More than 1,000 educators gathered at Mississippi University for Women Wednesday, celebrating American Education Week and their years in the profession with a two-hour ceremony that was part pep talk, part pep rally.
The event, sponsored for the second year by the Columbus-Lowndes Development Link, included teachers and administrators from city, county and private schools across Lowndes County.
The highlight was a speech by North Carolina teacher Cindi Rigsbee, who has been named Teacher of the Year at the school, district and state levels, and was one of four finalists for 2009 National Teacher of the Year.
Rigsbee’s speech, sprinkled with anecdotes from her years with middle-schoolers and her brief afternoon stint at an elementary school, had teachers laughing out loud and exchanging knowing nods, but it was Rigsbee’s recounting of her experience with her own first-grade teacher that left the room silent with the exception of more than a few sniffles.
Many said they found comfort in Rigsbee’s story of her first year as a teacher and how she struggled to teach five levels of English, along with serving as the pep club sponsor, drama coach and other roles.
“I wasn’t good at it,” Rigsbee confessed. “Back then, we didn’t have mentors, and I struggled. They handed me a textbook and closed the door.”
By the end of the year, she said, she had become a statistic — a teacher who leaves the profession after the first year.
According to the National Education Association, nearly 50 percent of all teachers leave the profession after the first five years of teaching, and 37 percent who plan to teach until retirement end up leaving early.
But there was a twist to Rigsbee’s tale: After a seven-year hiatus, she returned.
“Whatever called me there in the first place called me back again,” she said.
She returned to the same problems but had a new perspective. On the first day of school, she began giving her “dream speech,” telling students she wanted to be “the one” who ended up making a difference in their lives.
And when she looked for examples of what she wanted to become, she didn’t have to look further then her first grade teacher, Barbara Warnecke.
As a child, Rigsbee knew what it was like to sit at a desk and know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that her teacher did not like her. It didn’t help mitigate her low self-esteem. But a chance transfer to a different classroom changed her life, and in turn, she has parlayed that experience into a mission to give that same gift to the students who sit in her classes today.
She told the crowd how she searched for years to find Warnecke to thank her and how her search culminated with a dramatic reunion on ABC’s “Good Morning America” television show.
“We have the honor of being someone’s Mrs. Warnecke,” Rigsbee said. “We have the obligation to be the one that makes a difference.”
The heartwarming tale hit home for many, including Columbus High School special education teacher Margie Canon.
Canon, who has spent 28 of her 29 years teaching within the Columbus Municipal School District, said thoughts of her own special first-grade teacher came to mind: Dorothy Fitch, of Franklin Academy.
“She made me feel important,” Canon said. “I think that’s the simplest way to say it. She made all her students feel important.”
In an email Wednesday evening, Canon elaborated, saying Fitch made the difference for her, allowing her to make a difference to others.
“That is a purpose-driven life,” Canon wrote. “Everything is connected and had a purpose. … Teachers are so important, and our duty to children is very serious, because what we do can touch the future in more ways than we will ever know.”
She said when former students come to tell her how she shaped the adults they became, it is “perhaps the greatest reward of being a teacher.”
Others at Wednesday’s event found great encouragement in Rigsbee’s early difficulties.
Kristie Jones, an 11th- and 12th-grade English teacher at New Hope High School, said she wanted to quit after her second year, but she worked through her frustrations and is now entering her ninth year in the profession.
The challenge, she said, is how to make the lesson plans relevant to today’s ultra-connected, socially savvy, media-drenched students. The desire to make a difference keeps her going.
Most agreed with Rigsbee, saying mentors are critical to the success of young teachers. For that reason, Canon is considering becoming a teacher-mentor after her retirement in December.
“Most teachers feel very isolated in the classroom when they close that door,” she said. “You determine the outcome of so many children.”
The event concluded with a few presents for those who give so much of their time; more than 100 attendees went home with door prizes donated by businesses that are members of the Link. MUW also donated a $1,000 graduate school scholarship.
“These educators are preparing tomorrow’s workforce, something vital to the success of our area’s growth,” said Joe Higgins, executive director of the Link. “We do this every year to show our appreciation for their continued dedication and hard work.”
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.