Kindergarten teacher Whitney Barnes of Vale Elementary School is the 2021 Malheur Regional Teacher of the Year. (The Enterprise/Liliana Frankel)

VALE – As a child, teacher Whitney Barnes wasn’t the best student.

But the extra effort she needed to succeed in school enabled her current empathy for struggling students in her kindergarten class at Vale Elementary School. 

Barnes was recently announced as the 2021 Malheur Regional Teacher of the Year, putting her in the running for Oregon’s 2022 Teacher of the Year. So far, she’s won a $500 cash prize, with the possibility of $2,000 and a matching donation to Vale in the fall if she’s one of three finalists, or $5,000 and a matching donation if she beats out the other 15 regional winners to become the state awardee.

She was nominated anonymously and then had to submit a series of essays along with a resume and three letters of recommendation. 

The Teacher of the Year program recognizes “exemplary public school educators – Oregon teachers who inspire students and make a positive impact in the communities in which they live.” Candidates are assessed on their “knowledge, dedication, innovation and leadership,” according to the program website.

Barnes demonstrated those qualities with only a few years of teaching under her belt. She was hired in Vale School District three years ago just before the start of school, when she was still in college. At first, she was just a temporary teacher, but soon she had a full classroom under her control. 

“I’m a very energetic teacher, engaging my students with my energy and love,” said Barnes. “Because of my confidence in the principles of love, acceptance and guidance, my classroom operates on laughter, human connections and happiness.”

In kindergarten, Barnes said, using students' energies is important to enhance the learning process.

“I like to incorporate cheering, chanting, dancing, singing and moving to learn,” she said. “Building connections and rapport is my key to bring an uninvolved withdrawn learner into our community in the classroom.”

During the pandemic, virtual learning seemed to threaten teachers’ ability to form relationships with their students. So Barnes sought a safe way for her and her colleagues to connect with their students in person. 

Barnes dreamed up “Cruise Night,” which “allowed parents and students to remain in their vehicles but still be able to meet their teacher, receive vital information, and receive a gift to ensure each child felt comfortable and loved,” she explained. “I truly felt that Cruise Night eased many fears for both students and their families, and even myself and my colleagues, about the upcoming school year.”

As the year progressed, Barnes adjusted to Zoom teaching and found that despite the challenges, she still felt connected to her students – and they still felt connected to her. 

She could tell, she said, because of their participation. 

“How excited were they to engage with me and follow my prompts and share their life with me and their stories?” she said, describing her metric for how engaged a student was in virtual learning. “When a student respects you, they are willing to listen to you and learn from you. It takes trust and love for them to want to do that.”

And trust and love, according to Barnes, are why she’s so successful. 

“I feel honored for what (the award) represents and who I’m representing,” Barnes said. “I owe a lot of who I am today to my tribe – my friends, coworkers, and the kindergarten team – for creating me, supporting me, and letting me be the teacher that I am.”

News tip? Contact Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.

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