Cynthia Barrera intended to get a degree in nursing when she first attended Pan American University back when the program was just beginning. At the time, she wanted a career in which she could help people.
But the university delayed the program a year, forcing Barrera to try out other types of classes. Taking a course on music education changed the young college student’s plans, and she settled on a career as a teacher, earning a four-year degree in three years. That was in 1986.
Nearly three decades later, Barrera’s dedication to teaching has earned her the distinction of Secondary Teacher of the Year from La Joya Independent School District. She teaches English language arts to eighth-graders at Memorial Middle School.
“I’m very honored to have this particular award given to me,” Barrera said. “I’ve always been regarded as the type of person that works really hard. My interest is always to have the kids come first. I want them to be prepared, so they can become life-long learners.”
Barrera leads by example, and she’s always learning herself; it’s one of the things she loves about teaching.
Her career started with Mission Consolidated ISD, where she worked for six years before moving to La Joya ISD, and she’s spent the last 10 at Memorial Middle.
In the classroom, Barrera wants her students to share with her because it helps her understand them. Over the years, Barrera said she’s seen students change, and teachers now have to compete with technology to keep students’ attention.
“What students know right now compared to what kids knew in earlier generations, we’re creating a much smarter generation,” Barrera said. “I’m happy that I’m in this career because I get to see this first-hand.”
Barrera likes to use games to engage her students. A game can be as easy as trash-can basketball, where a student gets a chance to shoot a paper basketball into the garbage for two points if he or she answers a question right.
But the activity most of Barrera’s students remember most is her Halloween tent. In the week leading up to Halloween, Barrera has her students write scary stories, and on Halloween, she brings in a big tent.
They all go inside with flashlights and tell each other their spooky stories.
“It just stands out,” Barrera said. “I’ve had some kids say that it inspired them to go into teaching. They say, ‘I want to be able to play games with the kids and teach them.’”
Barrera said her parents taught her and her three sisters the value of hard work. Her dad taught her how to do work on the ranch, while her mom taught her how to keep a home.
They taught her to be well-rounded, no matter her gender. It’s important to be independent, Barrera said.
“And that’s what I try to instill in my kids,” she said. “In order for them to be successful for life, they have to be prepared for life.”
Barrera also has learned from her children. Her son, diagnosed with cerebral palsy, qualified to start special education and pre-kindergarten at 3 years old. He finished his kindergarten curriculum at 4 years old, but Barrera wasn’t comfortable sending him on to first grade, so she held him back. He still managed to graduate at 17 from Palmview High School.
She said her son encouraged her on days when teaching is tough.
“He would say, ‘You’re not going to give up; you didn’t give up on me,’” she said. “I’m grateful that I’ve learned a lot of patience from my family.”