ARHS English teacher Sara Barber-Just given star treatment by Williams College for inspiring students

Passionate. Tireless. Beautiful. Powerful. Courageous. Compassionate. Bold. Brilliant.

This is how your students describe you, Sara Barber-Just.

Barber-Just, an English teacher at Amherst Regional High School, was standing at the front of the stage at Williams College at the commencement awards ceremony, with tears in her eyes as Sarah Bolton, dean of the college, ended a three-minute speech about her with those words.

“I just cried,” she said.

Public school teachers aren’t used to being treated like rock stars. Maligned, under-appreciated scapegoats is more likely.

But during its commencement weekend recently, Williams College in Williamstown rolled out the red carpet for Barber-Just and three other high school teachers from across the country to make the point that public school teachers mold great students. All expenses were paid for the teachers who were put up at the Williams Inn, driven or escorted everywhere, fed sumptuous meals and given accolades at event after event. On top of that, they were each given $3,000 and their schools, $2,500. “It was amazing,” Barber-Just said.

The 500 Williams graduates were asked to nominate high school teachers who played influential roles in their lives for the school’s annual George Olmsted Jr. Class of 1924 Prize for Excellence in Secondary School Teaching. Nominees then were asked to submit recommendations from other students and administrators along with other supporting materials.

Barber-Just was suggested by Daniel Lee, a 2010 ARHS graduate, who wrote that taking her classes changed him profoundly. Lee said he was an angry, depressed teen who, as a Korean American, had endured relentless racial attacks in schools in Illinois and Connecticut earlier in his life. Barber-Just’s influence was “transformative,” he said in a telephone interview. “I had a self-righteous fury at the world. Ms. Barber-Just really started the process where I was able to heal and become a better man.”

A political science major at Williams, Lee, 21, leaves for Madrid with a Fulbright Fellowship at the end of the summer to conduct research on the socioeconomic and political consequences of Chinese immigration in Spain.

Unexpected effect

Barber-Just said that though she was close to Lee, helping him write his college essays and apply to colleges, she was not aware of the effect she had on him. “I just thought he thought I was a nice person,” she said, as she sat down with me after her last-period Literature as Social Criticism class last week. I had arrived a bit early, and the students were finishing up an open-book quiz on “Catcher in the Rye,” a new agey CD called “Nature” playing softly in the background.

Though she did not expect the reaction she got from Lee, Barber-Just said she is not surprised that her classes can have a memorable impact. Teaching literature opens the door for discussions to turn personal, she said. “When you’re studying literature, you’re not just trying to learn what the book says, but applying it to your own life and analyzing it in context of the society in which it was written.”

And the courses she teaches — Gay and Lesbian Literature, African-American Literature, American Literature and Nature and Journalistic Writing — lend themselves to introspection, she said.

The gay and lesbian lit course, which she created 12 years ago, in particular, opens discussions about sexuality and gender. (It’s still one of just two such public high school classes in the country, she said, the other being taught at Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School in South Hadley.) “These are things that teenagers really want to talk about and they have so much to say,” she said. The same is true for African-American literature, which sparks conversations about race. “I try to be a good facilitator. The most important thing is letting the students air all their different feelings.”

Lee said he brought anti-gay prejudice into the gay and lesbian literature class — which he took due to a fluke in his schedule — and left it with a different world view. “Ms. Barber-Just made me reevaluate my misconceptions,” he said, which had already started to change when he learned during an earlier class with her that she is a lesbian with a wife and two sons. “It forced me to look at my own stereotypes and prejudices,” he said.

That kind of revelation pleases Barber-Just. “On a daily basis I find out about how many emotional, socioeconomic, racial and sexuality challenges students have,” she said. “There are so many obstacles to people’s health and success.” Those include an increasing involvement with social media where out-of-school drama can seep into school in a disruptive way. “Students have this whole life on social media that is not visible to their teachers, and in some cases, to their parents, but they carry it around with them,” she said.

Broad impact

Lee said students know authenticity when they see it.

“High school students can tell whether a teacher cares,” he said. “With me it was absolutely clear from the get-go that she was personally invested in the success and happiness of her students.” And that, he said, has a broad reach.

“Even the tough kids who don’t care about going to class would show up for Ms. Barber-Just’s class,” he recalled, “and she would make sure they were on top of their work. She would personally reach out to them. She would have the difficult discussions that no one else is willing to have.”

Principal Mark Jackson seconds that.

“Sara Barber-Just is an exceptional teacher,” he said in an email. “She has the ability to create a strong sense of community in her classroom, one that fosters in students a sense of safety, which, in turn, encourages their willingness to explore and take risks.” At the same time, he said, she has high academic expectations.

Barber-Just, who has wanted to be a teacher since she was in fourth grade, said she doesn’t consider handling students’ personal baggage a chore. “I love learning about who people are and what they are thinking, so being in a classroom with all these passionate teenagers is just the greatest opportunity.”

Barber-Just said choosing to focus on high school teaching grew out of her admiration for public schools and her determination to provide the best education she can for the wide range of students required to be there.

She said former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was the commencement speaker at Williams and she was thrilled to meet him, but also taken aback by one of his remarks.

When he asked her why she, a high school teacher, was being honored, she responded, “I guess because I’m not doing such a bad job.” His retort was, “Oh, I’m glad the standards are so high.” And then went on to say that the United States has the worst public education system in the world. She quickly replied, “Not in Massachusetts. We are number one in the country and number five in the world.”

She concedes that Bloomberg was probably just be “a sarcastic New Yorker. I don’t think he was being serious, but then I got serious about it.”

Bloomberg, she said, was one of a slew of impressive people she and her wife, Christina Barber-Just, met at Williams. “The whole weekend we were just surrounded by brilliant, inspiring people.”

The other three high school teachers honored were history teachers from Georgia and North Carolina and a math teacher from Ohio.

Barber-Just wishes more teachers could be feted the way they were.

“There are so many incredible educators who don’t ever receive that recognition,” she said. Though the cards, and letters and hugs they get from their students is enough for most, she believes, the chance to hear a former student publicly describe a life-changing impact, “That is really powerful.”