Teaching students and dealing with their parents can be a thankless task, even in the best of times. And the past few years have made working in public education still more challenging with shutdowns and bitter debates over books and curriculum. Amid all this turmoil, many public education workers have left their jobs. But Barbara Yarbrough, of South Elementary, in Midland, has held on.
Navigating a pandemic isn’t the greatest challenge Yarbrough has faced. She began her career in 1959 as an art teacher at George Washington Carver Junior-Senior High School, a segregated Black school in Midland. Over the next few decades, she also taught in elementary schools and preschools, before she “retired” in 1996. But she only retired from the classroom, moving into a new role as South Elementary’s parent liaison, a position she still holds at age 87. “When you get to know the parents and the grandparents, and you build that connection with them, it’s a bridge over troubled water,” Yarbrough has said.
Yarbrough was born in 1935 in Franklin, Louisiana, and had a childhood flooded by troubled waters. Her mother died when Yarbrough was nine, and her father struggled with alcoholism, leaving her to care for herself and her younger brother. The two grew up basically homeless, occasionally living with extended family members, some of whom managed to impress on her the importance of education. “School saved me,” Yarbrough would later say. “It had the structure that I needed. School had the kind of teachers who reached past my dirty body and past my anger to reach Barbara, and they wouldn’t let go.”
Good teachers beget more good teachers. In her 63 years as an educator in Midland, Yarbrough made lasting contributions to her community. In addition to teaching, she coached tennis and basketball and volunteered for multiple committees and organizations, such as the Justice Court Alternative Sentencing Program / Teen Leadership Program (which diverts young offenders from the criminal justice system). She’s made such an impact that in 2014, the Midland Independent School District named a new elementary school after her.
In 2022 she received one of her greatest honors yet: the LifeChanger of the Year Grand Prize. The award, sponsored by National Life Group, is given annually to one K–12 educator nationwide and seeks to recognize “those who are making a significant difference in the lives of students by exemplifying excellence, positive influence and leadership.”
More than a hundred comments fill Yarbrough’s nomination page, with colleagues, neighbors, and former students recounting how she made learning fun for them, mentored their children, or just remembers their names and asks about their families when she sees them around town. A former student who had transferred into Yarbrough’s sixth-grade class was inspired to become a teacher. “She was at South Elementary when I went in the early ‘70s,” wrote Richard Fino, another former student. “Ran into her a couple of years ago and she recognized me and called me by name. Truly an amazing lady.”
The Grand Prize comes with $10,000, to be split between Yarbrough and South Elementary. “I’m on God’s time,” Yarbrough said in her award video. “As long as he keeps me moving, I plan to be someplace doing something for some kid.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Most Inspiring Educator in the Country.” Subscribe today.