Park Hill school board's newest member knows about the plight of teachers — she used to be one
Shereka Barnes knew she couldn't return to teaching, even as schools faced worsening staff shortages during the pandemic. But she did return to the education field, this time in a different role.
Shereka Barnes says it’s been a rough couple of years for the Park Hill School District. She’s been close to the district for 30 years now, first as a student and then as a mother of two recent graduates.
“I just was getting frustrated: We were on the news a lot, not always positive,” Barnes says.
Barnes says she'd hear her daughters’ friends and their younger siblings talking about how they still felt the same disappointment she felt when she was 16 years old.
During her own time as a student in the district, a teacher rejected her for a play because she said the school couldn’t deal with the controversy of a Black girl kissing a white boy on stage.
“And I was like, what? And that was very eye-opening to me, because that was the first time — I mean I know I'm a person of color — but that was the first time that someone had told me based on my skin color that I was not able to do something,” Barnes says.
Another eye-opening experience came when she began her career in education. She was divorced and had two kids under the age of 3. So she got a Montessori certification online and started teaching.
While her motive was to save money, she quickly realized the impact she had on the students in her class.
“I was teaching kids that would come up to me and be like, ‘Oh my God, you look just like me and just being okay being themselves,” Barnes says. “Because I feel like sometimes when you're the only person that looks like you, or only one or two that look like you, you always put a little barrier.”
But like so many other Missouri teachers, Barnes left teaching a decade later. Constantly changing administrations, lack of support and parents being uninvolved or too involved eventually took their toll.
She says she loved the kids, but she needed to love herself more.
“I didn't want to be evil or cranky like the cranky teachers that you see on the movies,” Barnes says. “I didn't want to take that out on the students because I wanted to be true to myself.”
It's been 12 years since Barnes has worked in education. But during the pandemic, her teacher friends begged her to return as they faced worsening staffing shortages.
Barnes says she was aware of the hostile emails teachers received from upset parents as they scrambled to deal with online learning. She knew she couldn’t stomach the atmosphere.
“There's not enough, I'm sorry, for me to go back to that because I don't know if I would feel in my heart that I would be like, okay, I'm doing this for the kids, yay. Like, and then I'd be like, Why are they so mean?’ Barnes recalls.
After two recent incidents in which students circulated a petition to bring back slavery and a teacher repeated a racial slur, Barnes says she felt a calling to do something to improve the district— even if it wasn’t in the classroom. So, instead of returning to the classroom, she decided to run for school board.
She won election in April, making her just the second Black person on the board. Now, she says, she can still help students and teachers while staying true to herself.
“I'll still have some parents that probably won't be happy with all the choices or decisions that I make, or we make as a school board. Because it's not just me, right? It's seven of us,” Barnes says. “But I think that as long as I get a say for the people who put me here, then I think that I'm doing my job.”
When it comes to her own daughters, Barnes wants to make sure that they, too, stay true to themselves. After graduating from the Park Hill School District, her oldest, Aireanna, is at Park University studying psychology and sociology. And Avyon is at the University of Missouri-Columbia studying to be a doctor.
“She's literally my best friend," Avyon says of her mother. "When I go to college we have like an hour or two phone calls every single day. Talking about anything. She tells me about her day. I tell her about my day, with some crazy professors and all the stuff that goes on in Columbia.”
Her daughters say their mother is the kind of person they would have liked on the board when they were in the school district.
Brandy Woodley, the board’s first Black member after her election last year, has become Barnes’ mentor. She says Barnes brings an important range of experiences to the board.
“She was a student in the district. I didn't have that, and having children in the district so she has that experience,” Woodley says. “She's a single mom, which I think was a great other avenue of representation that we have on the board.”
Woodley notes that she wasn’t chosen to be Barnes’ mentor because of her race but rather because she too is new to the board and knows what to look out for.
One of the things Barnes says she's still adjusting to is the glare of the spotlight as she appears on television and talks to leaders like the mayor or congressional representatives.
“I'm just a regular, single mom with two college students who just wanted to be better for kids,” Barnes says.
As the new school year gets underway, Barnes says she’s looking forward to making progress on the district’s diversity plan. She says a lot of kids are made to feel inferior because of their race, disability, or socioeconomic standing— just like she was decades ago.
"We are a great district, we have a potential to be a better district, we have a potential to be one of the examples in Missouri and in the country, if we just focus on making some of the changes that are hard," Barnes says. "But I believe that that's why I'm here is to push to push and ask and get it done."