Beth Barnes is the embodiment of a “teacher.” Her glasses smartly frame her face, and her brown curls are ponytailed atop her head. She is only missing a bright red apple to complement her aesthetic. Physicality aside, when speaking to Beth, she has a warmth and passion that spills into each word she utters. She is incredibly bright, but somehow manages to light up even more when she begins discussing her career.
Beth has transitioned out of a three-year long stint as a history teacher for YES Prep North Central School on Houston’s northside back into student life. She’s started a Master’s program with the University of Houston’s History department. However, she hasn’t dropped her day job altogether, as she has taken on a Teaching Assistant position within the University’s History department.
In moving towards teaching undergrads, Beth expressed excitement. She said her experience at YES Prep helped provide her with “a better toolkit for teaching 1st generation and ESL students.” Though , certainly her own background has helped shape her teaching approach in some way as well.
Barnes was also a first generation college student, and high achiever at that. She graduated from Texas Tech University in 2008 with three degrees in History, Russian and German. Since then, she has had a storied career in education, first teaching pre-kindergarteners at a Montessori school, then she worked with the Head Start program and tutored at General Academic. She has taught English as a second language in Austria as a Fulbright Scholar, and worked as a writing tutor at the University of Vermont, before moving back to Houston to work at YES Prep North Central. While at YES Prep, she taught World History, US History and AP World History.
“I’ve always really loved talking about history.”
When pressed about what’s kept her in education for so long, Barnes points to her love of history and teaching. “I’ve always really loved talking about history,” she posits. She described her tutoring experience as a “bridge,” to her current career. Tutoring helped her to understand grade school students by showing her what she described as an “academic spectrum.” Barnes mentioned that tutoring allowed her to see many different students’ perspectives, causing her to “learn how to adapt different strategies for different learning styles.”
When asked about her aspirations in teaching students, Barnes said she hopes to “foster a growth mindset.” She sees developing this mindset as a goal to reach for both high school and college students alike. “Too many students see academic struggles negatively, instead of seeing it as a space to grow,” she claims. “I want more of my students to be willing to push through challenges so they can change and grow.”
Speaking of her new college students, Barnes mentioned that she’s “especially excited about the 1st generation students who are willing to push through the struggles they face to become enlightened.” She especially understands those struggles, as they’ve affected her in different ways throughout her own career. She’s lived them personally as a first-generation undergraduate, then through her high school students while she was an instructor at YES Prep North Central.
Lessons from YES Prep
All YES Prep students are required to apply and receive an acceptance letter from a 4-year college or university. Their schools are located in low-income communities and their program specifically caters to would-be 1st generation college students. When pressed about what drew her to YES Prep, Barnes said her own experiences in college made YES Prep more appealing.
Of the multitude of factors affecting first-generation college students, Barnes highlighted the lack of education equity at most public schools in low-income communities (YES Prep, not included) which can cause anxiety in those students who feel underprepared when they arrive at 4-year universities for the first time.
Barnes also pointed to the income gap affecting many low-income and minority students in the communities YES Prep serve. Outside of pressure to finance their education once in college, Barnes claimed that the income disparity for 1st generation students can cause them to have feelings of alienation among their wealthier peers. “First-generation students often have to earn their place in college,” she mentioned.
Barnes also described the emotional toll that sending a child to college can have on families of first-generation students. “Parents of first-generation students often try their best to be supportive, but they may not fully understand what is required of their child while they’re in school.”
What Teaching Has Taught Beth
“The most rewarding thing about teaching would definitely be my students,” Beth says when asked about her job. “I’ve always most enjoyed seeing students make progress throughout the year.” In describing the most challenging aspects of her job, Beth has firsthand knowledge of the struggles of teaching in America. “Being a teacher is undersold. It’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It’s taught me how to rebound quickly and how to be resilient after failed lessons.”
Developing a teacher-student relationship also stood out as one of the more challenging processes of her job. Working as a teacher in one of Houston’s toughest neighborhoods, Beth had to learn not to carry the weight of the challenges her students faced with her. “You can’t fix everything going on with a student, even though you’ve built this personal relationship with them,” she says, speaking of students with difficult personal situations and backgrounds that affected their school work. “You can’t will a troubled student into better behavior. You can only try your best to guide them while you’re their teacher.”
When asked what she wished more people knew about being a teacher, Beth has a clear understanding that the job is not for everyone. “Teaching isn’t just a nine-month job. It’s a career that’s worthy of respect,” she says recognizing the lack of appreciation most in her position receive. It is certainly true that not everyone is cut out to teach. Beth thinks her profession would be better received if those uncommitted to the job didn’t apply. “Bad teachers come from the idea that ‘If all else fails, I’ll just become a teacher.’ But it takes real dedication to teach. You’re putting in 60-80 hours a week, every week.”
As a history teacher, Beth is cognizant that a change needs to happen in the American education system. At a time when American students are struggling to keep up with the rest of the world across subjects, the demand has risen sharply for passionate, dedicated and well-equipped teachers. Beth states that we should collectively, “treat teachers with more respect for the job they do. They deserve to be paid more & have greater professional development opportunities.”
Looking to the Future
As Beth works to complete her Master’s, she says that she has considered earning her PhD as well, saying “the right teaching position would make it worth it.” She’s also interested in curriculum development and teaching more AP courses in the future. “Earning my Master’s degree right now will give me more options in the long run of my career.”
It appears as though Beth has poised herself to become a truly remarkable instructor. Though it’s unclear where she’ll end up exactly a few years down the line, her future students will have earned an exceptional and passionate teacher.
This article was originally published on 11/21/14. We’re re-publishing for Teacher Appreciation Week.