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I knew nothing about Renae’s school other than the fact that it existed until a university professor suggested I contact her principal about participating in my study. In my mind it was merely one of the many Lutheran elementary schools scattered across Michiana.

When I first visited Renae’s school, I noted from the size of the building that enrollment must rank among the highest in Lutheran elementary schools for this area. The solid, brick buildings of both the school and the attached church suited well the shady, cobblestone street along which they are located. I felt an uncommon discomfort in approaching the school because there was a funeral in progress at the church. This unease, however, lasted only until I entered the school’s double glass doors. There I was greeted with the aroma of lunch, a hallway decorated with students’ work, a sign indicating the location of the office, and the typical sounds of busy classrooms.

At the time of my study, Renae was in her seventh year as the math teacher for Grades 5-8 though she has been an educator for 22 years. When I first spoke with her, I concluded that Renae must be an organized person and have an extremely full schedule, but much to my surprise she agreed to participate in my study. I was struck by her eagerness to share her students and her classroom with me. She explained that she believes they as a school have many positive things happening, and she was looking forward to sharing them with me.

The house Renae’s life has built is surrounded by an impeccably manicured lawn. The flower beds are carefully mulched and full of an array of brightly blooming plants. The house itself is set back from the street with an air of privacy surrounding it. Through the windows one spies frilly curtains sending a message of warmth and welcome, almost contradicting the air of privacy. Once inside the house, one is surrounded by warmth, comfort, and love. It is a safe haven for all who take the time to enter and explore its furnishing.

Renae’s Story

Family Life

When Renae drew her life map for me, she first wrote "Christian home environment" (Vol. III, p. 164). She explained to me why she began there,

I put the Christian home environment as the most important influence

. . . because it set up a level of expectations that my parents had [for me]. [Expectations] of "This is why you’re in the world. This is what God has in mind for you. He’s given you gifts. Make sure that you use them for His glory." . . . Responsibilities [and] citizenship . . . were all things that were just a natural part of our very close family. (Vol. III, p. 143)

It became increasingly obvious to me that the family in which Renae grew up continues to play an important role in her adult life. She frequently spoke of them in our conversations, she has pictures of them on her desk at school, and she spoke fondly of her nieces and nephews. Many times Renae’s comments about her siblings and their families were in conjunction with comments about her own children, two sons and a daughter. When I spoke with Renae shortly before the Christmas holidays, she was anticipating the arrival of her sister, a preschool teacher in Hong Kong, and her sister’s three teenage sons. In addition to these family guests, Renae’s daughter and boyfriend were coming home from college for the holidays as well. Renae was anticipating having a house full of people and spending time with family.

Renae spoke frequently of the influence her parents have had on shaping who she is today. She attributes her love for math to her father:

We’d play games in the car when we drove as kids. [Dad] . . . would . . . say, "Okay, we’re at mile marker 47. We’re getting off at mile marker 162. How many miles is that? We’re going this many miles per hour. How long will it take us to get there? Gas is this much and we average 31 miles to the gallon. How many gallons are we going to use? How much is this going to cost us?" We did this all mentally. This is what we did to entertain ourselves on long drives. I thought everybody did that [and] we just really enjoyed it. . . . It was [Dad’s] natural way of teaching. (Vol. III, pp. 47-48)

When Renae was a child, her father supplied customers with fuel oil. Renae recalled,

He never had a calculator. [Fuel oil] was always $0.319. It’s not 50 cents a gallon. It was always those odd things and he always multiplied things out by hand. [He] figured the degrees. . . . Today the temperature is 32. That means you’re at negative five degree days. That means that this customer is going to use this much oil so I’ll need to be there next Friday. (Vol. III, p. 47)

Renae’s father helped her realize that math is something used everyday, that it is real and fun.

Though Renae’s mother wanted to be a teacher, she quit college after one semester because her help was needed to run the family farm. Renae describes her mother as "the accountant [in the family] and she [kept] everything in line and [made] it neat and orderly. [She would] organize everything under the sun [and] make lists" (Vol. III, p. 46). It did not take me long to realize that Renae is extremely organized herself, and she explained, "That part of me came from [my mother]" (Vol. III, p. 46).

As a child Renae had rheumatic fever. From kindergarten to ninth grade, she missed approximately 6 weeks of school each year in December and January because of illness. Not only was she continually fighting illness, but this made her weak and doctors never expected her to be able to live a normal life of working and being a mother. Gradually Renae grew stronger and stronger. As an adult she suffers no ill effects from having had rheumatic fever and has accomplished many things which once appeared impossible.

Renae began kindergarten when she was 4 years old. She recalled her grade school and high school years:

I was a very young 4 when I started kindergarten so I wasn’t quite ready to be modeling leadership at that point. I remember being very average but later on as I went through school, I remember finding out that I was pretty good at some things. I was constantly being asked to help other kids and I really enjoyed working with [them. I] never minded giving up the time. So I felt God leading me to do something to help others. That [was my] gift. . . . Then I went from a very small classroom in a Lutheran school to a very large public school. My class was over 600 in ninth grade so there were about 2,500 of us in the high school. [That was] a pretty good sized high school compared to my class of 11 or 12 in grade school! . . . My sister and brother had each gone ahead of me. . . . They were surviving fine [and] enjoying it. So I didn’t think of it as being beyond me. My question was, "Can I get all A’s? How am I going to accomplish this? How will I get to know the teachers?" I didn’t know any of them . . . but I made a point of making a friend out of each one of them because I wanted to have a relationship with them. [I] loved high school. (Vol. III, pp. 143-144)

During Renae’s high school years, she turned to her dad for help with the math she was required to do. She explained,

He couldn’t do my high school math, but he always had good common sense. I could say, "Okay, Dad, here’s my physics problem. This guy’s in an airplane. He’s flying this many miles an hour. He’s going to bail out. Is he going to land here?" I could do the math and get an answer, but I didn’t know if it was right. He could look at the problem and tell me about where he needed to land. His common sense and my math worked together. (Vol. III, p. 46)

Early in her life, Renae knew she would go to college. She knew her parents expected her to gain a college education:

When I was . . . a young child, . . . they had the ground breaking at . . . a 2-year [Lutheran] college. . . . [At] the ground breaking . . . all of the area [Lutheran] congregations were invited to attend. We went . . . and my parents’ comment was, "This is where you are going to go to college." They had already planted the seed that [I was] going to be a teacher and this is where [I was] going to go to school. (Vol. III, p. 45)

Going into education seemed like a natural decision when Renae entered college. She explained,

I was always interested in helping other people. . . . My oldest sister was not strong in math and science so as she got into high school, algebra was very challenging to her while I loved math. Even though she was four years ahead of me, I wanted to know what she was doing. I would always sit next to her and read her book and help her with her math. My brother was 18 months older than me and was a year ahead of me, and I would help him too. He was one of those kids that would not do his homework, but then would ace the test. . . . My sister had to work and work and work, and math was just really difficult [for her]. . . . I just always enjoyed helping my brother and sister, and I always thought that teaching would be a really neat thing [to do]. (Vol. III, pp. 44-45)

Renae’s family continues to look to each other for support; being involved in each others’ lives remains a high priority for them. I am particularly fond of one story Renae told me about her parents because it illustrates various aspects of Renae and how they come together to make her the person she is today. She told me this story because I asked her about the clothes she chooses to wear; it begins a few months before I began my study.

My first association with Renae occurred at an occasion when she spoke to a group of educators. She was chosen to speak because she had received an award for excellence in teaching in our county. Though I did not actually speak to her that evening, I was awed and intimidated by her. She appeared so accomplished and professional in her manners and dress. From her speech, I knew she was an outstanding middle school teacher.

When I contacted Renae’s principal about participation in my research study, he immediately suggested I contact Renae and her husband. Of course I recognized Renae’s name from the award she had received and remembered well my impressions of her. Consequently, I was very surprised the day I met Renae and her husband because Renae was wearing black corduroy bib overalls with Mickey Mouse embroidered on the bib. It made me curious to find out who Renae really is as a person. I wondered if she was the ultimate professional or if she was a down-to-earth person who liked Mickey Mouse.

After I felt comfortable enough with Renae to tell her my impressions during our initial interview, she told me the story behind the Mickey Mouse overalls and why she likes to wear them. Renae’s mother became ill, and her dad was overwhelmed by caring for her mother. Renae asked for 1 week off from school to be with her parents. She nursed her mother back to health and by the end of the week, Renae persuaded both of her parents to go shopping. While shopping, Renae spotted the Mickey Mouse overalls and casually commented that she liked them. Her dad immediately bought them for her. Now whenever Renae wears the bibs, they are a special reminder of and connection to her dad.

The College Years

The seed Renae’s parents planted early in her life grew, and she enrolled in a 2-year Lutheran college. These were important years for her:

Going to a Christian college was really good for me because [I] went to chapel every morning. [I] had group devotions every night. [We] did the large worship experiences on Sunday and [we] were in devotions 15 times a week . . . so [I had] a chance to really understand what gifts are for and learn some fun ways to worship. (Vol. III, p. 144)

Renae grew in many aspects during these 2 years. Her faith in God was strengthened, she worked with students in more formal settings, she grew socially, and she met the man who later became her husband, Ken. Renae told me she was quite shy when she entered college and, having met her husband, I knew Ken to be an outgoing person. She and Ken met the first night of Renae’s college experience at what she describes as one of "those nasty mixers" (Vol. III, p. 49).

[Ken] was a sophomore and I was a freshman. He came in early [because] he . . . had a job on campus. . . . He wanted to check out the new crop of students coming in so he went to the mixer. . . . That’s when we got to know each other. . . . It was always kind of a "we thing" because [Ken’s] a twin. . . . [Ken] and [Kent] always came and spent time with me. . . . [Kent] dated my roommate; he dated my suite mate; he dated other girls on campus. He was always with somebody new, but usually the three of us spent most of our time together. . . . I got less shy as I got to know them. They [had] the same values, same background. (Vol. III, pp. 49-50)

Both Ken and Renae planned to be educators so they became teachers’ aides at a large Lutheran elementary school close to the college. During this time Renae worked mostly with a fourth-grade class, and every Sunday afternoon she worked with mentally handicapped adults. This gave her another opportunity to be in a position of leadership and work in a more formal classroom setting.

Since the Lutheran college Renae attended was only a 2-year institution, she transferred to another college to complete her degree. Ken also transferred and was a year ahead of Renae. They wanted to get married, but Renae did not want to attend another whole year of college after Ken graduated. She was able to complete her undergraduate degree in 3 years and graduated in August. They got married after Ken’s graduation in May, but before Renae’s. The wedding was a week and a half before Renae had to start summer school so it was a busy time for them. They traveled out-of-state to celebrate Ken’s graduation, had a wedding shower, returned for the wedding, traveled to the western United States for a quick weekend honeymoon, and then came back so Renae could begin summer school and graduate in August.

Becoming an Educator

One week after Renae’s graduation, she and Ken began teaching. They had a "double Call" at a Lutheran elementary school (Vol. III, p. 50). In the Lutheran educational system, teachers are given a Call much like pastors in other churches are given. Renae explained, "We Call [teachers and pastors] Ministers of the Gospel. . . . [Teachers] have the direct contact with the kids . . . [and] pastors work with adults" (Vol. III, p. 51).

Renae’s first teaching assignment was 18 second graders, and Ken taught third and fourth grades. The following year the school had to adjust teaching assignments because of enrollment changes. The second year Renae taught second and part of third grade while Ken taught the other part of third grade and fourth grade. Since they both had third grade, Renae and Ken decided to team teach. They took their combined 60 students and team taught for the next 2 years. Renae describes it as a "fun experience because [she and Ken] are a little bit different in how [they] teach" (Vol. III, p. 27). Renae recalls wanting to teach lower elementary because "the kids seemed ‘safer’ at that point" (Vol. III, p. 27).

Those first 3 years after college, Renae referred to as "beginnings" (Vol. III, p. 145). These were the years of beginning her "teaching ministry, beginning marriage, and then . . . [she] got her own private classroom" (Vol. III, p. 145). When Renae became pregnant with her daughter, she was forced to quit teaching because she was very sick during the pregnancy. For 18 months after her daughter was born, Renae stayed at home with her. Then, she explained,

My professional juices were just running and I . . . needed to do something. So I started subbing in the public schools. . . . Pretty soon I found myself subbing almost 5 days a week. Fortunately, I had a good babysitter. . . . I was getting to know the public schools. (Vol. III, p. 28)

Renae continued to do substitute teaching, and during this time her first son was also born. She "didn’t want to go back to teaching full time. [She] wanted to . . . stay at home with the kids" (Vol. III, p. 28). Concerning the years Renae substituted and stayed home with her children, she said,

[I had a] real sense of fulfillment. . . . [I] learned how to listen and how to get down on [children’s] level. I really think it’s been very good for me to be a parent because I have learned about kids as they grow up. . . . As my kids started growing up, it helped me a lot to understand what a child was going through at each age. I think it’s made me much more tolerant, much more patient and understanding. (Vol. III, p. 145)

While working as a substitute teacher, Renae was in and out of many different classrooms. She used this as an opportunity to make notes about things other teachers did that she liked. Since Renae got called to substitute at the high school frequently due to her ability to teach math, she developed an understanding of teenagers.

During this time one of Renae’s friends was teaching night classes at a college and encouraged Renae to join her. Renae said,

I started teaching business. I didn’t have a business background. I never had a business course in my life. . . . I subbed for two days for someone and 6 weeks later they called me to fill in one class a night. They were short a teacher. . . . Then I was teaching full time every semester. . . . They liked what I was doing, and I was learning . . . along with the [students]. These were mostly mothers who had been in the workplace [and] coming back at night to get a better job. . . . They were [motivated]. They were not your typical . . . highest part of the class students. . . . They needed to hear things a little more basically. . . . [It was] good . . . to work with [students] who wanted to learn and who were not going to pick it up automatically. . . . I taught there for 5 years. (Vol. III, pp. 28-29)

From her students, Renae learned about working with individuals whose background differed from her own. Many of her students in the night classes were from the inner city, very different from the farming community where she lived. "Most of [my students] had children [and] marriages that had not worked out very well. . . . [They were] people who [were] struggling, who really [needed] a job, who needed skills" (Vol. III, p. 146).

Eventually Renae became head of the Word Processing Department at the college and was busy teaching and fulfilling her administrative duties. Her second son was born during this time, she had a wonderful babysitter for the children, and things were going very smoothly. Then Ken received a Call from a Lutheran church in the Michiana area to teach in their school. Ken accepted the Call and began teaching at the school where both he and Renae are now employed.

Ken’s Call did not include Renae and after moving to the Michiana area, Renae decided that she wanted to take a break from working and stay at home for a little while. She thought this would allow her to adjust to living in a brand-new community. This decision lasted less than a month.

Renae and Ken’s church has a monthly newsletter. When they moved, the church put their picture in the newsletter and introduced the family. This introduction included the information that Renae had been teaching at a business college prior to their relocation. A church member teaching at a local business college noticed Renae’s past teaching experience and approached her:

[She] said, "We need a person to teach here this fall, will you do it?" I said, "No, I want to stay home." She called 2 days later, "We really want you to teach this Records Management Class." [I said,] "No, I don’t want to do that. I want to stay home." Two days later the dean called, "We really need you!" [I said,] "Well, fine! There must be a plan here." So I went to teach two classes . . . and part time . . . became full time. I just kept teaching a little bit more. . . . A friend of ours from church wondered if I would be the receptionist for his business for 6 weeks. [I said,] "Sure, I can do that during the day. Why not?" I was teaching nights . . . so I started doing that. It was kind of silly to have a master’s degree and [sit] there saying, "Hello." It was fun because it was the workplace, and it [had] all different rules. It wasn’t school. It was the first time I had worked in a non-education setting. . . . Good learning [was] going on. . . . After 6 weeks . . . they said, "Well, would you like to stay?" I said, "Well, you’re great guys, but this just isn’t for me. Receptionist is fine, but I think I need something more. If you ever get something in word processing or something that is going to use my mind a little bit, let me know and I’ll think about it." Well, they came back the next week and said, "Guess what. We created a new position." . . . So I became the Engineering Systems Coordinator. . . . [I] spent a whole year there and really enjoyed the business part. But I knew that teaching was in my blood because after awhile I started organizing their bulletin board. Then I started putting borders on their bulletin board. Pretty soon little snowmen appeared on their bulletin board. I started putting up little sayings of the month. . . . And they [went], "Do you miss teaching or something?" [I said,] "Yeah!" But it was a really good experience to be out in the workplace and see the math that the engineers were using. (Vol. III, pp. 30-31)

As Renae summarized what this experience meant to her, she said, "There were all kinds of things . . . happening that were very good to open my eyes to something outside the classroom. It’s such a narrow view of the world to only be in the classroom" (Vol. III, p. 32).

Renae’s responsibilities at the business college also continued to increase and she became Director of Counseling Services, helping students choose their classes. Later, when the dean left, she became the acting dean. In spite of frustrations with the corporate office which chose to view students as a commodity, Renae enjoyed her experience. She said, "I had fallen in love with the students. There were such great needs there" (Vol. III, p. 32).

Eventually Renae found out about a fourth-grade opening at the school where Ken was teaching. She applied and was offered a teaching position at the school though it ended up being seventh grade. Renae explained,

Seventh grade social studies and I are not best of friends. It’s fine, but every time you open the paper, it changes. The populations change, the names [of countries] change, the leaders change. I thought, "I don’t have a love of this to really do a good job at this so let me do something that I love." Then I started saying [to other teachers], "Hey, I’ll trade you seventh-grade social studies for fifth-grade math." (Vol. III, p. 33)

Currently Renae teaches math for Grades 5-8 while Ken teaches science. Language Arts and Social Studies are taught by other teachers. Renae remarked, "I get to teach my best subject all the way through. . . . I knew [Social Studies] wasn’t my strength and if I can’t do well, I don’t want to do it" (Vol. III, pp. 33-34). Renae commented that because of the size of their middle school, the frequency with which students relate to their homeroom teachers, and the fact that teachers get to teach in their strongest content area all provide their students with "the best of both worlds" (Vol. III, p. 34).

Teaching Middle Schoolers

Renae’s first year back in the classroom as a full-time teacher proved to be a challenge. She said, "It wasn’t the way it was when I was teaching before" (Vol. III, p. 36). Renae’s earlier full-time teaching experiences had been either with elementary students or in higher education. In recalling that first year she remarked,

I was trying to use a lower grade teaching strategy which didn’t work. . . . It was hard. . . . If I didn’t pray myself all the way here to get focused I [was] not going to make it through [the] day. But it just kept getting better as [I] got to know the kids. (Vol. III, pp. 53-54)

When Renae was trained to be a teacher, students sat in straight rows, but she quickly discovered that middle schoolers are social beings. This motivated her to change her teaching style:

If you don’t give [middle schoolers] social [time], they’ll take it, so it’s built in. . . . I wasn’t about to be frustrated by that so I learned [and] tried a lot of groupings. At first it didn’t work for me, but I had to learn how to give them the freedom to work in the group. [I learned] there’s going to be some noise, but there’s also much better learning going on. When I started listening to what they were saying as opposed to the fact that they were talking [I discovered that] talking can be good or bad. . . . They’ve just kind of helped me learn that as I’ve gone through. They teach you if you’re willing to listen. They’re great teachers if you’re willing to learn from them. I still will learn from them every day. There’s always something to be discovered from them. (Vol. III, pp. 55-56)

In her return to the classroom Renae discovered that teachers now used manipulatives in math and taught integrated units. She had never heard of manipulatives, but she decided to take a crash course because she recognized a better way of helping students learn. Renae began taking classes through the local Intermediate School District (ISD), she joined the Michigan Council for Teachers of Mathematics, attended many conferences often booking workshops right through lunch, and began networking with other educators who did the same kinds of things she wanted to do. She was driven to gain more "information so that [she] could teach the way [she] thought was better for kids" (Vol. III, p. 37). Watching students get excited about new teaching methods and understand the things she was teaching them motivated Renae to learn and grow.

One of the classes Renae took at the ISD dealt with using manipulatives in the classroom. Prior to joining this class, she had experienced some disappointments in workshops she attended to find out how to use manipulatives in algebra. During this class at the ISD, Renae said,

I started finding a way to include [manipulatives] more and more in what I was doing. . . . I found out there were a lot of kids out there that really needed to touch something, and I wanted to make it comfortable for all of them to do it. (Vol. III, p. 159)

The class was designed for middle elementary teachers, and Renae began using the ideas she gained with her fifth and sixth graders. Then, she explained, "I just started extending it myself. . . . I don’t have to have somebody lead [me] all the way to the faucet; just point me in the right direction" (Vol. III, p. 160).

Every year Renae teaches, she pushes herself to learn even more, to continue finding better ways to teach her students. She remarked,

Every year . . . I think, "Oh, cool. I’ve really learned a lot this year. I can help these kids a lot better." Then the next year it’s like, "Boy, did I learn a lot this year! I thought I knew quite a bit. I didn’t know anything at all." (Vol. III, p. 149)

Renae believes the continuing opportunities to grow during her 7 years as a middle school math teacher have motivated her to remain in her current position. During these years she has been challenged, stretched, and has helped others around her grow and change professionally. She is part of a school which values professional development. Prior to accepting this position, Renae rarely stayed at one position more than 3 years. She contrasted herself with Ken to explain,

My husband’s life [story] is so much different. He went into Lutheran school and stayed there. After 13 years he [came] to this Lutheran school and he’s been here 11 years. His life is really straight and predictable. He feels safe and that’s where he operates. He needs to feel secure and then he does a great job. I really like this route. It’s good for me. If things become routine, then I’m out. That’s why often I went to a job and I was there 3 years. Then I would move to another area. . . . I like to be creating something and not just doing it. (Vol. III, p. 147)

Renae’s Classroom


Renae’s classroom is on the top floor of a three-story building. The day care and preschool are housed in the lower level, Grades K-3 on the main floor along with the administrative offices, leaving the top floor for Grades 4-8. Though the fourth graders inhabit a classroom on the same story as the middle schoolers, Renae pointed out, "They don’t mingle a lot. They don’t even walk this way to go to lunch. No fourth grader wants to walk past the eighth grade room if he or she can help it" (Vol. III, p. 35).

Making my way to Renae’s classroom, I noticed students’ work displayed on the walls. The farther down the hallway I traveled, the more complex the displays became. Renae later commented that their classrooms are used each Sunday for adult Sunday School classes, and exhibiting students’ work is one way of promoting the school to church members.

I first observed in Renae’s classroom during December and her room reflected various traditions of the season. Strands of tinsel and nativity scenes made of construction paper hung from the ceiling; along the large windows which graced one wall was a string of lights; the large bulletin board at the back of the room displayed a nativity scene; and a Christmas tree found its place at the front of the room. While the decor of the classroom was largely seasonal, the atmosphere it created remained the same. Renae’s classroom was always dominated by students’ work or displays they had created, and it was always filled with numerous items giving me glimpses of daily life in this room. It was a room which belonged to students and they played a role in shaping their environment. In my reflections after my first visit, I wrote, "It made me want to stay" (Vol. III, p. 1).

Several items on the walls of Renae’s classroom remained constant. There were always a few inspirational posters scattered around the room, and one large green and white poster, to which Renae referred occasionally, reminded students of the value of team work:


A blackboard and white board covered large expanses of two walls. I discovered that Renae uses both of them to teach and remind students of events and expectations. Above the white board was a large, colorful banner proclaiming, "Today is a great day to learn something new!" (Vol. III, p. 67). As I observed Renae in action, I began to realize that this was an important motto in her classroom. I was struck by the small, student-designed posters above the blackboard. Each one began with, "My goal for this month is . . ." (Vol. III, p. 8). The goals reflected issues I would classify as typical of middle schoolers: "getting along with the seventh graders," "shooting a basket during basketball," and "getting on honor roll" (Vol. III, p. 8).

I noticed a few things that were obviously designed and made by Renae to help her classroom function more smoothly. Two pocket charts hung side by side and held small cards with students’ names on them. One chart was labeled "Hot Lunch, Yes, Please" and the other one, "Hot Lunch, No, Thank You" (Vol. III, p. 8). Each day students positioned name cards on the correct chart signaling their lunch plans. Renae also had a laminated poster with colorful fish entitled "Prayer Changes Us!" I noticed students writing prayer needs on the fish, but there were also times when this poster remained blank.

Items in Renae’s classroom also indicated that she is a math teacher. Geometric shapes hung from pegs along the white board, a large compass for use on the chalk board hung within easy reach, a poster with a list of math terms found a spot by the windows, and plastic containers with calculators were always ready for students’ use.

Renae frequently rearranges the desks in her classroom. Since she teaches math classes for Grades 5-8, there are times when she has a number of empty desks. The largest class is fifth grade with 25 students and seventh grade is the smallest with 11 students. No matter how Renae chose to group the desks, students were constantly working with each other, looking to each other for assistance, and Renae seemed to be everywhere at once giving assistance and encouragement as needed.

Curriculum and Instruction

I observed Renae teaching math to Grades 5-8 and found many similarities. A typical class begins with some type of warm-up activity which helps students focus their thoughts on math. Renae’s math classes emphasize learning mathematical skills because they have value in life, not just because math is part of the curriculum. For a school its size, Renae’s school has access to or owns an amazing collection of technology, and Renae regularly uses technology in her math classes. In addition to technological tools, Renae constantly provides other hands-on learning experiences for her students.

Renae keeps things moving at a fairly rapid pace in her classes. She explained,

They’re not going to listen to a lecture so I figure if I can’t say it in 3 minutes, it’s not worth saying. I have to engage them. They have to be talking back. They have to be doing something, doing problems, working something out, doing an activity. They’re not going to just sit and listen. (Vol. III, p. 55)

It very quickly became obvious to me that Renae presents a challenging curriculum to her students. She wants her eighth graders to be well prepared for the high school math classes they will take. When students transfer into Renae’s school, especially in middle school, they frequently need to provide extra support. Renae commented,

Those are the [students] that are pulled into the tutoring session on Tuesday. We try to bring them along, especially if they don’t have the support at home. Either the parents can’t do [the math], don’t have time, or don’t want to. Lots of times the parents don’t have the ability. They didn’t do really well and you say, "Algebra" and they go, "Oh, that was the last math course I ever took, and I was terrible!" (Vol. III, p. 60)

In Renae’s classes, she exuded both the message that math is serious business and the message that part of her task is to nurture students. Though these messages may initially seem contradictory, Renae was able to meld them together into a nurturing, businesslike approach. Though Renae spoke rapidly and expected students to follow her lead, she was willing to digress and recognize students’ personal needs. Her gentle, compassionate, nurturing side which said, "I am doing all I can to help you be successful as you learn about math and life" kept jumping to the forefront as she conducted her classes. I will now describe the four math classes Renae teaches.

Grade 5

Even before I met any of the fifth graders, Renae told me about the class and that a number of the fifth graders make it a point to get a daily hug from her. She also pointed out that they are much quicker to show their enthusiasm about math class than the older students. Renae worked hard to accommodate the fifth graders’ need for more tender loving care and individual attention.

Though I would seldom describe Renae’s classroom during math class as quiet, I noticed immediately that the volume increased when the fifth graders were present with their 25 little bodies roving around the room. Renae always wrote the supplies or tools students needed for math class on the board. The fifth graders seemed to take more time to gather their materials and to talk more during the process. I heard Renae frequently encourage them to "keep moving" (Vol. III, p. 109) because they had a lot to do during their time together.

One mathematical concept Renae stresses heavily in fifth grade is estimation. After becoming familiar with the metric system, fifth graders write "Who Am I?" clues using the metric system. Renae then uses these questions as warm-ups in math class. This allows students to learn how to estimate using the metric system. One of the clues read: "I’m a rectangular solid 48 cm high and 39 cm wide" (Vol. III, p. 128). Renae wrote this clue on the board and students wrote an answer on individual white boards. Renae then drew a name randomly to see who got to answer first. As students identified objects, Renae handed them a meter stick to measure the object. For the clue mentioned above, a student suggested a poster hanging on the wall. Someone else quickly pointed out that it is not a rectangular solid, but Renae allowed the student to measure the poster to see how close the dimensions were to the real object. The class realized the face of the poster was very close to the size of the actual object and someone was able to guess very quickly the plastic storage cupboard described in the clue.

When Renae wanted the fifth graders to understand the relationship between a circle’s diameter and its circumference, she asked the students to draw large circles and mark the diameter. They next cut yarn pieces the length of the diameter and glued them around the circumference. Students discovered that it takes three diameters and a "little more" to cover the circumference. When the class discovered that the "little more" was 1/5 instead of the 1/7 which is the fractional part of pi, Renae explained, "Remember, [we are] working with a physical model and they don’t always come out pure like numbers do" (Vol. III, p. 111).

The class then proceeded to estimate the diameters and circumferences of circles with varying measurements. Renae concluded by telling her fifth graders that all they need to remember this year about the relationship between the diameter and circumference is that three diameters and a "little more" make the circumference. Though some of the students knew that three diameters and a "little more" is called pi, Renae chose not to use pi consistently in class. After dismissing the students, Renae commented to me that what they were studying in class is difficult for fifth graders, but they can understand it if it is broken down step-by-step.

The fifth graders also learned how to find the area of circles. After estimating the area of circles inscribed in grids, they learned the formula for a circle’s area. I was amazed at how easily they moved from the formula to punching it out on their calculators. They used the x2 and pi keys on their calculators without Renae having to point out these keys’ functions.

Renae was careful to stretch students’ vocabulary during math classes so I was a bit surprised to hear her tell the fifth graders to "put the pokey part [of your compass] in the center of the circle" (Vol. III, p. 112). This was part of the fifth graders learning how to draw arcs inside circles to create a perpendicular bisector of the diameter of the circle they had drawn.

After giving students directions, Renae moved around the classroom, touching various students, laughing with them, and making these comments: "Oops, yours fell off the edge," and "You’re almost there. Shall I help you finish?" (Vol. III, p. 113). Renae then told students that she was going to draw a "magic box," but the students found it difficult to pay attention and listen. She said, "I’m getting sadder and sadder. Pretty soon I’m going to ask you to do this, and I don’t ever want to ask you to do something I didn’t teach you" (Vol. III, p. 113).

The class ended on a more businesslike note. Renae told students, "We can have a good time drawing pictures in geometry. There are people who have careers drawing things all day long. They’re called engineers, artists, and architects. So if you like doing this you might want to talk to your parents about a career in one of these" (Vol. III, p. 113). She then proceeded to use phrases like "perpendicular bisector" and "inscribing a square inside a circle" as she referred to the homework assignment she was giving students to do in their workbooks (Vol. III, p. 113).

Grade 6

With the exception of content and number of students, Renae conducted sixth-grade math classes similarly to the fifth-grade classes. I observed the same businesslike approach tempered with love, nurture, and humor.

One day the sixth graders were working on the order of operations in number sentences. Renae had a mnemonic device which the class used:

The first time Renae read the sentence aloud for the class, she said, "Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally and the eighth graders in the hallway" because of the extra noise outside as the eighth graders moved toward their next class (Vol. III, p. 115). A second digression occurred when Renae was addressing the need to move left to right when multiplying and dividing or adding and subtracting in a number sentence. She commented that the Chinese would probably do their problems right to left since they read right to left. Some of the students were not aware that the Chinese language is read right to left and bottom to top so they expressed surprise. Renae emphasized that this was indeed true, before continuing the lesson.

In addition to using the mnemonic device to help the sixth graders remember the order of operations, Renae also used the analogy of a company. The CEO is like the numbers and operation found in parentheses. They come first and are most important in the company. The exponents are the plant manager and find themselves just under the CEO. Multiplication and division work together, and at the bottom of the totem pole are addition and subtraction, the workers on the floor.

When the class began working on one number sentence, a student suggested that they begin with addition. Renae remarked while pointing to her illustration, "This is a lowly little peon. Are you sure you want to start with this?" (Vol. III, p. 115). The student realized that addition was much too far down the ladder of importance since the number sentence also included multiplication.

Some of the sixth graders found addition and subtraction of negative numbers challenging so Renae placed a row of marks on her classroom floor using masking tape to help students visualize the process. The tape was arranged like this:


The circle in the center represents zero on a number line. To show students how to add -4 + 6 Renae began in the center and walked toward the left four spaces. Then she walked forward six spaces and ended on positive two. After class Renae told me how the students had struggled initially to add and subtract negative numbers, but it became much easier for them after she placed the number line on the carpet and began demonstrating physically how to work with negative numbers.

Though Renae was intent on helping her sixth graders understand and be successful in computation, she took time to notice personal needs. Jenny got up during class to get a tissue and held it to her ear because it was draining. Renae noticed what she did and asked Jenny about it. Jenny let Renae look at the ear, and Renae suggested that she get the ear checked because she thought it might be an ear infection. After a short pause, Renae asked Jenny, "Are you going to day care?" and Jenny nodded (Vol. III, p. 135). Renae then said, "Make sure you tell them because you shouldn’t be where there’s a lot of noise. Maybe they can put you in a quiet spot" (Vol. III, p. 135). In the midst of a full agenda and students working on math concepts, Renae found time to express her concern about Jenny as an individual.

Renae frequently used ice cream sticks with students’ names on them to call on students randomly. Each grade level had its own jar of sticks. As Renae was preparing to draw sticks to see which sixth graders would be assigned specific math problems, some of the students said they wanted to draw the sticks. Renae smiled and joked, "I went to college to be a stick puller, you know!" (Vol. III, p. 135). The students responded, "You went to college to be a math teacher" (Vol. III, p. 135). Easy, lighthearted exchanges between Renae and her students occurred regularly during her classes.

During a math class just before Christmas, I observed the ease with which Renae dealt with unexpected interruptions. This was during a lesson in which students were challenged to write numbers in scientific notation. Though the class seemed a bit ill fated due to reasons beyond Renae’s control, she calmly dealt with teaching the math content and the interruptions.

Early during the period, we heard the clanging of the fire alarm. All of us made an orderly, but rapid exit and stood on the sidewalk in the chilly breeze of a December morning. The wait to reenter seemed interminable, but I noticed Renae huddled with her arms and jacket around a group of girls. The minute we found ourselves back in the classroom, Renae jumped right back into the lesson as though the interruption had been planned.

A few minutes after the fire drill, Christmas lights fastened with tape to a window became too heavy for the tape. As they dropped, a student observed, "It broke" and without missing a beat, Renae said, "We’ll fix it" (Vol. III, p. 10) and continued with scientific notation. The third unplanned incident within 20 minutes came from a student. Students were using individual white boards and markers which is commonplace in Renae’s classes. One student suddenly felt it important to announce, "I have a black marker with a green cap on it." Renae responded with, "Someone else probably has a green marker with a black cap. Maybe you’ll find your friend" (Vol. III, p. 11). I hesitate calling this exchange an interruption because Renae moved on as though nothing unusual had occurred. She kept her businesslike, professional composure throughout the entire lesson while also showing glimpses of her nurturing, compassionate side.

One day after assigning a section in students’ workbooks, Renae made her usual rounds among students to check their progress. Without an explanation she took candy from her desk and began distributing it to certain students as she looked at the pages they were completing. It took students only a brief time to determine that Renae was giving candy to those who had written the date and time on top of their pages. After they figured this out, Renae reminded them that writing the date and time on their pages would tell them "I know this page. I am responsible for the information on this page" when they saw it in the future (Vol. III, p. 136).

Grade 7

Not only did Renae have the seventh graders for math class, but they were also part of her homeroom; she began and ended the day with these students and got more intimately acquainted with them. During one homeroom period I observed the seventh graders making thank-you cards for area businesses which had donated goods or services to the school’s Tech It Out auction. This is a yearly fund raiser for the school, and students participate in the effort; each homeroom prepares items for the auction. The seventh graders this year sold coupons for homemade cookies. Individuals who purchased the coupons alerted students when they were ready to redeem the coupon. Students then planned to gather at Renae’s house and bake the cookies. For the previous year’s auction, Renae’s homeroom created Feel Good Baskets which contained items like cough drops, teddy bears, and books.

Renae has her students working at three different levels in seventh-grade math so she is kept busy flipping back and forth between the groups and keeping all of them challenged and on task. The majority of students are working on pre-algebra, three students are completing seventh-grade general math, and one female student, Cassie, is working at her own pace on pre-algebra. Renae explained to me that Cassie is a very bright girl who was not feeling challenged by the pace of the pre-algebra group. Cassie also wanted to enroll in an algebra class over the summer so Renae made arrangements for her to work ahead. Initially two other students were on the same plan, but they found it too difficult and rejoined the pre-algebra group. Renae explained that Cassie thinks differently than most students and Renae gives her choices whenever possible. Students and their parents decide whether students should enroll in general math or pre-algebra.

The seventh graders used calculators frequently. Both pre-algebra and general math students had ready access to the calculators whenever they felt the need to use them. During an independent work time, one student asked if he could use a calculator. Renae responded with, "If you want to" (Vol. III, p. 11) and the student chose to complete the assignment with the help of his "little black friend" (Vol. III, p. 68) as Renae sometimes called it. In spite of calculator availability and frequency of use, Renae suggested to a seventh-grade general math student, "Does [the book] want you to use the calculator or do it by hand? Some of these [decimals] you may know by memory from fifth grade" (Vol. III, p. 99).

The pre-algebra students spent some time learning about and using various problem-solving strategies. Renae discussed with the class how using these strategies is beneficial not only in solving mathematical problems but also in fulfilling other tasks. Students discovered that learning how to juggle various responsibilities after school while still completing homework and finding time for leisure activities is actually a problem to solve.

Renae wanted the students to understand how beneficial drawing sketches or pictures can be in solving problems. During this discussion she commented, "Tony, you’re a visual learner. A lot of us are visual learners" (Vol. III, p. 22). Renae then went on to illustrate how often she personally makes a sketch when she is faced with finding a solution in her personal life and reiterated the fact that learning various strategies for solving problems is a real life skill.

The class then turned to a problem to solve. They were responsible for setting up a hypothetical tournament. Renae asked students if they wanted this to be a basketball tournament, but one student said he would rather it be a golf tournament. This reminded Renae of a story about her son which she shared with the class. He decided to go outside in the middle of the winter and putt. Unfortunately this activity followed a significant snowfall in the Michiana area and Renae’s son lost his golf ball in an 8-foot snowdrift. Having Renae take a few moments to share a story about her son gave students a window into her personal life and allowed them to become part of the broader landscape of her life.

After Renae’s story, the class returned to working out logistics of the golf tournament. Students worked in groups during this time and Renae moved among them, offering assistance and encouragement. Various groups used different methods to plan the tournament and Renae validated their efforts and used the opportunity to compare the strategies used. As the class moved to other problems, students noted that one of the problems had not given them enough information. Renae asked students to provide the missing information on their own and solve the problem while commenting, "You guys are marvelous! What problem solvers you’ve become!" (Vol. III, p. 22). Renae’s facetious tone continued as the class moved to grading homework. She asked them if they were ready to grade their homework. A student responded lazily with "I suppose" and Renae remarked, "What energy! What enthusiasm!" (Vol. III, p. 22).

Though Renae often moved through math class at a rapid pace, she took time to acknowledge students’ interests. As part of the seventh- and eighth-grade confirmation program, students have prayer partners from the church. Just before one math class began, a student had received a small gift from her prayer partner and asked Renae if she could take it to her locker. This of course piqued the interest of Renae and other students as well. Renae commented, "Your prayer partner must really be excited about you" (Vol. III, p. 21). Midway through the math class, students brought up the subject of prayer partners again and asked Renae if any of the teachers at the school were students’ prayer partners. Renae merely smiled, remaining noncommittal.

Another time when Renae allowed herself to be diverted from the subject of math, created what I think of as a teachable moment. A student commented about the book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. Instead of ignoring or brushing over the comment because they were in math class, Renae took time to discuss the book and ended this interlude by saying, "It is important to reread our favorite books, including the Bible, because we’re not the same person as we were the first time we read it" (Vol. III, pp. 21-22).

Grade 8

My classroom observations during eighth-grade algebra sometimes left me feeling like I had experienced a whirlwind. Part of this was the result of encountering content I was unfamiliar with or had not thought about since high school. Another aspect contributing to the whirlwind was the way Renae moved through various discussions and learning experiences in rapid-fire succession.

After learning how to graph lines and work with exponential notation, Renae and her husband prepared several experiments for the eighth graders. Renae began the class by telling students that so far their experiences with graphs have been largely from the textbook, but these graphs do have connections with nature and the world around them. She also warned them that when data are collected from the real world they are not always nice and neat like the data recorded in their textbooks. Since Renae’s husband was teaching another class during this time, she explained that she would focus on their mathematical skills and her husband would address the issue of heat transfer.

The supplies for the experiments were lined up at the front of the classroom: hot water, snow, alcohol, and salt. Each group also had a TI-73 calculator and a temperature probe which could be connected to the calculator. Renae said, "You are eighth graders, and I know I will find equipment in the right places. Be responsible" (Vol. III, p. 77). Just prior to allowing students to begin their experiments, Renae said, "If you have difficulty understanding what to do, reread the directions and think about it. If I spoon-feed you, it will take the fun and discovery out of the experiment" (Vol. III, p. 77).

As students got busy, Renae moved quickly from group to group. At times she encouraged them to use their time wisely lest they be unable to finish. She answered a lot of questions and helped the groups who encountered problems with their calculators or probes. In the midst of giving suggestions and answering questions, Renae found time to share jokes with the students. When a student announced that the water was no longer very hot, Renae calmly asked the student to replace that pot of water with another one on the coffee maker while continuing her conversation with a group who needed assistance. Renae seemed to be everywhere at once, attending to each groups’ needs, offering encouragement, and noting everyone’s progress while remaining composed. As students gathered data and exclaimed "We got a graph," Renae enthusiastically responded with "That’s what it’s supposed to do!" and moved over to enjoy the group’s success (Vol. III, p. 78).

As the students completed their series of experiments, Renae asked to borrow one group’s calculator. She connected that to her overhead projector so the entire class could see what she was doing. As Renae and the class talked about linear regression, she kept probing. I heard questions such as "What type of graph [do we have]?" and "Which [option] makes sense for us?" (Vol. III, p. 79). Renae showed students how to find the coordinates for their graphs, the equation, and regression. Since both the graph of the equation and the graph of the actual data gathered were visible, Renae asked students to explore reasons for the variation.

Renae closed class by commenting, "We’re using math to understand science" to which a student remarked, "These equations are beginning to make sense to me now" (Vol. III, p. 80). The eighth graders discovered how to use their mathematical skills to understand and graph temperature changes in objects as they moved toward room temperature.

Another morning the eighth-grade class focused on relative frequency. Renae wanted students to recognize that there is a difference between theoretical and experimental probability and that these two determine relative frequency. She began by writing relative frequency on the board with two lines emanating from the term, then asked students what terms would go on the "legs" (Vol. III, p. 18). She told students "I know you’re smart" as they began considering her question (Vol. III, p. 18). One student chose to read an answer from his textbook and Renae responded by telling him that she wants to know from his head what relative frequency is, not from the book.

Students continued struggling to answer her questions so Renae pulled little bags of four dice from a container and began asking questions about the chances of getting a specific number when she rolled the dice. Throughout this quickly moving process, Renae also kept encouraging students to respond to her questions. When one student ventured an answer with the inflection of a question in his voice, Renae’s immediate response was, "Don’t ask me, tell me. Tell me what you’re thinking" (Vol. III, p. 18). The class was eventually able to answer enough of Renae’s questions about relative frequency that she wrote theoretical probability and experimental probability at the ends of the two legs connected to relative frequency.

Students then worked with the dice to find the experimental probability of rolling numbers 2-12 using two dice. They were to roll the dice 50 times and record the frequency with which they rolled each number. Up to this point Renae was all serious business, keeping the class moving rapidly, cajoling the students into thinking and answering her questions, but as students prepared to roll the dice Renae commented, "If you can’t take the noise level, feel free to roll on the floor" and after a slight pause continued, "Not you, the dice!" (Vol. III, p. 19). Only then did she and the students laugh and I caught a glimpse of the nurturing, caring aspect of her personality.

Toward the end of class Renae asked students to review the different types of probability they had discussed during the period and gave them a homework assignment. While students worked on their homework, Renae moved around the room to monitor their progress. Periodically she stopped to joke with individual students. Sometimes I could hear the joke and other times I could not; however, what impressed me was that Renae and her students understood the jokes and laughed together. I felt like I was an outsider observing a close-knit group connected by many bonds.


It quickly became obvious to me that Renae loves her students and they love her. Renae commented a number of times to the students in the course of teaching how much she enjoys being with them. The students in turn share their lives with Renae.

Renae makes herself available to her students. When they are changing classes, she is in the hallway because students often feel more comfortable approaching her there than in the classroom. Renae also said,

I don’t grade papers during school very often at all because I want that time to talk to [students]. If they come up to me, there’s a reason. In the mornings I won’t listen to [Bible] memory or do a lot of things between the time they come in and 8:00. They have that 15 minutes. Almost every one of them will come and check in. They won’t say, "I’m here. Do you know?" but that’s really what they’re doing. . . . I want them to feel that they can come to me with emotional things, with spiritual things, with academic things because I care about all parts of them. (Vol. III, p. 155)

As I watched Renae with her students, I felt like I was observing a Norman Rockwell family at dinner. During the course of the hour she spent with each math class, Renae noticed students as individuals. I sensed that I was watching a large family with inside jokes, traditions, and methods of communication of which I was not a part. When I shared my observations with Renae, she replied,

I try to keep it that way. . . . They feel safe enough to let me know . . . quibbly [things]. But if they’re safe enough to tell you that, they’re also going to tell you if they’re hurting or something’s happening at home that you need to step into either [to] help the child or [to] help the parent. . . . You hear a lot of things. [On] rare occasions you hear things about abuse

. . . but more often you hear that mom lost her job or dad can’t do this or he got hurt or he’s going to have surgery. [They are] little things [where] you can make a phone call or you can drop a note in the mail or you can put them on a prayer list. You can do something to help. (Vol. III, p. 51)

Renae nurtures relationships with both her students and their families. Frequently parents briefly stop in during the school day to see how their child is progressing or they call Renae. Each Friday Renae writes a letter to parents to inform them of school and classroom events, to honor students, and to share parenting tips. Parents are asked to sign and return a portion of the letter the following Monday. Renae includes the question, "How can I be of service to your family?" with the newsletter and it is not unusual for parents to include questions or concerns with the returned portion of the newsletter (Vol. III, p. 126).

Classroom Management

I rarely observed Renae’s students behaving inappropriately though I know they are typical middle schoolers. Her students struggle with many of the same issues middle schoolers struggle with everywhere, and a number of her students are also faced with personal and family challenges. I attribute this apparent lack of discipline problems to several things: Relationships Renae has developed with her students, how busy she keeps her students when they are in the classroom, and Renae’s cajoling encouragement laced with humor. Part of Renae’s success in managing her classroom stems from her instructional style. She explained, "If you keep the kids interested [in learning activities], discipline just goes out the door" (Vol. III, p. 54). Renae looks for clues from her students to determine when it is time to change to a different activity.

Renae frequently made encouraging and positive comments to her students throughout the classes she taught. I got the impression by her tone of voice that these comments were not meant only to encourage students but to also cajole them into doing what Renae wanted them to do: learn and understand mathematical skills and concepts. On the eve of spring break, Renae’s fifth graders were bustling around the room gathering tools they needed for their class. Renae walked around the room encouraging students to keep moving on their tasks saying, "I feel happiest when you are working very hard" (Vol. III, p. 109).

Renae appeared unperturbed by things which are often deemed as disciplinary problems in larger schools. One morning the seventh graders only trickled into her classroom; as she waited for the rest to arrive she remarked, "Maybe the lockers ate them up today" (Vol. III, p. 21). Renae made her point about the importance of being on time, but she tempered her comments with humor.

I sensed this same attitude when Renae wanted a student to sit down rather than stand up during math class. Renae asked her, "Did someone steal your chair?" to which the student replied, "No." Renae responded with, "Then please use it. I can’t see through you to see [Carrie]" (Vol. III, p. 97).

One day the seventh graders were working in groups and Renae overheard a comment to which she said, "My ears be offended" (Vol. III, p. 100). The student gave a comeback I could not hear, but Renae responded with, "Then don’t say things in the room you don’t want me to hear" (Vol. III, p. 100). This time the student responded jokingly, "You were spying on us" (Vol. III, p. 100).

Though Renae often communicated her expectations in a lighthearted manner, I did observe her being more direct on occasion. In answer to a question Renae had asked the fifth graders, quite a number of students replied simultaneously. Renae said, "I need to see hands, not hear voices. Hands tell me many things" (Vol. III, pp. 109-110). A few minutes later during the same class, students began bickering about who had been able to balance themselves on one foot for 15 seconds. Renae quickly quieted their chatter by saying, "We’re going to take your opinion of whether you did or not" (Vol. III, p. 110). One day I was intently listening to Renae discuss exponents with the eighth graders when I heard her say, "[Ivan], I want you to talk only when it’s really important. It can’t be continually important" (Vol. III, p. 69).

The relationships Renae has with her students allow her to know when to confront students and when to give them the benefit of the doubt. Renae told me about one of her eighth graders, Tony, who is a continuing challenge. In 1 week Tony did not complete his homework 4 consecutive days. The first 3 days Renae felt he had legitimate reasons for not completing the work, but on the fourth morning Tony told her he failed to complete his homework because he had been watching TV. Renae immediately ushered Tony into the hallway. Tony asked her where they were going so Renae told him they were going to the principal’s office. Tony immediately said, "I’m not going" (Vol. III, p. 162). Renae knew she could not physically coerce Tony into going to the principal’s office so she explained to him that she would really like to see him maintain his A average in math class, but he needs to complete his homework in order to keep an A. Tony then went down to the principal’s office, completed his homework, and returned to Renae’s classroom at noon to rejoin his classmates.

At Renae’s school, chapel garb for males is a dress shirt and pants. Tony chooses to wear a black t-shirt underneath the dress shirt and leaves the shirt hanging open. While he technically is not in violation of chapel dress code, he does appear more sloppy than was intended by the dress code. One day Tony was assigned to be an usher for chapel. Renae pulled him aside and told him that a lot of little kids were going to be looking up to him at chapel that day and asked him if he would be willing to button his shirt. Tony got a bit defensive and asked Renae why she was telling him to button his shirt. Renae reminded him that she did not tell him he had to button the shirt, but she just wanted to remind him that he would be a role model to the younger students. After that statement Renae walked away. Tony ended up fulfilling his ushering duties with a buttoned, tucked in shirt. Renae finished this story by telling me that she knows the only reason Tony buttoned his shirt that day is because she has established a relationship with him, and he knows that she genuinely cares about him.


I would now like to discuss five beliefs which undergird Renae’s life, guide her classroom practices, and how she lives her life and makes decisions: Using one’s gifts, helping others, students are valuable, learning is lifelong, and students are family.

Using One’s Gifts

The belief that one is endowed with gifts which are to be used for God and others began early in Renae’s life. As a child, her parents taught and modeled this belief for Renae. She developed a firm belief that she was born because God wanted her to be born, she was on earth because God has a plan for her, and God created her with special gifts to use during her time on earth.

Even in grade school Renae began sensing that one of her gifts is to give of her time and energy to help others. She said,

As I went through school, . . . I was constantly being asked to help other kids, and I really enjoyed working with other kids. [I] never minded giving up the time. I felt God leading me to do something to help others. That’s [my] gift [and I] use it. (Vol. III, p. 143)

Renae teaches her students that they too are born with different gifts and it is their responsibility to use the gifts God has given them. She points out to her students, "Everybody is different. . . . Different is good, but you need to be yourself. You need to find your strengths. You need to be aware of your weaknesses so that you can work through them but not be ashamed of them" (Vol. III, p. 153). Renae wants her students

to . . . [know] that they’re growing, that they’re capable of doing anything that they want to do. . . . [I say], "Do what God’s given [you] the gifts to do. Don’t be afraid to reach out there and take a risk. If you fall that just means you found something else that doesn’t work, but pick yourself up and go again." (Vol. III, p. 161)

Providing students with an opportunity to use their gifts is important to Renae. The entire school promotes involving students in a variety of service opportunities which may help students find their unique gifts, be these gifts academic, in the arts, physically, or interpersonal. Renae frequently spoke of students’ involvement in the church. Students not only present special seasonal programs, plays, and operettas, but they also provide special music during the regular Sunday morning worship time. Since students frequently work in cooperative groups and in multi-grade settings, giving academic help to each other becomes second nature. The students also give of themselves and their talents by participating in various fund-raising activities sponsored by the school.

Renae provides opportunities for National Honor Society students from a public high school to develop and use their gifts by tutoring her middle school students each Tuesday. Some of Renae’s students are struggling with math while others are preparing for Math Counts, a competitive math program established by the Society of Professional Engineers. Renae explained that the program is also beneficial for the high schoolers because it helps them review for college entrance exams.

Helping Others

When I asked Renae why she chose to become an educator, she said, "I was always interested in helping other people" (Vol. III, p. 44). As a child Renae helped her siblings with their math homework because she loved math, understood it, and her siblings struggled with the content. During her elementary years she often helped other schoolmates, during her college years she volunteered as a teacher’s aide and worked with mentally handicapped adults, and as an educator she continually pours herself into her students, helping them grow. In one of the weekly newsletters Renae sent to her students’ parents, she wrote, "My prayer remains that the Lord will use me for the glory of His kingdom and for the good of His people" (Vol. III, p. 126). Helping those around her is constantly at the forefront of Renae’s thoughts.

Renae received a county-wide award for excellence in teaching which forced her to start "evaluating really big time what [she] stood for, what [she is] doing. It was more soul searching than [she has] had to ever do" (Vol. III, p. 60). Out of this arose a deep desire to put into practice what she believes is best for her students, so Renae began writing grants to obtain technology and hands-on experiences for her students. Though writing grants takes a lot of Renae’s time, she is constantly motivated by helping her students learn and experience the best she can provide for them.

During the school year in which Renae participated in my study, the school had a grant which allowed their students to test and compare water quality in Lake Michigan, a small local lake, a large local river, and a small pond. They also test air and soil quality and temperature to determine which areas make better places to live. Part of this grant includes planning a presentation summarizing the results of the year-long study. This study allowed Renae and Ken’s middle schoolers to use their math and science skills combined with technology for real life purposes and to give something meaningful back to the community.

Renae and Ken wrote another grant for the GTE Foundation which provides them with $12,000 worth of hand-held technological equipment to use as they write an integrated science and math curriculum. This includes an opportunity to study at the GTE laboratories for 7 days during the upcoming summer. Not only will Renae and Ken spend time this summer studying at GTE, but they also have the opportunity to spend 14 days with NASA engineers on site, including restricted areas, learning about ways they use science and math in their work. While Renae is honored and ecstatic about these opportunities, she is thrilled because they "will help [her] to be a better teacher, to find out how [she] can reach more kids" (Vol. III, p. 149).

Not only does Renae seek for ways to help her students grow, but she also enjoys promoting growth in her fellow educators. A student nominated Renae for Disney’s American Teacher Awards which "honor creativity in teaching" (Vol. III, p. 140). If Renae becomes one of the honorees, along with grant money will come a professional development opportunity. Renae expressed her excitement about this possibility because it would allow her to learn more to both help her students and also "work with [fellow] faculty [members] on professional development" (Vol. III, p. 149).

Students Are Valuable

Renae explained the lens through which she views her students:

Each child I see is a creation of God. Each child is valuable and loved and special. I don’t want their learning styles to affect my opinion of them. I figure that I need to work with them wherever they are. I think believing that God created these children makes it a lot easier for me to see them as special and unique. (Vol. III, pp. 151-152)

Seeing each of her students as a special creation of God motivates Renae to do all she can to help them grow and become what God has planned for them to become. She strives to provide the best education possible for them so they are "fully prepared to be whatever they want to be" in the future (Vol. III, p. 42). As God’s special creation, Renae believes each of her students has "something different to offer and a different strength" (Vol. III, p. 56). The value Renae attributes to students also motivates her to put effort into developing close relationships with them.

It was readily apparent during my observations in Renae’s classroom that she sees each of her students as a special gift. I also noticed that when Renae spoke of past teaching experiences, ranging from lower elementary to college, she saw those students in the same light. She spoke of her love and concern for the students facing special challenges as single parents in the business college where she taught, and she shared her frustration when working with an administration which treated students as a commodity rather than as valued individuals.

Learning Is Lifelong

Renae shared with me, "I just love learning" (Vol. III, p. 150). I was curious to see if Renae could identify for me the source of this passion. She reflected, "I really don’t know where it comes from. I know that it is modeled in my family. My parents are still [learning] even at retirement age. . . . I just am easily motivated to learn and keep trying new things" (Vol. III, p. 151).

Throughout Renae’s entire life she appears to have had an incredible thirst to learn more and find better ways of accomplishing the tasks before her. As she recounted the various positions, both in and out of education, Renae frequently spoke of the things she learned through the experience. When she was working as a substitute teacher, she identified things she wanted to take into her own classroom in the future. During her stint in the business world, she learned how math is used in the real world and noted skills her students needed to acquire during their formal education. Some of these things Renae learned by observing and other times she learned by listening to others with different experiences. No matter what situation in which Renae found herself, she learned about people and sought ways to grow as a person and to increase her skills.

When I asked Renae about primary beliefs which have guided her life, she replied,

God’s always at work in my life. . . . He’s always getting me ready for the next event, the next opportunity, the next crisis, the next child. . . . I figure I need to take advantage of every opportunity I have to learn about people and about teaching because that’s where He’s put me. (Vol. III, p. 151)

Renae seeks to develop in her students this same commitment to life-long learning. What Renae really seeks to teach her students is not math content, "but the content gives me something to talk about to develop skills that are going to make them a life-long learner" (Vol. III, p. 161).

Students Are Family

The very first day I observed in Renae’s classroom, I wrote in my field notes: "Students talk [without raising their hands] to [Renae] and each other in a controlled, respectful way. It’s . . . comfortable, relaxed, and eager. [It is] like a family sharing about their day around the dinner table" (Vol. III, p. 9). This sense that Renae and her students operate like a family continued to grow as I spent more time in their school, and as I listened to Renae.

In a brief chat at the close of my second visit, Renae gestured to the classroom and told me that it was her world and her life. Renae spends an incredible amount of time giving to her school family. She and Ken allow themselves to become involved in every aspect of their students’ lives. Renae and Ken attend students’ sports events, special church functions, and seek to meet students’ needs just like biological and adoptive parents do.

Renae continues to take parenting classes because she believes they allow her to better understand and work with her students. She credits the learning she has done in raising her biological children with allowing her to be more effective with her school children. The students share in each others’ joys and sorrows just like a family does, and they feel secure in their classroom family.

Though Renae actually used the term family at various times in our conversations, it was not until the final interview that I asked her about the reason for her analogy. She replied,

Family is the basic unit that I can think of that’s God’s perfect group. He puts you together. . . . Families are put together to bring out the best in each other and that’s what we’re going to do. . . . We spend a lot of time talking about how we can work with each other. . . . You don’t put anybody down and if there’s a problem, we talk about it and what [we can] do to work through it. . . . As a family, we work together and we find out that it’s good to help each other. We’re not always going to be the one who knows everything. Just like in a family, not everybody will be the same. . . . Everybody has some role to make the family operate and there are benefits for everybody when we do. . . . I like to think of them as my family. (Vol. III, pp. 153-155)


Because Renae sees herself as having been given special gifts by God to use in giving to others who are also created by Him, she has given her life to serving and helping those around her. She is motivated to become all she can possibly become because she has been given a sacred trust by God to help others dream big and achieve their dreams. At the core of Renae’s being is the belief that God has a plan and purpose for her life which she is to fulfill. Renae explained,

I feel God’s always at work in my life. He has a purpose for me. He has a plan. He only reveals a little bit at a time. He doesn’t give [me] the whole book at a time. [I] only get one page. [I] can’t deal with it all. I’m never quite sure where He’s leading me, but I know that He’s always getting me ready for the next [step]. (Vol. III, p. 151)