“David, Scott, and Roger are going camping for the weekend. They bought three pounds of ground beef to make hamburgers on the grill. If an average hamburger weighs one-quarter of a pound, how many hamburgers can they make?”
For those of you who have no idea how to solve that problem, students in Jill Rumbaugh’s sixth-grade class would recommend that you “Grip it, rip it and flip it” – the cheer they use to divide fractions.
This cheer and others the Cheyenne Middle School teacher employs to impart an understanding of math to her students seem to be working well. The school’s sixth-grade math scores rank first in the district and are as much as 13 percent above the national average. At the end of October, Rumbaugh was one of two Oklahoma teachers honored with the Milken Educator Award. The prestigious national award celebrates the highest-caliber educators around the country by giving them a $25,000 cash award at an intense education seminar in Washington, D.C.
Rumbaugh said getting the recognition has been a humbling experience and she really doesn’t think there is anything that sets her apart from the other teachers at Cheyenne.
“They inspire me so much,” she said of her fellow teachers.
And Rumbaugh hopes to inspire her students. During the first days of a new school year, she tells them, “I want you to walk out of here learning more than you’ve ever learned before.”
Rumbaugh said the teachers who had the most impact on her were the ones who taught her a lot and had a passion for the subject. One of those teachers was Nancy Ratzlaff Willliams, her third-grade teacher. She said Williams’ approach let the students work independently at “centers” – something she found fun.
Rumbaugh makes sure learning in her classroom is enjoyable too.
“I try to create a laid back, comfortable environment,” she said. “I’m not opposed to conversation about math, so it’s not ever silent.” Her students are always working with each other and are often reciting songs, dances and cheers to help them remember how to solve the problems.
While some might see middle school students as a real challenge, Rumbaugh loves the age – for a number of reasons. Sixth-graders are just on the verge of beginning to think abstractly, so she explains both solving the problems and why the solutions work. And there is definitely a lighter side for this group.
“With sixth-graders, you can still be a goober,” she said. There is always lots of laughter in Rumbaugh’s classroom and she encourages her students to have fun.
“Math is a fear for a lot of people,” she said. “I want to make it a comfortable place, a place where it is okay to make mistakes and a place to ask questions.”
Above all, Rumbaugh wants to make sure her students are confident about math. Some of her students arrive with preconceived notions about numbers. Parents seldom say things like “I had trouble learning to read” but many people say “I was never good with math,” she said.
Rumbaugh impresses on her students that the things they learn in her classroom are skills they will use every day for the rest of their lives.
Rumbaugh has been teaching for 15 years, the last six of those at Cheyenne. She said it is nice to meet her former students when they are out shopping or at a restaurant. “It is fun to see what they’re doing now,” she said.
After winning the award, Rumbaugh also heard from a number of her former teachers. In particular, one of her middle school teachers wrote her a very nice note.
Even as a student, Rumbaugh always knew that she wanted to teach. Her grandparents and two of her aunts were teachers, so she grew up with several educators in the family. While she was in school, Rumbaugh planned to be an elementary school teacher, but in her senior year at John Marshall High School, her math teacher gave her information about a program at Oklahoma State University funded by the National Science Foundation. The program offered scholarships and special classes geared toward education majors who would teach middle school math and science. Rumbaugh was skeptical at first, but by the time she graduated, she knew she had found her calling.
She is looking forward to the teacher quality conference she will attend in May where she’ll receive her cash award from the Milken Family Foundation.
“I’m going to be intimidated with these other 99 amazing teachers, but I’m also excited about it because there will be so much to learn.” she said.
As for the prize money, Rumbaugh plans to use it to pay bills and add to her children’s college funds, but most of all, it will secure her future as a teacher. “I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she said.