Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Spotlight: Liz Barnum (NV '22)

March 20, 2023

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No one at Katherine Dunn Elementary was shocked to see Liz Barnum (NV ’22) break into a joyful dance at her Milken Award assembly: “My students see me celebrate their successes all year long the same way.” Lowell Milken delivered Liz’s life-changing surprise in Sparks on February 7, 2023.

Milken Family Foundation: How did you end up in education?

Liz Barnum (NV '22): Being the daughter of an immigrant family receiving a free public education was a huge privilege. In my family, doing well in school and continuing to higher education were hailed as a huge accomplishment. With opportunity at my doorstep, I wanted to become the first generation in my family to receive a college degree. It felt like a natural progression to pursue a career in education with a focus on English language learners.

As a young girl I played “school” and proclaimed myself the greatest teacher while my younger sister sat through countless lectures. I have always loved children and from a very early age always held jobs that involved little learners. I taught tot gymnastics and worked in many preschools as I completed my degree. When I finally stepped into my role as a teacher, it felt so natural. I knew that I was on the right path.

MFF: How was your first year of teaching?

Liz: How does the saying go: “You don’t know what you don’t know”? Well, my first year in the Washoe County School District there was a very long list of things I did not know. My very first failure came with the most basic teacher skill — check your email! When I finally opened that inbox, I was already 87 messages behind.

I was hired in October when the school received an additional allocation for a kindergarten teacher. I shared a small room in the back of the building with the music teacher. I was glowing and eager to begin my career. In came my guiding lights, Beth Lichten, Laurie Smith and Cindy Holmes. These wonderful colleagues spent countless hours planning with me and teaching me the little nuances that teachers live by. They taught me to make lists and prioritize the work. They showed me how to organize 25 kindergarten portfolios, laminate, and arrange furniture in a way that worked best for kids. But one of the most important things these women taught me was to love my students, take pride in my work, and value my colleagues. To this day some of my best strategies and systems are the ones that I learned that first year.

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MFF: What do you like about working with elementary students?

Liz: So many things! They bring curiosity and magic to subjects that adults can no longer see the magic in. They are inquisitive and will take big risks to find answers and solve problems. They are pure, honest and incredibly flexible. I find myself on so many occasions responding to students with, “Wow, I did not think of it that way.” I still have a photo in my phone of my student Sofia. She is in kindergarten, she is holding a worm, and her face is wild with joy. She can see the beauty of a simple worm, and how they help our planet and gardens flourish.

MFF: How does your third grade professional learning community help you and your colleagues improve student outcomes?

Liz: Many teachers work diligently to plan and guide their students through successful lessons. However, there is power in working collaboratively with your colleagues to truly dive deep into the content and negotiate the best possible environment that will produce the desired learning outcomes.

Technically I lead the PLC, but it’s only effective when all members are actively involved in the process. I see the other third grade teachers as my partners. Their voices are as strong as mine. Ali, Vanessa, Sheila and I have dynamic conversations as we strive to provide our students with challenging and engaging content. I value the commitment they give to justly understanding the cycle of teaching and learning.

As a team we diligently discuss past, current and upcoming lessons and data. We consistently review and discuss how the students performed — sometimes during or right after a lesson. We share the struggles and victories of our students by constantly making notes on what worked and what needs improvement. Our students feel safe and comfortable with all four of us and know that we work together to provide them with the tools they need to succeed.

Neither the teachers nor the students in our building hesitate to discuss their learning with one another. It is magical to head out to recess and hear the students talking about how chapter 24 brought them to tears, and then ask what sum they got on their exit ticket. I admire that we have created this community of learners. I feel honored to work with such brilliant teachers who offer new tools and techniques to deliver content to our diverse students.

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MFF: What is the most important skill you want your students to take away from third grade?

Liz: It is of utmost importance for me to create a positive classroom community where the students feel happy, safe, and have true ownership of their learning. I strive each day to build confidence in my students so they can develop the social and academic skills to be successful and positive members of their communities. When my students go on to bigger, better and more difficult feats I want them to remember that they can persevere. They can have a productive struggle and see it through to success.

MFF: Who are your role models?

Liz: So many wonderful educators have served as role models in my career and helped shape the teacher I have become today. One of the biggest impacts on my teaching happened at Roger Corbett Elementary in Reno. My first administrator, Denise DuFrene, is a fierce leader. She pushed and tested my limits further than I knew I was even capable of. My instructional coach Sharon Stephenson inspires me daily. I often joke she is who I want to be when I grow up. She is so knowledgeable and has a finesse and skill with her teaching that I could only dream of emulating. Under her wing I learned to be coachable, use resources, and collaborate with my teams effectively.

My current administrator, Allison Fannin, demonstrates one of the characteristics that I find most compelling in educators: building lasting relationships with students and families. Mrs. Fannin walks into the room and it is as if Michael Jordan has just hit the court. She is unbelievably kind and has fostered my teaching by pushing me to step out of my comfort zone and take on some leadership roles that I would not otherwise have pursued. To these incredible ladies — thank you for believing in me.

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MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?

Liz: I think my face tells the whole story. What I originally believed to be an assembly to welcome the new governor of Nevada suddenly became about me. When Mr. [Lowell] Milken announced my name, I felt my heart racing and all the blood rush to my fingertips. I thought, “Please don’t pass out!”

Things like this do not happen to people like me. There is no manual on how to react or what to do. I am grateful my teammates finally gave me a little shove toward the stage. The dance that came next is not new to any staff or student at Katherine Dunn Elementary. My students see me celebrate their successes all year long the same way. I know in my heart they knew this recognition is as much theirs as it is mine.

As I walked to the center of the room, I saw my daughter mouth, “That’s my mommy!” I cannot think of a more special moment to share with my daughter. Then I thought of my own mother, who truly gave me the gift of education and the will to be successful in all walks of life. Because of her sacrifices, love, and dedication, I was able to celebrate on stage that Tuesday afternoon.

MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?

Liz: The response from my current and former students to my Milken Award has been overwhelmingly positive. When I returned to my classroom immediately after my win the kids had tears in their eyes. I could feel their genuine happiness. My students are my biggest cheerleaders. The following day they told me the secret to my win was making sure they all crossed their fingers. To my delight I can see their sweet little pretzel fingers in the video from that day.

I have spent the last few weeks responding to a flood of emails, phone calls, and messages from former students and families. The connections I make with my students and their families are for a lifetime. It is an unbelievably beautiful feeling to relive and hear the stories of the impact, however big or small, that I have left on them.

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MFF: Any plans for your $25,000 Award?

Liz: My husband and I have a curious five-year-old and a rambunctious three-year-old. My daughter’s New Year’s resolution is to “get better at robots.” With ambitions like those, we have our hands full. Our children have their whole lives ahead of them and we are thrilled some of the money will go into their college funds. In our little family we are used to living reasonably and truly calculating our financial moves. With the Milken Award money, we are also looking forward to our first big family vacation to Disneyland!

MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?

Liz: I look at my success through the victories of my students. I still get tears in my eyes and chills down my arms when they reach their personal and academic goals. I strive every day to deliver the content in a way that supports a positive and effective learning environment. I feel fulfilled in my work when my students are engaged and invested in their learning. I take pride when I look out into my classroom and the students are driving the conversations because they feel safe enough to take risks and work collaboratively with one another.

MFF: What do you hope students remember from their time with you?

Liz: I have so many ambitions for when a student’s time with me is up. I hope that the students in my classroom walk away believing that learning is fun. I hope they build lasting friendships and relationships within their school community. I want them to remember to continue innovating and exploring the possibilities that are out there. And I hope they leave my class knowing that their time with me is not over, because the bond we have is forever. I look forward to continuing to hear how they will thrive and succeed for years to come.

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