TFA Educator Profile: Maddie Barnes

Maddie Barnes

Maddie Barnes is a 2021 Rio Grande Valley Teach for America corps member, and an 11th-grade English teacher at Rio Grande City High School in Rio Grande City.

What motivated you to apply to join Teach For America and choose to teach in the Rio Grande Valley?

Growing up, I frequently moved all around the United States. There was not much consistency or constants; however, schools always provided a reliable and dependable community throughout my childhood. During one of my moves in fifth grade, the local elementary school library was open for summer hours. Unfamiliar with other students or the campus, I stayed in the library for hours reading books. Both books and places centered around literacy became my safe place. I wanted to create the same safe feeling, passion for learning, and exploration of literacy in a classroom setting through Teach for America. There is no better place to not only promote literacy but celebrate biliteracy than in the Rio Grande Valley, where I am able to explore the strengths and beauty of two languages interacting and blending.

What has been one of the most surprising things you’ve come to learn about education during your time as a classroom leader?

I think there is a familiarity with the phrase “it takes a village” to raise or educate a child. I knew this phrase was true; however, it wasn’t until I was an educator that I saw the intricacies of what can have positive or negative impacts on children and their futures. Student success takes a safe space of belonging that is woven together by principals, teachers, specialists, custodians, administrative assistants, and more. It takes collaboration from family, friends, and community members. It takes support and change from lawmakers and legislation. It takes restructuring broken and harmful systems. Education is full of complexities. Getting all the pieces to align and allow for true positive impact in the classroom is difficult and many times downright frustrating. However, I remain committed to the idea that positive change for students can occur through advocacy with all the people who make education possible.

If you could change one thing for your students, what would it be?

I would eliminate their self-doubt. Throughout teaching, I have learned that students frequently carry this heavy burden of doubt- an uncertainty about themselves, who they are, what they contribute to the world, their future. This often leads to lack of motivation, mental health issues, lack of self confidence, and more. However, every single student I have had the pleasure of having in my classroom (hundreds!) has taught me such valuable lessons about life. Students are wealths of knowledge who have taught me about empathy, humor, positivity, and flexibility. They have given me the richest of lessons in compassion, awareness, and patience. I have no doubt about all of the beautiful, wonderful, and creative endeavors they will contribute to their communities and the world at large — I just wish it didn’t take so long for them to see it themselves.

What lessons are you learning now that will help you continue to work toward educational equity in the future?

I have learned that educational equity can start small. The vision is rooted in the belief that every child deserves access to quality education and a feeling of belonging and safety in classroom spaces. In pursuit of this dream, I want old ways of doing things which don’t support students to be updated, our laws to be revised to reflect the current needs of students, and for educators to incorporate more student voice into all that we do. When I look at the sheer scale of that dream and then back to my small classroom, it can feel as though we will never get there. However, I’ve seen that change within local schools, districts, and regions can impact thousands of children. Working towards equity in individual school policies, after-school activities, and classroom spaces creates meaningful change that I am proud to be a part of. This lesson has allowed me to not get discouraged and to remain hopeful about the positive possibilities in the future of educational equity.

Can you share an anecdote or personal experience from your classroom or school?

My passion project is our local Gender and Sexuality Student Alliance (GSSA)! My first year teaching, student leaders saw the need for support for LGBTQIA+ students and asked for additional guidance in starting a GSSA. Together, through legal backing via the Equal Access Act, we completed all necessary requirements and I became the sponsor of Rio Grande City High School’s first successful GSSA. With more than 65 members, we work on providing safe and inclusive spaces for queer students and allies. One of the highlights of my career has been watching the GSSA and its members grow. We have been able to host events, work on anti-bullying campaigns and collaborate with community partners. For example, through our partnership with the South Texas Equality Project (STEP), students were able to promote a scholarship fund for local youth and present the award at RGV Pride. This fund allowed for young community members to continue learning at higher education institutions by providing additional financial support. It has become my pride and joy watching students be able to be their fullest and best selves. I look forward to the future of our GSSA and watching other schools across the Valley advocate for safe spaces for LGBTQIA+ students!

Teach for America (TFA) is the national nonprofit organization committed to the idea that one day, all children will attain an excellent education. To this end, the organization partners with communities to inspire the next generation of leaders to address unequal educational opportunities that fall along the lines of race and class. They begin this lifelong work with an initial twoyear commitment to teach in some of the nation’s most underserved schools. Here in the Rio Grande Valley, 61 corps members work in seven districts across the region.