Education: It is a Wonderful Life
On a recent visit to observe a graduate student in his classroom internship, Dr. Kevin Barnes turned on his way out and said, “Persevere. Get this done.” Barnes had listened to the student to explain the challenges he was having balancing work, academics, and family, and he understood. As associate dean of the School of Education and the graduate coordinator of the Educational Administration Leadership program, he wants students to know their professors are there to support them as they manage the responsibilities of going to school as adults. Barnes was once in that place himself, working and pursuing advanced degrees with a young family. He remembers the mentors who encouraged him to “persevere because, with these degrees, life becomes better and more opportunities are available to you,” and he wants to make sure the next generation has that encouragement too.
Barnes, who teaches aspiring principals and administrators, brings his master’s and doctoral students nearly four decades of educational insights from New Jersey K-12 schools.
He wants to pass on to his graduate students something of what he was given by his mentors when he was a physical education teacher and a football and track coach in districts including Hillside, Sayreville and Millburn and then in leadership positions in Ringwood, Park Ridge and Caldwell/West Caldwell. He normally stayed about five years in each district. “Always long enough to get tenure,” he explained. It was a strategy that David Paulis, his principal in Ringwood, had encouraged to help novice leaders grow.
Barnes’s passion for education began when he was growing up in Woodbridge, New Jersey, where he had the “very good fortune” to have phenomenal role models as teachers and as coaches. He remembers in high school having the thought that if he could influence people the way his teachers had, it “would be a wonderful life.” When he was playing football at Woodbridge High, college recruiters were coming to his school to pursue a standout player. His coach, Sam Lupo, also encouraged them to look at Barnes, a tight end who had played some outstanding games on a team that had enjoyed a successful season. Barnes ended up with good offers including a full scholarship to play football at the College of William & Mary, which he took. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education, health and driver’s education with a minor in classical studies, which included classes in Greek and Roman tragedy and comedy and archaeology.
The Monday after graduating from college, Barnes reported to training camp in Carlyle, Pennsylvania, to start work as a professional and collegiate scout for the Washington Redskins, a job he had gotten through a networking contact from a friend. Scouting had not been a career thought for Barnes, but he took on the adventure and visited five colleges in the Southeast each week, looking at potential pro football players and attending important games on the weekends. It was fun, but after one season he realized he wanted to be back home near his fiancée, his high school sweetheart, Karen.
His first teaching job was in elementary physical education in Hillside, New Jersey, where he also coached football, wrestling, and track; then it was on to Sayreville High School, followed by Millburn High. While at Millburn, a new career path opened up for Barnes when the superintendent, Dr. Paul Rossey, asked to meet with him. Seeing that Barnes had leadership skills, Rossey “did not ask me, [but] told me, that I would be enrolling in a graduate program in educational administration.” Barnes hedged a bit, mentioning all his teaching and coaching responsibilities, his two young kids at home and his summer work. Rossey responded, “Yes, we all do, and in September you will be enrolled in an educational administration program.”
Barnes chose Rutgers, completed his master’s and continued straight on into the doctoral program for which his advisor was internationally known education administration professor Wayne Hoy. He took a position as vice principal at Ryerson Middle School in Ringwood, working under the supervision of Paulis, who hired employees with “zero experience” in education administration so they would have no preconceived notions about what administration meant. At the end of five years, he encouraged his employees to take the ball and run elsewhere with it. Barnes did just that, becoming an elementary school principal at Park Ridge in Bergen County.
Again after five years, it was time to move. This time it was to the Caldwell/West Caldwell public school district, where he had principalships at Wilson Elementary School, Grover Cleveland Middle School, and James Caldwell High School. “The neat part,” he says, is that there was one cohort of students in the Caldwell-West Caldwell District that had him as their principal from kindergarten through senior year. “Every once in a while God calls your bluff,” Barnes says with a laugh.
His entry into college teaching began when he was still at James Caldwell and became an adjunct in a post-baccalaureate program in the Education Division. Barnes enjoyed the work, and after 38 years in public schools, he realized he was ready to retire from K-12 and to focus more on higher education. “If you went full circle, we went into education to teach. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to get back into teaching,” Barnes says.
Today, Barnes enjoys working with the master’s, doctoral and post-baccalaureate students “who show up on time 100 percent of the time because they are paying.”
He also teaches the undergraduate freshman seminar class, a population he is familiar with—“high school seniors three months removed.” Each fall, incoming freshmen in the seminar learn about the nuts and bolts of earning a bachelor’s degree, the different ways professors teach and how to deal with “freshman angst,” he says. They have told him it is comforting for them to hear from him, “You are not going through this alone.”
Barnes has been a first reader for two completed doctoral defenses and is “in the thick of it” with three others at different stages of doctoral preparation. He would meet with the two students who defended for as long as five hours to attempt to get them through the process, he says. It is refreshing to him to see students committed to an area of interest and eager to collect data, analyze it and put it in a “fluid formatted document.” He is grateful to be a part of the Caldwell team, at the “please-and-thank-you university,” as he describes it, where people hold doors for one another and genuinely care.
It is also heartening to teach students who come right out of the classroom and want to make a difference as great school administrators. “They say, ‘I’ve come to realize I can positively influence the lives of 20 to 25 children [in the classroom], but through administration, I might be able to positively influence the lives of 200 or 400 or 6,000.’ Those are the people that are doing it for the right reasons,” explains Barnes.
He and Karen are blessed to have three grandchildren and he looks forward to going to his “Tiny Beans” app for a daily feed of photos of the little ones’ adventures and triumphs. Barnes thinks back to that teenager at Woodbridge High School who had an inkling that working in education would be a “wonderful life.” The kid was right. “I would not have had it any other way,” Barnes says. He would do it all over again. “Just like Jimmy Stewart in the iconic Christmas movie said, ‘It’s (been) a wonderful life.”