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Maria Barrios was named CEHD’s 2019 Exemplary Early Career Teacher

July 19, 2019

By Jerome Boettcher

The building looks different from when Maria Barrios first stepped foot in these halls nearly two decades ago.

Even though Keene Mill Elementary School in Springfield, Va., has undergone a facelift and renovations, the memories come flooding back for Barrios. Now an advanced academic program (AAP) teacher for the third grade, the two-time George Mason University graduate has a special connection to Keene Mill—where she was a student from first through sixth grade.

“I was taught in these classrooms. I was enriched. I was helped,” Barrios said. “It is a great feeling. I like saying that during open house for parents that I actually went here or telling my students and showing them photos.”

Having just completed her second year as a teacher at Keene Mill, Barrios was named the 2019 Exemplary Early Career Teacher Award winner. The award, presented by the Apple Federal Credit Union Foundation in collaboration with the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) at George Mason, recognizes excellence in teaching and educational leadership by an early career teacher.

To be eligible for the $2,500 educational award, nominees must be a graduate of one of CEHD’s degree or licensure programs and be employed in Fairfax County Public Schools as a full-time teacher in his or her first, second, or third year of teaching.

“From the very first day that Ms. Barrios began as a teacher she has been exemplary in her lesson planning, presentation, building relationships, and classroom management,” said Ellen Colter, assistant principal at Keene Mill Elementary School.

At Keene Mill, Barrios serves as an AAP teacher for the third grade. Students test into AAP in Fairfax County Public Schools. The program targets students who exhibit exceptional performance capability in academic, intellectual, and creative endeavors.

With strong academic standards, AAP draws students who have been at the top of their classes since kindergarten. Handling those academic expectations while also learning from mistakes is vital in Barrios’s teaching philosophy.

“I remind them that we have to be determined to achieve what we want but it’s OK to make mistakes,” Barrios said. “It is a part of life. You have to have a growth mindset in order to become who we want to be. Just seeing how excited they are on a daily basis to learn new things is probably the best gift I can receive.”

Barrios completed both her undergraduate and graduate degrees at Mason, earning her bachelor’s degree in integrative studies in 2015 and her master’s degree in education in curriculum and instruction, with a concentration in elementary education, in 2017. She credits the professors in Mason’s Elementary Education program for preparing her for future situations she would face in the classroom.

“If it wasn’t for Mason’s teaching program I don’t think I would be the teacher I am today,” she said. “They tried very hard to connect our teachings into real-life classroom practices and that was really important.”

In addition, Barrios praised her student-teaching placement at Stratford Landing Elementary School in Alexandria. There she learned under Kelly Peterson-Chapman, a third-grade teacher in the gifted education center at Stratford Landing.

Barrios adopted many of her planning techniques and classroom management skills from Peterson-Chapman and felt comfortable when she began running her own classroom the following year at Keene Mill.

“If [the placement] wouldn’t have been through Mason’s program, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work for her or be totally prepared to be a teacher during my first year,” Barrios said. “I was not at all stressed my first year. I kind of knew what was going to happen because my mentor teacher threw me into the waters and was like, ‘This is how you can become a successful teacher.’”

Barrios was presented the award in June by Apple Federal Credit Union Executive Director Steven Sengstack (MEd, ’85), a CEHD alumnus and advisory board member. Joining him at Keene Mill were fellow advisory board member Sylvia Auton, CEHD Professor Emerita of Education Joan Isenberg, Mason Assistant Professor Toya Frank, and Keene Mill Assistant Principal Ellen Colter.

With her mother on hand, Barrios accepted the award in front of hundreds of enthusiastic Keene Mill students. She said she plans to use some of the $2,500 award money toward new books and new furniture in her classroom as a part of her flexible seating program for her students.

“I’m just thankful Apple Federal has teamed with Mason to give an award out to new teachers,” Barrios said. “It is a great feeling knowing that you are doing the right thing and being acknowledged for your hard work.”