversation - in fact, I do believe I apologized both times - and I ended up much closer to the students than I had been before. Many times students are surprised that an adult will make the effort to make amends. I'll do whatever it takes to make that happen. I can't teach them until we've developed a positive relationship that's based on sincere respect.

You clearly have a favorite teacher. Do you have a favorite student who stands out/changed your life?

That's like asking a mother if she has a favorite child! I have so many favorites as I look back through the years. Some were funny, some were brilliant, and some overcame amazing hardships to come to school every day. But one does stand out as having "changed my life."

I wrote about Joey, a suicidal student, in my book. I described my trip with him to the hospital and how we sat, crying, on the rubber psych ward floor of the emergency room. In the book, I didn't get into my personal life and something that happened that night that changed everything. I was a single parent at the time and had been seeing a man for a few months. We had made plans to see each other that night, and when I called to tell him what had happened, and where I was, he spouted some inappropriate language in an effort to show his displeasure that I was helping a student instead of meeting his needs. I never saw him again after that night. A few weeks later, I met David, my current husband. Although Joey doesn't know it, I give him credit for helping me see that I didn't need to be with someone who didn't understand my commitment to children. I realized I needed to move on. Thanks to him, I did.

What advice do you have for young teachers struggling with mixing strict behavior management with building positive student relationships?

I actually wrote an article about this very topic last year. In a nutshell, The main goals for young teachers include:

  • *creating the "aura of a teacher" in your classroom from day one
  • *setting clear expectations for behavior and academic goals
  • *showing students that you truly care about their growth and achievements
  • *creating an atmosphere of respect for all students in your classroom and
  • *always showing your passion for both your subject matter AND your students

Sum up your teaching philosophy in a single sentence.

This isn't a complete sentence; instead, it's a phrase: Whatever it Takes.

I will do whatever it takes to build and nurture relationships with my students, with colleagues, with parents, and the community. I will do whatever it takes to ensure that my students are doing the very best work they can do, are learning the most they can learn, and are growing in some way - academically, socially, or emotionally - every single day. If that means I work extra hours, I will. If that means I visit kids at home or at church or in their neighborhood community centers, I will. I've made a commitment to make a difference in the lives of children, and I'll do whatever it takes to do just that.

Did someone display to you what it means to be a teacherShare the inspirational story of a teacher that changed your life in the comments section!


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