2012 Alabama Teacher of the Year and National Teacher of the Year Finalist
Horizon Elementary School, Madison, AL
For Gay Barnes the word “fear” is absolutely, positively not part of her personal vocabulary.
As she says, “We must be fearless for all of our students, especially the ones who need us the most. We must challenge and ask ourselves, ‘Am I helping my students learn?’ We must be brave enough to change our teaching if the answer is no. We must have the courage to question policymakers and challenge them when decisions prove harmful to our students. We must be fearless in our efforts to create schools and classrooms where all of our children have places to grow and thrive. And we must be fearless in welcoming accountability in what we do and how we do it, and dauntless in working with all stakeholders to broaden the scope of what currently counts in accountability measures. Our children are of various ages, backgrounds, strengths and weaknesses, and are alike in many ways yet vastly different in others. They are gutsy, bold heroic, intelligent, creative and stubborn, and they need teachers who are fearless.”
How does this first grade teacher, by setting the bar this wonderfully high in her views, accomplish this in her daily contact with kids? By having, as she puts it, an “unwavering commitment to students, especially those who are struggling, and a stubbornness about me that allows me never to give up on any student.” By recognizing struggling learners who have amazing strengths, Gay can address their weaknesses. Examples of this have involved first addressing the behavior changes of an ADHD student, patiently on a day-by-day basis , with himself, his family and other school personnel, so that by the end of the year his assessments showed him performing above grade level, or taking a second-year first grader with only 10 basic sight words, an inability to remember all of the letter sounds of the alphabet, an, in Gay’s words, being “absolutely bamboozled by the mystery of learning to read,” and together finding just the right book series in her classroom library that opened this children’s mental process to appropriately connect words, pictures, and meaning.
A grandmother of one of her recent students, with experience herself as an educator in several states, saw through her grandson’s first grade experience just why Gay had been recommended as the best teacher to meet his individual needs. “Dr. Barnes worked tirelessly with him and with us, his mother and I who were all living together
and witnessed his many challenging behaviors the previous school year, to help him become more successful in school. Her flexibility and willingness to try innovative ideas helped him to grow tremendously. His mother and I feel that without Dr. Barnes our little guy would not have made the significant gains he did during that year. I can truly say that I have rarely encountered teachers who combine knowledge, expertise, flexibility, innovative thinking and genuine caring for children in a way that matches those qualities in Dr. Barnes. Education is her true calling.”