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Art teacher says money doesn't teach creativity

August 19, 2007|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - Karen Barrett had the opportunity earlier this year to leave Berkeley County Schools for the proverbial "greener pastures" of Loudoun County, Va.

In March, the Martinsburg High School art teacher said she went to see just how green the grass was on the other side of the West Virginia state line, but said she wouldn't have left for the money.

"It let me know, quite frankly, that I'm in the right place," Barrett said of the experience that resulted in a job offer that came with a salary similar to what she's paid now, only with more resources to work with in the classroom.

But she said that money doesn't teach creativity.

"I don't understand how anybody can teach if they don't enjoy what they're doing," Barrett said in an interview last week.

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Now at the start of her 26th year at Martinsburg, the 1995-96 Berkeley County Teacher of the Year doubts she will teach at another high school.

"I came to the realization that I was in the right place at the right time," said Barrett, who also teaches classes at Potomac State College of West Virginia University and Blue Ridge Community and Technical College.

Barrett, like every other teacher and property owner in the Eastern Panhandle, has been forced to grapple with the region's increasing cost of living. She doesn't blame her peers for leaving the state to make more money to raise their children.

"I know several people who have interviewed ... and they really needed more money," Barrett said. "How in the world could you possibly say to them, 'How could you leave?'"

Barrett's only children are her students. They have included aspiring artist Matthew Hansel, who graduated from the Yale University School of Art in New Haven, Conn., and is expected to have his first show in New York City. He painted the outdoor sign for the Peking Restaurant in downtown Martinsburg.

Other students have included Nate Sowers, who played quarterback for the Martinsburg football team and currently is a wide receiver for West Virginia University. He and Nick Benavides, who was captain of the school's soccer team, were recognized for a table they built, Barrett said.

"I've probably got 35 doctors and dentists who have went through this program," she said.

Excited to begin another year, Barrett said the first day of class for her is like experiencing the smell of a new box of crayons, but teaching is not all about art.

"I'm very involved in the life of Martinsburg High School," Barrett said. "Teaching at the high school level is much more than what I do in class."

In addition to chairing the school's fine arts programs, Barrett serves as coordinator of the county arts programs.

"There are people that assume I live in the building," Barrett said.

Even when she's outside the building, Barrett has found herself attending soccer games. A number of her students have played the sport.

Amid soaking in all of the creative energy of youth, Barrett said she will know when to step away from the job that now gives her an excuse to keep her age a secret.

"If I didn't find it exciting, I wouldn't want to be a teacher anymore," she said. "It's a great job teaching high school. You never have to grow up."

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