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Podcast: Perseverance in Middle-School Math With Velnetta Runyon in WV on Teachers in America

28 Min Read
Teachers in America Podcast With Velnetta Runyon

Photo: Middle school math teacher Velnetta Runyon

Welcome back to Teachers in America, where we celebrate teachers and their lasting impact on students' learning journeys and lives.

In this episode, we hear from Velnetta Runyon, a math teacher at Logan Middle School in Logan, West Virginia.

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

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Noelle Morris:

Teachers in America podcast is created for the K–12 education community of teachers, education leaders, and family members. This episode contains explicit language and adult themes not intended for a student audience.

Welcome to Teachers in America, a production of HMH, where we celebrate teachers and recognize their triumphs, challenges, sacrifices, and dedication to students. We see you. We want our listeners to feel not only inspired by the practice, but to also have a renewed sense of community.

I am the Senior Director of Community Engagement, Noelle Morris. Each episode, I meet a new teacher friend and learn about the latest lessons and innovations from the classroom.

Today we are joined by Velnetta Runyon, a 7th and 8th grade math teacher at Logan Middle School in Logan, West Virginia. She is entering her 11th year of teaching this fall. Before becoming a teacher, Velnetta worked for nearly 10 years running movie theaters all over the Northeast. Although she hadn’t always wanted to be a math teacher, she knew she needed a career that would allow her to raise her children and also satisfy her soul. Velnetta feels she is making a difference for every student that walks through her classroom door.

She is one of the teacher leaders in her school, the faculty senate president, and math chairperson. Having earned her bachelor's degree from Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, Velnetta will be completing her Master's in Administration, Supervision, and Leadership.

I met Velnetta at the 2022 Models Schools Conference, and I love that her goal is to show students to not be afraid of math; she ensures that they are believed in and are pushed to their full potential of problem solving.

Now, let’s get to the feature presentation.

Hey, Velnetta. So, welcome to the Teachers in America podcast. I'm so excited to meet you!

Velnetta Runyon: I'm so happy to be here.

Noelle: We're getting to actually talk in person. I know our listeners don't get to see that, but you and I are in person. We are physically distanced. I'm not sitting right next to you. But I'm so excited to meet you and be here at Model Schools. And one of the things I was reading in your background as I was preparing my notes is you are a middle school math teacher.

Velnetta: Yeah.

Noelle: So, before we jump into math and middle school, tell me about your teacher journey. How did you become a teacher? Did you always want to be a teacher?

Velnetta: I did, but I never wanted to teach math. I grew up wanting to teach language arts, and I wanted to start a theater program at whatever school I taught. A year after I finished my first year of school, I decided I didn't want to go to college anymore. So, I packed up my stuff, and I moved to Cleveland, Ohio, and I got a part-time job at a movie theater, worked my way up, and had a whole other career for 10 years.

Noelle: Wow.

Velnetta: I know. I met my husband during that journey, and we had two beautiful boys. And then, I went through a divorce, and I thought, "What can I do to have the same schedule as my kids, raise my kids, and still be a mom?" And so, I went back to school at Marshall University and got my education degree.

Noelle: Nice. I love when life just says, "Wait. We'll go on this journey," and then other circumstances happen. When you went to Marshall, and you were making that transition, what did it feel like going back to college after 10 years?

Velnetta: You mean as an adult and being in school with 17, 18, 19-year-olds? Old. I felt old. I was 10 years behind. But you also appreciate education a whole lot more. You don't go to school hoping that you can just pass the class. You go to school really trying to soak in all the knowledge that you can so you can pay it forward as well as you can. So, it was a totally different experience.

Noelle: And you probably had a little bit of an advantage, because you know what you want to do with that degree when you're exiting or graduating.

Velnetta: I did. I got my degree in K–6. Kindergarten through sixth grade. To me, that felt like the quickest degree to get, the easiest degree to get. I know that sounds terrible. But when I actually went to the school district I work in, they had a math position open, and I thought, "I can teach math. I got math." So when I walked into the school, the principal said, "We thought you had a math degree. You aren't qualified." And I just sat down on the couch and said, "Let me tell you why you need to hire me." And so, within the year, I had my math certification. They hired me on the spot. I've been in the same classroom since that day.

Noelle: Wow. So, do you remember the things you said to explain "why you need to hire me?"

Velnetta: Yes. Because number one, I love what I do. The job that I had was running movie theaters, so that older crowd is who I connected with. After student teaching in the kindergarten classroom, I knew that with the little ones is not where I needed to be. And I knew that I related well to the older kids. But I also knew in my high school career, I had a teacher that kind of didn't do what she was supposed to. Where I used to love math, I then hated it. I actually got a D in my college algebra class, and I had to retake it. So, I thought if I can make kids love math, then I can make kids successful going forward. And that's why I told her that she needed to hire me. I said, "You can't find anybody in this world that can make kids maybe not love math, but love their math class, as much as I can."

Noelle: Wow. Well, do you remember the principal's facial reaction? I'm so intrigued. And I mean this in the most loving way: I love bold teachers. I love teachers that bring something that an administrator is not ready to necessarily hear or experience, but somehow during the conversation, there's this hook that says, "You know what? I need to take the chance with this person because it's going to be best for my school."

Velnetta: Well, at first, she was a little taken aback, I believe. But by the end of the conversation, we had people that we knew in common. One of her nieces was actually my cousin, just from different sides of the family. I got to know her as a person as much as she got to know me as a person, and I think—just as you said—she decided, "You know what? I'll take a chance." And I've not stopped since.

Noelle: What was the first day in that math class like with middle schoolers? I never wanted to teach elementary. I knew middle school was my heart and my passion, but I also remember I did my student teaching with sixth graders, and my first job was with seventh and eighth grade. There's a big difference between sixth graders and seventh.

Velnetta: Yes.

Noelle: So, tell me about your first day in that classroom with middle schoolers.

Velnetta: I knew before lunch that day that I was exactly where I needed to be. Those kids needed somebody to say, "Yes, you can." And they also needed somebody to say, "No, you can't." So, I love being able to knock the kids off the little peg that they think they're standing on, while nurturing them to stand on a bigger peg that they deserve to be on. I knew that I was exactly where I needed to be, and I wouldn't go anywhere else. My very first year, I started in January, so I was halfway through a class that had a full-time sub going into it. They had no consistency whatsoever. And I had a kid that hated me. I mean, he despised walking into my class because I didn't put up with it.

So, he was trying to arm wrestle some other kids. I said, "I'll make you a deal. If you can beat me at arm wrestling, you win. If I beat you, I win." And he arm wrestled me and lost, and he got even more frustrated, but he kept to his word. He sat, he did what he was supposed to, but I think he thought he'd get the best of me.

So, he wrote the letters "KCUF" on his forehead. He used a mirror. And I went over, and I high-fived him. And he said, "Why are you high-fiving me?" I said, "You've got it." He said, "I've got what?" I said, "Reflection. That's what we're learning. You understand reflection. Now, take that off your forehead, and let's go." So, he got a little bit okay knowing he wasn't going anywhere. I think he thought, "That'll get me out of this classroom, and that'll get me detention." No. If you want to go away, you need to stay closer. And that's all it took.

Productive Perseverance in Math

Runyon's math students learn productive perseverance.

Noelle: Oh, wow. I love that moment because everybody has a student that needs you, and you need to help them realize it. And sending them out of the class is not the direction.

Velnetta: No.

Noelle: It's saying what you just said; now "I have a moment to have some irony."

Velnetta: Yeah.

Noelle: Right?

Velnetta: Yeah.

Noelle: And he's going to learn irony. He's going to figure out these connections that I'm making. I had a student who, every day, told me, "You make me sick." And I was like, "How sick? Like emergency? Like I need to call 911? Is there an allergy?" And she just looked at me like, "That's not what you're supposed to say. You're supposed to get nervous and push me away. Not continue to stand here and have a conversation." So, we have a similarity in that way.

Velnetta: Literally, they know we're better at it than they are.

Noelle: I love those moments. Yep. When you think about your first year to where you are now, what transitions have you made in the way you set up your classroom? What your classroom looks like on Day 1 compared to Day 180?

Velnetta: So, Day One was your typical classroom. It was the rows. It was nothing on the walls. It was as bare as you can get because "these kids are here to learn algebra, and that's what they're going to learn." They're also here to learn how to be a kid, and they're here to learn how to be social, and they're here to be loved, and they're here to be fed, so why not make it a little bit enjoyable for all of us? So, to go from that, which was 10 years ago, to now: I have a quadrant on my floor, literally four quadrants. I have all the formulas pasted on my wall, so when they come in, they're like, "Why are you giving us the answers?" I'm like, "Answers? I'm giving you the resource that you need to find the answers." So, it's a whole lot different. They get to use notes on every single test that they take. They just have to know how to use the notes that they take.

Noelle: Wow. Do you plan as a team? What's the dynamic at your school? Do y'all naturally just swarm together, or are you still planning individually?

Velnetta: What's really beautiful at this school where I work is we have many different teams. We have a math department. We have a grade-level department. I'm the math chairperson at my school. So, we plan as the math department, but then we also do vertical planning. So, I get to meet with the sixth-grade teachers and the eighth-grade teachers. And the sixth-grade teachers will say, "Listen, this group really didn't understand this standard, so that's coming into you." And then, I get to do the same thing for the eighth-grade teachers.

And then, we even coincide with the high school and say, "What is it you need these kids to learn to be successful?" So, obviously, we care about the testing. Obviously, we do. But we care more about student success than number success. We care that they are confident when they walk into the next level, and that's what that vertical planning does. So, it's not a whole lot of cliques where we are. It's a whole lot of, "I know this kid. Let me tell you about this kid. I know what makes this kid tick. Let me tell you this." It can be a fifth-grade teacher coming to me, as a seventh-grade teacher, saying, "Listen, their parents were killed in a car wreck. This is what you need to know, and this is how you can help them. If you want to touch this kid, this is what you need."

Noelle: Velnetta, when you think about how you share the vertical conversation on a standard, are y'all seeing a standard that's a trend?

Velnetta: Yeah. The data. I know we hear that, and it's so overused. But as a math person, I love the word "data." Because if we see, as a sixth-grade team, that two standards aren't good (they meet all the time or as a whole level, and obviously, teacher turnover is an issue, too)—but they meet and say, "What can we do differently? We've obviously failed these kids somewhere, so what can we do differently?" We don't place all the blame on the kids. They're doing what they're supposed to. Are we always doing what we're supposed to?

Noelle: I've read articles on data and statistics, and I feel like there's a lot of conversation happening in the math space on project-based learning and SEL around the data standard.

Velnetta: Yeah.

Noelle: Are you hearing that? What are you hearing?

Velnetta: We do it. We do a lot of project-based learning, and we have the luxury to work for a district that says, "What do you need?" Not all teachers have that. But they come to us and say, "Okay, give me a supply list. You tell me what you need, and we'll make it happen for you." So, one of the things is: We don't want the rows anymore. So, my classroom has tables that fit four. They're whiteboard topped. We don't do a lot of paper and pencil work. But the writing that goes onto those boards would never go on a piece of paper. And then they walk around, and they share. So, something as simple as that goes into the bigger projects.

Kids Collaborate on Math Project

Runyon's students engage in project-based learning by working collaboratively around a table.

Noelle: Do you remember the cost or what your administrator needed to do to help you make that switch in the way the room is set up? I mean, whiteboard boards aren't inexpensive. It's not inexpensive to bring the chalkboards down and put those up. Do you remember what you needed to do? What your administrators needed to do?

Velnetta: We had to first write an approval. We had to first ask, "Can we do this?" And then, we had to write a requisition. And then, my principal, he took the time to find good prices. And then we turned it in. Now, how our central office finds the funds—I know we get grants. I know that that happens. But luckily, that's beyond my pay grade, and luckily I just get to reap the benefits. Because there have been very few things that I've asked for as a teacher that I haven't gotten to make my kids successful.

Noelle: So, you know how to ask!

Velnetta: Yeah. I mean, if they say no, they say no; but they can never say yes if you don't ask.

Noelle: That's fair. When you think about your math lessons, what process do you go through for every lesson? Does every lesson get the same Velnetta "oomph?" Or do you say, "We are going to have to do something that can't be just completely engaging, and has to be frustrating first?"

Velnetta: Yes, every class has a different version of me, and you learn that within the first couple of weeks of school. The process is just: Learn your kids first. You don't come in and not do work the very first day, but you've got to learn about your kids and how they work. Do they work well together? Do some of them like to work alone? Do you put that person into this group, or do you let that person work alone? You've got to give them choices, too.

Noelle: Well, let's talk about managing choice. But first, I'd like to ask: What's your go-to on the first three days to get to know your students? I mean, you've done that vertical alignment, so you've heard some things, but you want to make your own personal connection. So, what are you doing in the first three days that have kept you being successful?

Velnetta: Well, my very first day of school—and this just started a few years ago—there's a quadrant on my floor, so when students walk in, they wonder "Do they have assigned seats?" That's a big question. Well, they get a coordinate. They have to find their coordinate and look for the seat where their coordinate is. There's a formula on the board. It's a distance formula. And then, there's a little saying: "If you want to sit by your friend, you have to calculate the distance between you and said friend." If you successfully do it, congratulations. If you don't, we got some work to do." Now, the kicker with that is: That's an eighth-grade standard. I teach seventh grade. So, they get no help. I'm like, "Oh yeah, that's tough for you."

They might ask: "But what does this X mean?" I'm like, "Oh, you might want to ask somebody because I've got nothing for you today." So that lets me see how they struggle. Do they struggle? Are they willing to persevere? They want to sit with their friends, so 90% of my kids do it. Some of them get frustrated. I've had markers thrown across the room. I don't get mad. I just go pick it up and say, "You dropped it. Let's keep going." But it lets me see who's willing to work.

And at the end of that class, I'll say, "All y'all messed up today. All of you. Because now I know that you can do it. This is an eighth-grade standard, and you're in seventh grade, so don't tell me you can't do some of the stuff we're learning today." But it lets me know these kids.

Noelle: So clever. Do you get these inspirations in the middle of dinner? When you're watching your own children? How do you think of something so clever?

Velnetta: I'm responsible for maybe 5 percent of the things that I do in my class. We steal things from other teachers. So, I could go to a TikTok and see a teacher do something and say, "Oh, I could do that, but I want to do this with them instead of this, and I want to change this a little bit to make it work for my kids." Or I'll go to websites, or I'll find blogs or podcasts; I like to listen to teachers that love their job as much as I do. If a teacher doesn't love their job, I don't want to know what they do. But when a teacher loves their job, they never, ever stop working. And those are the teachers that I like to steal ideas from.

Noelle: Hey teacher friends! I want to tell you about Teacher’s Corner, a community of teachers, leaders, learning experts, and coaches gathered in one place to support you with a new kind of professional learning: bite-sized, teacher-selected, and teacher-driven. We include this digital experience with every HMH program on Ed. With on-demand sessions, lesson demonstrations, program support, or practical resources, Teacher’s Corner lets you choose how you interact with our content. I like to think of it as inspiration on demand. And because we like extending our connections to wherever teachers are, we also have a Teacher's Corner from HMH Facebook Group that is growing every day. So don't hesitate, join me and the rest of the community at HMH. We are always in your corner. Now back to the episode.

Noelle: Describe a day when your students know something's off with you. Because I feel like that part, too, as a teacher, you have to be very reflective on: "I'm not always going to have my best day. What do I do when my students recognize it?"

Velnetta: If my kids get a worksheet, they know that my day is not the best day. They know it. They hate those days, but they don't hate those days more than I hate those days. Number one, I tell them, "I don't want to grade it any more than you want to do it. You have to do one. I have to grade a hundred. So, you do you and let me do me." But that's how they know. Pencils are few and far between. It's more informal assessment, and more participation grades. Of course, we have assessments. But my kids know that they even though they might not love math, they're always going to love my math class. They know when they walk in that regardless of the day that I'm having, they're going to get the best self that I'm available to give. But that's also a pretty powerful lesson, too, isn't it? Kids know that we're human, and they have to see that it's okay to have a bad day, but it's not okay to live in that bad day. And when they understand that, then it helps them as a person.

Velnetta Runyon quote

Noelle: And not take it out on others. I know. My students used to tell me that they could tell some things about my emotions because my students were just very honest with me. They're like, "Ms. Morris, when you have different emotions, your face turns different shades of red." I was like, "Really? You noticed that?" And they're like, "Yes. And also, your eyes are so blue and clear that we've seen when you get frustrated or you're nervous because the principal is going to be coming for an evaluation." Because I always told them, "I can't afford donuts. I know you might get donuts from others, but I'm a first-year teacher." They would tell me that they could see how glassy my eyes were like when I was nervous, or when I was more focused on what was happening. I said, "Y'all are observing me?" And they were just like, "Yes, because we care about you as much as you're caring about us."

Velnetta: It feels good.

Noelle: Feels so good. But then, you're always like, "What shade of red am I? What am I sharing right now?" So, I love that this conversation is bringing me back to those days. In my first year of teaching, I did not think I was going to make it through. I counted the days for when I could quit without affecting my teacher certificate, and, as I'm thinking back, that was 1994. And we are in 2022, and I'm reading every article about teachers leaving the profession ten days in, or the middle of the year—and some don't even call. Some are just like, "I can't even call to tell you I'm not coming back." What have you experienced, and are you seeing any of that happen? And how are you as an individual contributing to helping people find how to stay in the classroom?

Velnetta: That statistic alone breaks my heart. Obviously, when we go into the teaching career, we know what we're going into. We know the pay's not the best. We know we don't really get summers off. We know that. But these last few years have broken teachers. And I've seen good friends of mine, this year, walk out of their classroom midday because they "can't" anymore. And that destroys me as a person, but I totally get that their mental health is super important. But the only thing that keeps me going is: If I'm the only smile that my kids see all day, if I'm the only person that tells them I love them, if I'm the only person that says, "You don't have to stay here; you can do more things," then that is enough for me. That's enough.

Noelle: Is there advice that you have for faculties or for leadership on how to recognize that with teachers?

Velnetta: They've got to offer more support. Thankfully, I feel supported. I do. One hundred percent, I do. But I also know that I'm not the norm. If a teacher doesn't feel supported, if a teacher sends a kid out of the classroom for behavior and that kid is sent right back, that says to that teacher, "You deal with it. I don't have time for it today." So, it's the support. It's like I told you: If we don't ask, we don't get. And if they say no, I'm going to ask again—because my kids deserve that. I don't deserve that, but my kids deserve that. So, when a teacher feels that support and feels the need to be where they are, then we won't walk out anymore.

Noelle: And it's the conversation in that support, right? Don't feel it's your fault. I know teaching is so important, and I love teachers, and I want in every way to see: How can I be a part of the solution? My role at HMH is about teacher advocacy. When you see a new teacher that's coming into your faculty, what's the first thing you do? Even if it's not in your curriculum, not in your discipline?

Velnetta: You mean how do I support the new teacher?

Noelle: How do you support them?

Velnetta: I make them understand that relationships are more important than anything we can teach them. You teach kids before you teach academics. If you can't teach the kid, if you can't unbiasedly and without judgment, see that kid for who they are (I don't care if their name is Jim, and they want to go by Sarah)—if you can't respect that kid and you can't let that kid know, "Your voice matters to me," then you've lost them from day one.

Kindness and Respect

"Relationships are more important than anything we can teach," says Runyon. Let every student know that "your voice matters to me."

Noelle: Such great advice. If another teacher from another discipline were to come into your classroom, and they're getting to come in, and it's your favorite lesson, what are they noticing? And what makes you the happiest in that moment?

Velnetta: So, if they're coming into my favorite—and I have quite a few favorite lessons—they'll notice two really important things. Number one, they won't see me standing in front of a classroom teaching anything. They'll also notice that my kids do not come up to me and say, "I didn't get this right. Can you help me?" Because they know that I'm going to say, "Oh, yeah, no, I'm not. That's on you. Use your resources. Ask your peers. Let's see what you can come up with, but this is your turn." So, they'll see me standing back and watching.

If anybody—and I wouldn't mind if it's the president of the United States—came into my classroom, it would look the same as any Monday. But they could go to any student, and they could ask those students questions. Because what those students say to whomever walks into my classroom is far more important than what I can say. I can sell myself and make myself sound like the greatest ever, but that doesn't matter. I want my kids to sell themselves. That's what matters.

Noelle: You said, "I want my students to know if they want more, if they want to leave West Virginia, if they want to leave our county, they can. It's okay." That's part of the irony of being a teacher—we want optimum opportunities for every student. We want them to see that. Have you ever had a student say, "Why do you stay here?" or, "Why didn't you get out?"

Velnetta: Yeah.

Noelle: Because I find that to be part of the juxtaposition.

Velnetta: Yeah. And I did get out, and I saw everything I wanted to see. I lived in three different states. My life brought me back there. And I tell them the reason I'm there is for them. I have a math degree. I could go anywhere and teach. I don't want to. I want to be here. And there's nothing wrong with Southern West Virginia. I love my state, and I love my community.

Noelle: Okay, Velnetta, we're towards the end. At the very end of our producer's notes, she said, "Definitely have to talk to Velnetta about the trip to Kings Island." So, this seems to be something that students already know is going to happen when they come into seventh grade.

Velnetta: About seven years ago, I went to my principal and said, "I want to take a trip." She said, "Where do you want to go?" And I said, "Kings Island." She basically said I've lost my mind. "I'm fully aware, but tell me what I need." She said, "We can't pay for it." Okay. So, what can we do? So, I called Kings Island. And Kings Island, if you're listening, is a theme park that's about five hours away from Southern West Virginia. It got approved as long as the kids could pay. Cost anywhere between $60 and $70 per student. These kids can't afford $60 and $70. So, we did fundraisers, we did whatever we had to do, and now it's been an annual thing, with the exception of COVID. But it's grown so much that, yes, these kids know. They know that it's coming. They know they have to behave to do so.

And some we may have snuck in even though they didn't behave. Will not go there. But our community found it so important that these kids could go that they would send in money. Businesses would send in $500 donations. Parents would send in a check that said, "This is for Sally, but also two other students who can't afford to go." I had people come to me the day of the trip this year and just hand me an envelope and say, "I know this isn't really for a ticket, but if you see somebody that needs food, just hand this $20 bill to them and make sure they have food." So, these kids that have never been out of Southern West Virginia got to go on "the best vacation of their life," and I quote. They've never been past Charleston, which is 45 minutes away. They took a bus ride that we adults find very difficult and loved every single minute of it. So, they do know it's coming, and they do want to show up for school in order to go on this trip with all these teachers.

Noelle: You say there's always a margin of error to support any student who wants to go.

Velnetta: So, obviously, discipline's a huge thing. We want our kids to be good, so it's not that they get no out-of-school suspensions. No, they get one. Because if I've got Johnny, who had to stay up all night because his dad was on drugs and it was his turn to watch him that night, and he comes to school the next day with no sleep, he's already in defense mode, and he does something really bad, and he's suspended. Well, I don't want that kid to be out of the chance to go, so we always give them grace. One out-of-school, okay. If it's a repeat offense, then we're going to have some issues. The unexcused absences have to be a minimum because we want our babies in school. There's no academic criteria. It doesn't matter if you're top-tier or low-tier. We want everybody to be there. But it's mainly just the discipline and the attendance.

Noelle: I love that. I bet you this starts happening at the younger grades, so the elementary students already know about this trip.

Velnetta: Especially the ones with siblings. Yeah, absolutely. They know coming into fifth grade, "Two more years, I get to go."

Noelle: Well, I'm now trying to figure out how we have lunch. I'm trying to figure out how I can come to West Virginia to see your classroom because I am feeling so connected to you right now. Everyone else is going to get to see your smile because we're taking pictures with the audience, and your smile, there's a radiance about you. When I think about how we empower ourselves, I feel that every teacher needs to know their walk-up song. And I got this from the days when I used to watch the Chicago Bulls, and Michael Jordan came out. And then, they always came out to a song, got them pumped up, and everybody had their own little song. Baseball players. And I was like, "If an athlete, if a public speaker, if getting an Emmy—teachers need that feeling every day." And I have my "walk-up songs." They change different days, depending on what's happening. What is your walk-up song that when you park and you're walking into the school, and you're walking down the hall, what's playing?

Velnetta: Probably "Fight Song," "take back your life song" [by Rachel Platton] because when I took my life back, that gave me the luxury to give that same gift to everybody that comes in contact with me. And if they don't see that part of me, then I have failed on so many levels.

Noelle: I think that your failures are far and few between, but I thank you so much for being a guest. You truly are a heartbeat of the teachers that I get to meet, and so thank you so much for being a guest.

Velnetta: Thank you so much for having me.

Success and Confidence

Runyon teaches her students to be strong, confident, and successful in math and in life.

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