Coleman Elementary School Principal Will Barnes and Cleburne ISD English Learner Specialist Darla Barnes have a date — to graduate — today.
The Cleburne educators, who are also husband and wife, will be awarded doctoral degrees in educational leadership in commencement exercises at Lamar University in Beaumont.
“I had started on my doctorate at Texas A&M Commerce while Will was working on his master’s degree at Lamar,” Darla Barnes said. “I decided to transfer to Lamar so we could do this together. We will walk onto the field together and sit together. We had to make a video, which will be shown during the ceremony, of us placing our doctoral hoods on each other. We are very excited to share this moment.”
The Barnes’ daughters, McKenzie and McKayla, eighth- and sixth-graders respectively at Wheat Middle School, and Irving third-grader McKallie, will be in attendance at their parents’ big event, as will Darla’s son, Brandon, who is flying in from Tennessee.
“It’s really important that they have this special day, for all the work they’ve done,” McKayla said. “They are finally at the end, and it’s taken a lot of work and time to get there. You can tell they are excited.”
The endeavor to achieve the doctoral degrees has been a family affair, with everyone committed to the mission.
“It’s weird not seeing them doing homework anymore,” McKayla said. “It’s taken a lot of their time and family time to achieve this. We could tell they were putting their utmost effort into this and working as hard as they could. I know it’s inspired me to keep going when I get to college and get my own doctor’s degree. I’m very proud of them.”
All four children are excited to be there for the special day.
“It’s been a sacrifice for us and our children,” Will Barnes said. “There were a lot of moments when we had to put school work first. We are blessed by our kids — they are ridiculously awesome. We are going to leave for Beaumont on Friday, making it a family road trip. We are all looking forward to a little breathing room. It’s been very different these past few weekends not having anything to study or a deadline to meet. It’s been nice.”
In addition to their ceremony regalia, both honorees will be wearing special stoles identifying them as first generation college graduates.
“My dad didn’t finish high school and my mom got her GED, but they more than provided for me and my three sisters,” Darla Barnes said. “It was never a question in our family as to whether we would go on to college. I always knew I was either going to be a lawyer or a teacher — and I chose teaching. It has been my true path.”
Darla Barnes was valedictorian of her class at Rio Vista High School. She went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication from Tarleton State University, later followed by a master’s degree.
“I had a son at 18, but that didn’t stop me from getting my college education,” she said. “My goal was to get out there and get to work, with no excuses. I got that from my parents. By example, they showed us no matter what, you got things done--while always putting family first. They will be with us on Saturday as we graduate.”
Will Barnes finally embraced his life’s true vocation following a successful first career in sales. He credits his mother for his work ethic and drive to succeed. He credits Darla for inspiring him to become a teacher.
“I am also a first generation college graduate,” he said. “I was raised by a single mom with three children, who rose from an entry level job in retail to management. She was very hard working and put in lots of hours.
“I wanted to continue with my studies after high school and started out on that traditional collegiate path. But it didn’t work for me initially, which is the same as what happens with a lot of kids. Now as the first in family to graduate from college, I feel it’s changing the cycle and raising the bar of excellence, educationally.”
Early into their dating, Darla Barnes would comment often that Will Barnes should consider going back to school to obtain his bachelor’s degree — in education.
“Darla knew when she was in grade school that she wanted to be a teacher,” Will Barnes said. “It wasn’t on my radar. She first got me coaching youth sports and I found I really enjoyed being around kids and working with them. I enrolled in Lamar University and began subbing. When it was time for my student teaching, I was placed at Cleburne High School, working with (social studies teachers) Chris Poss and Matt Moulden.
“I found teaching kids was, for me, the most challenging, and the most rewarding experience. It’s wonderful to see kids reach their potential. Darla is the best teacher I’ve ever seen in the classroom. She leads by example. I’ve always been amazed at how well she has related to kids and the growth they have achieved under her instruction. What I have learned most from her is that you must believe to your core that all kids can be successful.”
Will Barnes hit the ground running as a newcomer to the classroom in 2013, spending four years as a social studies teacher at CHS before being promoted to assistant principal in 2017. In July of this year he named the new campus leader for Coleman.
“Once Will realized I was right about teaching being his true calling, he took off with it,” Darla Barnes said. “Saturday will be the third time for our kids to see their dad presented with a college diploma. They were there when he received his bachelor’s degree, then his master’s.
“I would like to think he got a lot of his teaching skills from me. I’ve been doing this a lot longer than he has. But really, teaching comes natural to him. When we would go on family road trips and pass a statue or monument, the kids would always ask what it was. And I would think to myself, ‘Oh no, here it comes — another history lesson.’ He’s a natural history teacher.”
Will believes he continues to teach, as a campus administrator, which has given him the opportunity to reach even more students.
“In seeking to become an assistant principal, I just wanted to affect more kids,” he said. “In coming to Coleman, I admit I was initially terrified to work with elementary kids, despite encouragement from a lot of people. It’s been incredible. It’s changed my life, for sure. I’m so thankful to now see education from this perspective. It’s been revitalizing and refreshing. The culture here at Coleman is second to none — we are a family.”
For Darla Barnes, working closely with the classroom remains her passion, although she has the degrees to serve as a campus and district administrator. As an English Learner Specialist for CISD, she works with teachers, staff and students in providing a successful instructional environment for English Language Learners. She began her career in 2002 with Waco ISD where she was a middle school coach and taught communications and theater. She went on to teach one year with Everman ISD, followed by 11 years at Mansfield ISD serving at the middle school and high school levels. She joined the CISD staff in 2016.
“In my first year of teaching, a veteran teacher came up to me one day and said, ‘You’re a lifer,’” Darla Barnes said. “I wasn’t sure what she meant at the time — but now I do. A lifer is someone who is willing to love kids, help them grow and see the promise within them.
“Obtaining a doctor’s degree was a goal I wanted to meet. I’m all about growth. I do feel accomplished and proud of myself. This was something I wanted to do for me. I want to make an impact on the world and kids.”
Both plan to take the time to celebrate this latest educational achievement, which they believe will make them even stronger in their varied teaching roles.
“It has certainly been sweeter in being in education together, parents together, students together and having our kids on this journey with us,” Will Barnes said. “Walking onto that football field together on Saturday will be amazing. My biggest supporter in everything has been Darla. I hope I’ve also been that for her.
“I’m really not sure it has totally sunk in. Maybe the ceremony will help. The teachers have been training our students to call me Dr. Barnes. I’m sure they are all wondering why I don’t have a white coat and a stethoscope. I admit ‘Dr. Barnes’ sounds unusual in my ears, too. But it sure sounds good when people call me that.”
The Drs. Barnes also admit that once the celebrating is over, they plan to get back to work in obtaining their superintendent’s certifications.
“Where I’m at in my journey, you don’t know when a door might open,” Will Barnes said. “And I want to be ready.”
Both are ready to continue their educational journey.
“I do like to grow, and I’m always looking for that next goal,” Darla Barnes said. “I may look at pursuing a superintendent position later in my career. Right now, I love going into the classroom and being able help students and teachers. But it’s going to be fun working on this new learning opportunity together. Teaching is our calling and education is our home — and we don’t ever want to leave home."