Union County Public Schools will name its 2017 Teacher of the Year Thursday in an annual event that has honored the top educators in the district for the past two decades.
Twenty-three years ago, the newly formed Union County Public Schools crowned its very first Teacher of the Year – Barbara Coleman, a third-grade teacher at Wingate Elementary School. (Below right)
Coleman still remembers the moment she heard her name called as the 1994-95 UCPS Teacher of the Year. “I was stunned. I never expected to win. This was the first time for the district. This was a big deal. It was wonderful. It was an absolute honor. It was incredible.”
After 42 years in education, Coleman has decided it’s time to retire. Reflecting on her career, she remembers the influence of the educators in her life, and how their guidance helped make her a stronger teacher.
“I’ve been fortunate to be around stellar people,” she said. “I got to work with people like Bill Stegall, Jerry Thomas, Ed Davis and Bill Cook. I learned from so many people. Nobody gets to where they are by themselves. I’ve been standing on the shoulders of so many people for so many years. I didn’t get here by myself.”
Coleman said in the past four decades there have been positive changes in education, but there have also been negative.
“Politically, where we are now is very disheartening,” she said. “My heart is for public education. That’s what America was founded on and the tenets of that need to be revisited. Education is for all, not for some.”
As for positive changes, she said technology has been a huge boon to education. “When I started, it was an isolating experience to be in the classroom. You went in the classroom, you stayed there all day by yourself and there was no collaboration.”
Coleman said that is certainly not the case today. “The beauty of where we are now is with social media, with Twitter and blogs, and publishers who are willing to put books online for free. You don’t have to leave your house to get professional growth. Think about all you could do with YouTube, with educational videos.
“There is so much out there for the classroom teacher to grow and change, to collaborate with others internationally. That’s huge! Now we’re reaching out across our walls, reaching out to others to see how they’re doing it. That’s the greatest thing that has happened for teachers. We’re going to be collaborative.”
As for advice to new teachers: “Always have a hunger for knowledge. Never stop reading, never stop learning, never stop asking questions, and please realize you don’t know it all.”
During her 42-year career, Coleman has been a classroom teacher, an assistant principal, principal and a curriculum specialist. She was an assistant principal at Unionville Elementary in January 1997 and then became principal at Fairview Elementary School in July 1999.
“My job was to work with the school board and build the prototype for the new design for elementary schools,” she said. “I was having tons of meetings with the school board looking at how to design a building.”
Coleman said she is proud of the time she spent at Fairview, especially the work she did with her teachers. One example: starting a curriculum lab for teachers to build resources. “I know, having a teacher’s heart, teaching materials are significant,” she said.
She also continued to impact students. “For young author’s day, for example, we had students pick their favorite book and illustrate it on a quilt square. I mailed them off to the authors and had them autograph them. We then made them into a large quilt. I think that quilt is still hanging in the library at Fairview.”
Getting the job as principal at Fairview meant Coleman’s career plans were right on track. It didn’t take long, however, for her to learn a valuable lesson that only time could teach.
“I realized the teacher in me needed to be a teacher,” she said. “The administrative part of being a principal I could do, but it wasn’t my passion. I needed to know I was truly impacting children and teachers in a significant way. My heart is with kids who need help.”
Coleman, therefore, decided to leave Fairview Elementary and take on a new challenge in 2000 – a curriculum specialist at Wingate Elementary under the leadership of Kristy Thomas.
“Once I did the principalship, I realized it wasn’t the job I wanted,” Coleman said. “As a curriculum specialist, I’m not far from the classroom. I’m sitting around the table with teachers. I’m still reading and learning about the craft of teaching and the best practices.”
When Thomas became the principal at Rock Rest Elementary in 2011, she took Coleman with her. Coleman remained in that role until her retirement this year.
“Barbara exemplifies what all educators should be,” Thomas said. “She kept learning, even to the last day, and always questioned what was the next best thing to help her students. She brought excellence to her work. There is nobody smarter than she. She has a ferocious curiosity to know more. She was always searching, reading and learning how to help kids. She never settled for kids failing. Kids were going to be successful under her watch and she was going to do the work to get them there. That’s what made her so special as a teacher.”
Coleman especially enjoyed mentoring young teachers. “Barbara was with me my first five years of teaching, but even after I was out of the New Teacher Program, she was still my mentor in my heart,” said Rock Rest Elementary third-grade teacher Whitney Roach. (Pictured above.) “She’s always very positive and has great ideas that put the kids first. Her motivation is ‘always instill the love of reading in students.’ I became a reader because of her. I’ve learned to look for what kids can do over what they can’t do. I’ll miss her very much.”
Coleman and her husband, Larry, both retired this year and have moved to Raleigh to be with their children and grandchildren.