Table of Contents
Title Page
Copyright Page
ONE - Looking for Stars
Down to the Basement, out of the Darkness
More Discoveries
Years of Change
TWO - Finding My Way
Changing My Dream
Coming Down to Earth
A Rude Awakening
The Class I Lost
The Class I Couldn’t Teach
THREE - Finding the Connections
Starting Over
Orange People Pictures
A New Understanding
A Surprise Announcement
Getting to Know You
FOUR - Exploring the Magic
Breaking Down the Walls
Walls with a Message
Creating Adventure
Making It About Them
All in a Nickname
Being a Little Crazy
Getting a Clue
FIVE - Searching for Strength
Whatever It Takes
Giving the Time It Takes
Not Giving Up
Who Was It Today?
SIX - Bringing Dreams to Light
Opening a Window to the Future
Learning from Dreams
SEVEN - Finding Mrs. Warnecke
TV News Connections
A Journey into the Past
In the Spotlight
Finally Found
EIGHT - Reflecting on the Meaning
Passing Along the Gift
Completing the Circle

Praise for Finding Mrs. Warnecke
“Thank goodness for Cindi, who shows us that teaching is both messy and magical. Through her stories—of students with overwhelming personal issues, dilapidated classrooms with limited supplies, and one young, resolved, idealistic teacher—she reveals that the key to successful teaching is loving our students and helping them develop dignity and self-respect . . .
“As I read this inspiring story, my mind went back to those memorable teachers who changed my life. Cindi not only makes us believe in the power of teaching to change lives, she reminds us that changing lives is what teaching is all about. I came away from this book with a full heart—ready to teach tomorrow and for many tomorrows to come.”
—from the foreword by Donalyn Miller, 6th grade language arts teacher and best-selling author of The Book Whisperer
“This book substantiates the power of great teachers to change young lives. That would be enough, but it also reveals the secret of great teachers, that they see themselves and their classrooms through the eyes of their students.”
—James Cunningham, Ph.D., professor emeritus, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-author of What Really Matters in Writing
“Every journey of discovery begins with a belief that something or someone is worth finding. In Finding Mrs. Warnecke, Cindi Rigsbee has written a book worth finding. The book is much more than a nostalgic search for a childhood teacher, it is about the value of seeking something that has been lost within us all.”
—Anthony J. Mullen, 2009 National Teacher of the Year
“I cry every time I read Cindi’s words or hear her story . . . it takes me back to Mrs. Perry, who is the reason I became a science teacher, and why I am where I am today. Finding Mrs. Warnecke tells of a great emotional and professional journey—it is a book that no quality educator will dare miss.”
—Elic Senter, North Carolina Teaching Fellow, consultant with the North Carolina Association of Educators, and mayor of Franklinton, North Carolina


To Barbara Warnecke, who helped me find myself
at six and then again at fifty. My sincere
thanks go out to “Mrs. Teacher.”
Cindi Rigsbee is a National Board Certified Teacher™ with more than twenty years of experience in the classroom. She has taught high school English and drama, as well as middle school language arts, dance, drama, and reading. Rigsbee has been named Teacher of the Year at the schoolwide, districtwide, and statewide levels, and in 2009 she was one of four finalists for National Teacher of the Year. In September 2008, she appeared on Good Morning America to explain the life-changing impact her first-grade teacher, Barbara Warnecke, had on her. A frequent contributor to Teacher Magazine online, Rigsbee also publishes a blog called The Dream Teacher (www.thedreamteacher.blogspot.com).

There’s a reason authors include an acknowledgments page: no one writes a book alone. There are so many people who’ve influenced my path as a teacher and now as a writer that the list may be longer than the book itself. But I’ll give it a try.
First, I sincerely thank the school administrators who gave me a chance at teaching, who didn’t give up on me when I wasn’t very good at it, and who encouraged me by helping me grow professionally along the way—thank you Edison Watson, Wayne Adcock, Winston Kerley, Danny Thomas, Raymond Paris, Calvin Dobbins, Juanita Jones, Ada Setzer, Barbara Hastings, Rich Kozak, and my current bosses, Jason Johnson, Tiffany Stuart, and Greg Hicks, who have taught me so much about how to teach.
The list of teachers who inspired me, worked in the trenches beside me, and taught me something about myself as an educator is lengthy, but here goes . . . Lynn Church, Fred Westbrook, Beth Strecker, Marian Salyer, Kim Strickland, Shirley Mull, Jean Ransom, Eric Collins, Carla Kirkland, Grayling Williams, Alissa Griffith, Kelly Scearce, Michele Nease, Judson Parrish, Alice Hagaman,Vicki Buckner, and especially my BFFs—Heather Walton, Cristie Watson, Jenny Freudenberg, Kelly Kaplan, and Amy Richardson—you all had a part in making me the teacher I am. Thank you.
To Orange County Schools and the faculty and staff of Gravelly Hill Middle School, thank you for being there with me as we work so hard for the children of Orange County. I have never worked with a group of individuals so committed to excellence, and you make me better every day that I have the honor of standing side by side with you.
I have been so lucky to have been named the North Carolina Teacher of the Year and as a result able to work with phenomenal educators who have raised the bar for me when I think of what a teacher is. Thank you to the wonderful individuals I’ve had the chance to work with because of the Teacher of the Year program: Dan Holloman, Paige Elliott, Trisha Muse, Bernard Waugh, RuthAnn Parker, Sonya Rinehart, Freida Baker, Renee Peoples, Janice Raper, Carolyn Sneeden, Diana Beasley, Vicki Rivenbark, Ginger Holloway, Monty Coggins, Mike Shaw, Wanda Fernandez, Catherine Allen, and the 2009 State Teachers of the Year, who are my kindred spirits all over the country.
To Barnett Berry, Ann Byrd, Alice Williams, and the staff at the Center for Teaching Quality, thank you for allowing me to participate in the Teacher Leaders Network, the teacher’s lounge in heaven. I have learned more from you and some of the most brilliant teachers in the country during the past two years than from any other professional development opportunity I’ve ever had.
To those who undergirded my passion as a writer—to John Norton, my editor on the mountain, your belief in my writing gave me the confidence to put those Teacher Magazine articles out there. Without those, I wouldn’t be here. I am forever grateful. To Holly Holland, thank you for helping me understand how this process works. You patiently frontloaded me with information that has been invaluable. And to my editors at Jossey-Bass, Marjorie McAneny and Leslie Tilley, you believed in a complete stranger, took thoughts on paper, and made me an author. I am moved beyond words about this experience.
To my “best friends I never see”—to Lula Osborn and Evalee Parker, it sounds cliché, but thank you for always being there. Lu-ler, no matter how far apart we are, you always manage to keep us close.You’ve stuck by me for twenty years, and that has given me great comfort. Evalee, when I told you that my book proposal would be rejected by twenty-five publishers, you said, “Then send twenty-six!” Thank you for not giving up, even when I almost did.
To my family—to my husband, David, who has been more excited than anyone throughout this process—I would have starved without you. Thank you for supporting me unconditionally. To my children, Heather, Kelli, Erin, and Will, you have given me inspiration for writing all along the way and have been my in-house “students” at times when you probably wished that your mom-stepmom had been anything but a teacher. Thank you for indulging me and letting me be a little crazy. Sometimes crazy equals creative, and you all encouraged that.To my grandchildren, Reaghan, Cannon,Taylor, Piper, and Baylee, you are always the best diversion there is for a stressed-out writer. Thank you for adding a joy to my life that I could never have imagined. To my brother and sister, Jim and Lisa, you shared the life that I tried so hard to depict accurately. Jim, I only hope I have half the writing talent that you do. Lisa, you and I have held each other up for fifty years. I wish for fifty more. Mama, you were my first teacher, and you never gave up on me even when I messed up in my life, which was often. I have been blessed to have a mother like you. And to my Daddy, I’m painfully sorry that you weren’t here to witness this amazing event in my life. Your spirit was with me in every word I wrote. I know that you have now found peace.
To Mrs.Warnecke—of course there would be no book without you. I am thankful to Brian O’Keefe and the folks at Good Morning America for finding you after forty-five years and am glad we’re spending our remaining time making up for those years we missed. Thank you for having a no-holds-barred attitude about this book, saying “Use anything . . . quotes, descriptions, memories. There are no limits.” There are no limits to my thanks to you.
And, last, to the more than two thousand North Carolina students who, despite tremendous hardships, have made an effort to sit in school desks and listen to me for the past thirty years—I have been energized by your energy and able to love because of the love that I’ve felt from you. In years to come, when I look at this book, I’ll see your faces looking back at me. I’m proud that I had the opportunity to know you, and I hope I made a difference in your lives.

by Donalyn Miller
Cindi Rigsbee’s reputation precedes her—North Carolina Teacher of the Year, National Teacher of the Year finalist, with 20-plus years in the classroom—a knowledgeable and talented member of the teaching profession. I met Cindi through our work in the Teacher Leadership Network. Reading her impassioned posts about working with students, I’ve been inspired by her practical approach to teaching.
Her passion, her common sense, her experience, her love for students—Cindi expertly weaves these threads into a magical story in this compelling book. Her teaching expertise has evolved through years of trial and error, but she believes the lessons she learned almost a half century ago, in the first-grade classroom of Barbara Warnecke, first showed her the secrets of masterful teaching. After a rocky start in first grade, stuck in a crowded classroom with a teacher who seemed to dislike children, Cindi and a few classmates were reassigned to a new teacher’s class, in a makeshift basement room with caterpillars climbing the walls. Little did Cindi know this would become one of her favorite places on Earth.
Mrs.Warnecke created a loving, exciting learning environment, where each child felt special. She planted the early seeds of Cindi’s love for reading and writing, encouraging her to write poetry and giving her books to read. Mrs. Warnecke believed in her kids—she showed them through her words and actions that she knew they were capable of greatness, and cheered them on. Once Cindi became a teacher herself, these lessons of love and acceptance from Mrs. Warnecke started shaping her teaching path. She recalls, “I began to understand that accepting all my students, regardless of the misfortunes they dealt with on a daily basis, would be the key to being able to teach them.”
I’ve read many books by “super teachers,” those who seem to magically know how to lead a class, design instruction, and motivate kids. Teaching, for me, has always been messier. I could never produce the same magical results those gurus do, often feeling inferior and questioning my abilities.
Thank goodness for Cindi, who shows us that teaching is both messy and magical. Through her stories—of students with overwhelming personal issues, dilapidated classrooms with limited supplies, and one young, resolved, idealistic teacher—she reveals that the key to successful teaching is loving our students and helping them develop dignity and self-respect. Cindi believes each of us has a Mrs. Warnecke, a teacher who made a difference in our lives, and she urges us to become “Mrs. Warneckes” for our students. We can make a difference; we can impact kids’ lives in ways we may never realize.
Barbara Warnecke changed little Cindy Cole’s life in first grade, and in turn, influenced the lives of Cindi Rigsbee’s students. As I read this inspiring story, my mind went back to those memorable teachers who changed my life. Cindi not only makes us believe in the power of teaching to change lives, she reminds us that changing lives is what teaching is all about. I came away from this book with a full heart—ready to teach tomorrow and for many tomorrows to come.

It’s January 2009. I’m sitting in the seat assigned to the Teacher Adviser for the North Carolina State Board of Education. It’s an important place to be, a role I take very seriously, and I feel it every time I’m here. Sometimes there are news cameras around, and I wonder if the folks at home in their dens will see me and wonder what in heaven’s name a teacher from rural Orange County, North Carolina, has done to deserve this honor. I scan across the rows of observers in the room, an audience of important people on the education scene in my state—staff at the Department of Public Instruction, representatives from various educational professional organizations, and guests who appear to be in awe of the process here. I look around at the members of the board, a group that genuinely holds our children’s best interests at heart, people who truly have their fingers on the pulse of the classrooms in our state. This is a room where education policy is discussed and passed with a hearty “Motion carries!” I always find myself shocked to be a part of it.
More than once in the six months I have served as the Teacher Adviser to the board, I’ve asked myself “Why me?” I know I’m here by virtue of the fact that I’ve had the honor of serving as the North Carolina Teacher of the Year for the past few months, but that’s yet another reason I continually ask “Why me?” I often think about the thousands of deserving teachers in my state, and I wonder, as usual, if I’m representing them well. My thoughts are interrupted as the chairman of the board calls for a five-minute break.
I notice the state superintendent, Dr. June Atkinson, waving to me from her seat at the head of the board table. She motions me over and points toward the hallway. By the time I join her, in a corner of the hall just beside the elevators, she is grinning at me. I can’t imagine what she’s about to say.
Then she takes my hands, and we stand face-to-face, like two little schoolgirls on the playground. “Cindi,” she says, “I’ve gotten a call from the Council of Chief State School Officers.You have been chosen as one of four finalists for the National Teacher of the Year!” I feel the color leave my face, and I silently beg my knees not to buckle. The only words I can muster are words of disbelief, compelling phrases like “You’re kidding” and “Are you sure?” Before she can answer, Dr. Atkinson is called away momentarily, and I’m left alone to absorb the shocking, yet exciting, news.
My head is swimming as I return to my seat, and I try to remain focused for the duration of the meeting. I’ve thought many times, while carrying out my Teacher of the Year role, that I won’t get away with this for long . . . that the world will eventually find out about my rough start as a teacher. When I speak to teacher groups, I say, “I struggled as a beginning teacher.” I’m not sure “struggled” is the right word. Maybe I downright stunk. Maybe I just didn’t know what to do, or I didn’t have the amount of support I needed. In any case, as I sit here, I understand my fear—that someone, a former student or colleague, is going to appear and say, “I was there during her first year teaching. It wasn’t pretty. She certainly doesn’t deserve to be her state’s Teacher of the Year.”
I’m aware of one thing: I’d better find some confidence to pull off this next role—that of National Teacher of the Year finalist—or I will be, as my students say, “stone-cold busted.” Right there during the break, I do some brainstorming. I ask myself the following questions:Why have these honors come my way? How did I get from “Below Standard” on my teacher evaluations to a finalist for National Teacher of the Year?
I begin to make a list, an answer to my own questions, on the back of a handout, and unsurprisingly, the first thing I write is the word “relationships.” I know that anything positive I’ve ever done as a teacher can be related back to that one word. The relationships I foster with my students get me out of bed and on the interstate headed to my school every day. There was a time when I didn’t understand the importance of making connections with the children in my care. Now it’s difficult for me to remember a time like that.
The next word I write is “magic.” One thing I think that has made me a better teacher is the effort I put into making my classroom a magical place. I know that it’s my goal for students to want to learn from me, and taking four walls, a white board, and some student desks and making them warm and inviting enables me to meet that goal. Fostering an atmosphere of family is important to me, and finding the “magical” elements that make my classroom a place my students want to be is one of my most important goals.
Next, I think of my classroom back home, and see the words Whatever It Takes above my board in front of the room. My commitment to do whatever I have to do to make my classroom a safe and happy place for learning is one reason that I have been able to put those struggling years behind me and make a difference as a teacher. I realize that there are times when the job is tough and the hours are long, but I will do whatever it takes to make a difference in the lives of my students.
The last word I add to my list is “dreams.” I don’t even need to add any narrative to my makeshift notes. I know what this one means, having been called the “Dream Teacher” by my students for almost fifteen years now. I believe in dreams, and I believe in going after them with passion and perseverance. I share that passion with my students on the first day of school and throughout the year. And I encourage them to pursue their own dreams and passions.
So now I sit here, mind reeling, and stare at those words scribbled on scrap paper. Maybe there are some reasons that I’ve turned out OK as a teacher; maybe I’ve almost figured it out, I say to myself.
And then, even louder, my thoughts continue: I know what I need to do about the news I’ve just received.
I need to call Mrs. Warnecke . . .

006“There was a connection back there.”

Looking for Stars
My brother was already in school by the time I was born, and my earliest memory is of Jimmy going to school every day, leaving me to think of the future when I could go to “big school” myself. In the afternoons I would press my nose against the picture window in the den, watching for the big yellow school bus and listening for the screech of air brakes as the bus stopped at the top of the hill to deliver Jimmy home.
Finally, in August 1963, the time came for me to start school. I felt so grown up when my mother took me to Pic ’n Pay to buy school shoes. Back then girls were required to wear dresses, and to go with them, Mama purchased saddle oxfords that I hated and shiny black patent leather shoes that I loved. I called them Sunday School shoes. For years, whenever I would hear the clip-clop of shoes on hardwood, I would think Sunday School shoes. My mother, a talented seamstress, made many of my dresses for me. She could do amazing things with rickrack and smocking. Plaid jumpers and skirts were the style of the first grade that year, and Mama made sure I went to school with the best-pressed version she could afford.
At the time, in Durham, North Carolina, where I grew up, there was no public kindergarten, so my first year of school was first grade. My birthday is in September, so I was usually the youngest in my class, and often began the school year feeling behind. But first grade was different. I didn’t know I was the youngest; I was just giddy with excitement. I’d never been a quiet child at home, and I’m sure my parents were just as ready for me to be in school as I was to go—surely some of my energy would be consumed there.
There was one problem that kept me from being a carefree little first grader: the teacher hated me.
When I arrived at Bragtown Elementary, though, my heart was broken. School was nothing like what I had hoped it would be, even though we were learning to read, something all first graders look forward to doing. I was placed in the redbird group, and even as a five-year-old I knew that the redbirds could read better than the bluebirds or the blackbirds. But there was one problem that kept me from being a carefree little first grader: the teacher hated me.