Cheryl Barber was a late bloomer when it comes to a career as a teacher.

Pregnant at 16, married shortly after and a single mother with four children 10 years later, she was struggling to figure out what she wanted to do with her life. Shortly after her divorce she moved to Abilene from her hometown of Ballinger and took up several odd jobs just to make ends meet and try to create a stable home environment for her family.

She met a “lot of good people in Abilene,” she said, and had a strong church family at Highland Church of Christ. She had long had a passion for math and figured she would go to college to get a degree in accounting, get her CPA license and become an accountant. That was the plan when she started school at Abilene Christian University in the early 1990s as a 34-year-old freshman.

“But after doing that, I realized, ‘you don’t really reach people doing that,’ and that’s when I realized I wanted to help pregnant teenagers,” Barber said. “So, then I thought I’d like to become a social worker.”

But Barber’s mother had a different thought about her daughter’s career path.

“My mom kept telling me that I should become a teacher so that, as a single mom, I would be off when my kids were out of school,” Barber said. “But I’m just rebellious enough that I didn’t want to do what my mom was saying to do with my life. But I also realized that the classroom would be where I would meet students and make an impact on them.”

She’s been making an impact on students in the AISD for 28 years, including the last 11 at Cooper. On April 27, she was honored with the Edwin and Agnes Jennings Teaching Excellence TLC Secondary Teacher of the Year in the Abilene ISD by the Abilene Education Foundation. She will now represent the Abilene ISD in the Texas Teacher of the Year competition at the secondary level. The first step in that is the Region XIV Teacher of the Year competition at both the elementary and secondary levels. A win there would send Barber on to the statewide competition.

“That night was so surreal,” Barber said of hearing her name called as the recipient of the AEF honor. “I was in a room packed with all of those great teachers, and it was humbling to hear their stories and what great things they’re doing. I was very shocked then when they called my name.”

Barber was one of the teachers who helped get Woodson Excel off the ground and taught there for the first 17 years of her career. She’s in her 11th year at Cooper where she currently teaches Family and Consumer Sciences and serves as the department chair for the Career and Technical Education programs on campus.

She’s also the Texas Association of Future Educations (TAFE) instructor at Cooper and has been named the “Outstanding Teacher Leader” in TAFE in the past. She has been an active member of FCSTAT (Family/Consumer Sciences Teachers Association of Texas) for 28 years. Barber has also acted as a summer instructor for the Workforce Solutions in Abilene and as a TAFE State Conference judge for nine years. With all of that on her plate, it’s no wonder Cooper principal Lyndsey Williamson has such great admiration for Barber.

“She is one of the hardest-working, most thoughtful teachers I know,” Williamson said. “She is a teacher of teachers; she teaches our education classes and is a mentor teacher to many. She takes great pride in doing things right and helping those around her to be successful. And she’s always a team player and advocate for students.”

Advocating for students has been Barber’s primary mission since she first began teaching, and that will never change, she said.

“I love being around the students; they keep me going every day” she said. “They’re still vulnerable and they still need help and encouragement, and that’s what I believe I’m here to do for them.”

In 28 years, Barber said, her teaching style has had to adapt to society and new standards over the course of her career.

“When I first started, you could really lecture in class and the students accepted that,” she said. “That’s not the way you go about it now. Textbooks used to be so very important, but now everything is right at their fingertips on their phones. The way I approach students has changed; it’s had to change. When I was at Woodson, I would give students a hug, but with COVID and social-distancing, students have backed away from that, so I’ve become a back-patter.”

Sill, though, Barber’s job gives her life each and every day.

“When I walk into this classroom, I feel like I’m at home,” she said. “I love greeting the students and calling them by name and knowing they’re going to be excited about what we’re going to be doing in the classroom that day.”

She loves it so much, she said, that she literally can’t see herself doing anything else.

“I would love to keep teaching until I literally can’t do it anymore,” Barber said. “I don’t want to do anything else. This is what I love to do and everything else is secondary.”