Heroes among us: Kimberly Barton
2023-2024 Bibb County School District Teacher of the Year, Vineville Academy of the Arts
Photos by Matt Odom
Interviewed by Macon Magazine staff
Macon native Kimberly Barton was named Bibb County School District’s 2023 Teacher of the Year. After graduating from Southwest High School, then Fort Valley State University, she briefly moved to Dallas, Texas, to work in insurance before deciding she was called to give back to her hometown as an educator. Now in her seventh year of teaching fourth grade at Vineville Academy of the Arts, a mother of two- and four-year-old boys, and a cheerleading coach, Barton makes her classroom a welcoming space by “leading with love.”
You are a Bibb County School District graduate. What does it mean to you to be at Vineville Academy and teach in the school system you grew up in?
It means everything to me. That’s been a driving force since I came back home. I wanted to be in Macon, and everybody asked me, “Why not move to another district or Atlanta?” And I was like, “No, I want to go home. I want to teach where I started because it’s important to me to give back to the community where I got everything I needed to succeed.” I wanted to show our students that you can go off and do things you want to do, but you also have a responsibility to give back to your roots.
What about your experience growing up in Macon made you want to give back to this city?
I had really good teachers and coaches when I was in high school. I was a triathlete at Southwest: softball, basketball, and track. My track coach actually took me on college visits, even those that weren’t for track. She drove me to the University of Georgia and Albany State to speak with softball and basketball coaches. That speaks volumes to the types of people we have in our district because she didn’t have to do that; I didn’t have an interest in running track in college. But she still chose to make a huge impact on me. I struggled a little bit when I got to Fort Valley in English class my freshman year, and I felt very confident in coming right back to Southwest High School and asking my English teacher, “What am I doing wrong, and how can I fix this?” She looked at my papers with me,
and she helped me. That speaks volumes as well.
What inspired you to make “Love Education” your motto?
I saw it once when we started our Leader in Me program, and my teammates and I just made it a thing a few years ago. Leader in Me is a program based on the seven habits of effective leaders that this county adopted a few years ago. Vineville Academy got Lighthouse Certified last year. I thought about what “lead with love” meant to me and what it would mean for our students. Implementing leadership habits into the classroom teaches the children how to find their voice and teachers how to sharpen their craft. The habits are centered around leadership skills catered to young learners all the way up through business professionals. Implementing Leader in Me has helped me grow personally, too, because when I pray in the mornings, I’m always asking God to make sure that in everything that I do in this day, I am leading with love and teaching my students how to do the same.
What does a normal school day look like for you?
On my way to work, I pray and listen to soothing music to ensure I’m getting my mind right so I can be there for my students. I come to work, and immediately, I have babies waiting on me. My students and I do morning check-in meetings. I hug them on the way into the classroom every single morning. I want to make sure I see smiles on every student’s face, even though I can have four babies hugging me at once. I like that they feel that comfortability, that they can come up to me and fist bump me if they’re not okay with a hug.
I have three classes. I have my homeroom and two reading classes, totaling 64 different students. The first 15 minutes of class is our “Drop Everything And Read” time. After that, the kids can read any book of their choice. They could take A.R. [Accelerated Reading] Tests on those books to really show their comprehension. And they really love to do that, because they set goals, and they meet their goals. When they meet those goals, there’s always some celebration that comes along with that. We do a lot of small group learning.
My favorite thing is recess because that’s when we hang out. That’s when the cheerleaders want to show me their latest cheers, and the boys want to show me the latest dances. After recess, we do small group intervention for students who need extra reading and math support. Because Vineville is a fine arts school, our children are involved in many extracurricular arts activities, so some of them go to orchestra, and some of them go to dance, tap, ballet, art class, or music class.
They come back to me before dismissal. We always do a “pit and peak” of our day at the end of the day. If a student doesn’t want to share the pit, they don’t have to. So we go around, and we say, “What was the peak of our day? What was the highest point of your day? And what’s something that didn’t make you feel good?” Then, we get to talk about it together.
What makes you the teacher of the year?
I pride myself on leading with love. I really love my students, and I want them to feel that when they come into my classroom. I take time to talk to them and get to know them. There is a boundary between friend and teacher, but I want them to feel that they can come to me when they leave Vineville Academy to go to middle school, high school, and college. I want them to know that Ms. Barton is always going to be there for them even after they leave my room. I’ve had so much success because I know that they love me and know that they know that I love them.
What do you think makes a hero?
When you asked me to do this article, I said to myself, “Hero? Am I a hero?” But after considering it, I think a hero could be anybody who impacts the lives of others in some positive way. I think that I’ve done small things to do that within my learning community; I’m always trying my best to help everybody and anybody who needs assistance.
How do you foster your students’ growth from a holistic standpoint?
To be there for your students is probably the hardest thing a teacher could ever do. I utilize whole-brain learning because I always want to instill confidence in them. I ask them to stand to speak. I ask them to hold their heads up. We use gestures. We make it fun, but we’re also learning, and we celebrate each other.
If a student is absent for even one day, it’s almost like a party when they walk back through the door. If someone comes in late, I say, “Thank you so much; we are so glad you came in.” We spend so much of our lives at this school, so when the students are here, it has to feel like a loving place where they want to be.
What keeps you going every day?
My students. We all have bad days, and we all have bad moments, but when you have children coming to you every day, and you’re passionate about it, it really makes a difference. Not everybody is able to find their passion. At State Farm, I didn’t feel fulfilled. I moved home because I wanted to be a teacher. Once I did that, I realized that this is where I was meant to be.
My students really drive me to be the best teacher that I can be. I love those “light bulb moments.” When they recall something or meet their goals, they light up. That makes me so proud and so happy. It’s a win for all of us when they feel self-pride and confidence in who they are. I know that I have a small part in that, and that keeps me going.
* This transcript was edited for clarity and length.