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story.lead_photo.caption Kari Barnett of Mayflower wanted to be a teacher from the time she was in middle school, but she didn’t think elementary school was her niche until she landed a job as the librarian at Mayflower Elementary School in 2016. “It’s the best job,” she said. Barnett was named Mayflower Elementary School Employee of the Year. - Photo by Staci Vandagriff

Kari Barnett of Mayflower remembers how she dreaded being called on to read out loud when she was in elementary school.

Now she’s an award-winning librarian.

Barnett, 41, is the Mayflower Elementary School Employee of the Year.

“It was a pleasant surprise, to say the least,” Barnett said. “I just never really dreamed I’d be nominated.”

She’s starting her third year as media specialist on the Elois McCaghren campus. A former junior high and middle school teacher, Barnett said she didn’t plan to become a librarian. She did want to become a teacher, though.

Barnett grew up in Greenbrier, and her mother worked for the Greenbrier School District.

“My mom was the secretary at the middle school at that time, and we got there early and we stayed late, and I loved every minute of it. I wanted to do that,” Barnett said.

She went to the University of Central Arkansas in Conway and majored in secondary education in English, and her first job was in her hometown.

Soon after graduating from UCA , she gave birth to her first of three sons, so she decided to stay home with him instead of looking for a job. Her first job was a “God thing,” she said.

“I was a stay-at-home mom with a 2-year-old, pregnant with No. 2, praying about our finances,” Barnett said. Her mother, who was the junior high secretary, called Barnett and told her one of the new teachers had resigned. The district needed to quickly fill the position, which was teaching English half days in junior high.

It was a perfect arrangement, she said, and she taught for two years in the junior high. She also taught for 12 years at the middle school after that.

Barnett earned a master’s degree in library media in 2014. In 2015, she interviewed for a librarian position in the Conway School District. Although she thought the interview went well, she didn’t get the job. She was relieved.

“I had no desire to leave Greenbrier. My parents went to Greenbrier, too,” she said. Barnett said her husband, Matt, works for the transportation department in the Greenbrier School District, and one of her sisters also teaches in Greenbrier.

“I didn’t choose elementary; elementary chose me,” Barnett said.

The Mayflower librarian job came open in 2016. Once again, she interviewed to gain experience, she said. Barnett said it didn’t go well in her mind.

“It was terrible,” she said of the interview. “I’ve never felt more unprepared. I was just glad it was over; there was no way I was going to be the best candidate.”

Barnett said that two days later, Mayflower Elementary Principal Candie Watts called.

“The principal’s exact words were, ‘We were impressed with your interview.’ The words coming out of my mouth were not the words falling on their ears,” Barnett said.

“I felt like the Lord had opened that door for me, so I took it, and it’s been the single best thing I’ve done for my career. It’s the best job. I told somebody when I first started, ‘It’s sort of surprising that they pay you to do this.’ You read to kids. … I didn’t have a desire to be in elementary, but I love those kids. When you’ve taught middle school, 13-year-olds, you don’t always get the warm reception that you want.

Elementary kids love to come to the library.”

Barnett does much more than read to kids.

Watts said Barnett has found her niche. Barnett “has brought new life to our library media center by integrating technology at every opportunity,” Watts said. “From research and inquiry to morning broadcasts, Mrs. Barnett facilitates student and adult learning through the use of the Google platform. She has enhanced not only instruction in her classroom but in the regular classrooms, as well, by adding technology tools to teacher tool belts. She has been a wonderful asset to our campus.”

Barnett said she sees every class in the school, kindergarten through fourth grade, once a week.

“I teach library skills and teach some technology, too. We have makerspace activities; we do coding — all sorts of stuff. They are with me for about an hour once a week,” she said.

“I get to do the reading stuff and the technology stuff, and I’ve been able to help teachers with technology. That’s kind of my thing; I’m kind of a tech girl. Google Suites for Education is what we use. A lot of teachers

aren’t necessarily aware of what all it can do for them. My first year, I started doing what I called FRAT parties, Fast Relevant Afterschool Technology training.

“I’d throw out a topic; it was a come and go … no expectations or anything, but I tried to give them a quick tip in 15 minutes or less, and I would stick around and answer questions.” She said topics included how to create a bitmoji.

Barnett’s all about the books, though. “The librarian before me had a vast collection,” she said.

Barnett tries to keep a balance between technology and print.

“That’s really hard, and I’ve struggled with it,” she said. “When you’ve got all the fun hands-on tech kind of stuff, it’s hard to get them excited about sitting down with a book, too.”

Barnett said she has implemented a rotation of every other week.

“We have a time set for makerspace; the next week, they rotate for time with independent reading. I’ve tried to make them both equally exciting. I’ve bought some new seating, a couple of nice chairs, new floor pillows for them so they want to be in the reading area. I’m working on trying to get them to see that they both have their place: Technology and creating things are good, but the reading is something you need to sustain also.”

Although she was a good student, she recalled that in the third grade, she was scared to read out loud in class.

“I felt like there was a lot expected of me because I was a good student. Nobody laughed, and it was fine, but in my mind, I wasn’t the one good enough to be reading out loud. If kids feel like they’re not good at it, they shy away from it,” she said.

Barnett said she wants students to realize that the more they read, the better they become.

“My goal would be to teach a balance to kids between the importance of reading and technology,” she said. “Reading is something you have to practice, and a lot of kids don’t understand that. You get better at it the more you do it, just like everything else.”

It’s sort of like a classroom teacher who becomes a librarian and ends up Employee of the Year.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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