“I believe in you, and you believe in me. I don’t give up on you, and you don’t give up on me.”

This quote is something that Gerardo (Jerry) Barrio ’98, MS Ed ’00, stresses to his students as an image of the team atmosphere that he tries to create. These collaborative efforts have left a lasting impression on his students, who recently nominated him for the Illinois State Board of Education’s (ISBE) Teacher of the Year. 

We recently sat down with Barrio and several students from the Future Teacher Club that he leads at Streamwood High School. During our virtual conversation, the respect and appreciation that his students have for him shone through the screen, and each student echoed similar sentiments of the official nominator, Madison.

“He’s always been there for me,” she said.  “I know I can go up to him and ask him for anything, and I know he’s done a lot for others too.”

The students expressed their gratitude of Barrio for a variety of reasons, including always being someone they can trust, helping them navigate the college exploration and application process, and always giving them opportunities to succeed.

Several of Barrio’s students are first-generation students and many of their parents don’t understand educational systems or speak English. Barrio himself is a first-generation college graduate and a son of immigrants from Cuba. As a bilingual teacher he can explain educational information to parents, providing stronger connections between families and the school.

As the leader of their Future Teacher Club, Barrio has introduced his students to what it is really like to be a teacher.  He provided them with activities to teach small group lessons via Zoom, made sure they dressed professionally to lead the class and mimicked some of the same issues that all teachers have experienced during the pandemic. The club has also worked with local elementary schools to gain experience interacting with students, helping them see what it is like working with different age groups.

Barrio brought a few students to the Future Teacher Conference at Illinois State two years ago, and plans to bring more to the next conference scheduled for fall 2021 to help them truly see themselves at a college campus and find out more about the profession.

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Barrio and his students during the group interview: Emily K., Juan A., Cristina C., Karla A. (future EdBird), Liliana M., Brooke C. (future EdBird) and Madison R. (the last two students are Golden Apple scholarship finalists). Not pictured is Morgan B.

It was clear that Barrio feels the same about his students as they do about him. During our virtual conversation he beamed with pride to hear how his students wanted to affect future generations, and was appreciative about the nice words being said about him.

Barrio’s support of his students continues after they graduate high school, as he sees himself as a mentor for life. Current Illinois State education student and Golden Apple Scholar Jennifer Robillard is a former student of Barrio’s and was the president of the Future Teacher Club at Streamwood High School from 2016-19. She was thrilled to be able to share the impact that Barrio had on her, especially noting the assistance he provided in searching and applying for scholarships to college.

“Mr. Barrio is the kind of teacher who fulfills all those childhood ideals of what a fantastic teacher is,” said Robillard. “He celebrated with me when I found out that I got the scholarship making it possible for me to go to college. He is one of my biggest inspirations for becoming a teacher, because I want to be able to guide and inspire my future students just like him.”

Barrio continues to be inspired by his students, but a key influence in his teaching career was his grandfather.

“Even though my grandfather wasn’t a teacher, he actually taught me a lot about teaching,” said Barrio. “Before he died he told me ‘You’re not going to change a life, you’re going to change thousands.’” 

Barrio has indeed changed lives in his 21 years of teaching civics, economics, U.S. history and world history. He has taught students of varying abilities from kindergarten through 12th grade, and always tries to instill resilience in his students, picking them up when they fall and setting them on a path to success.

Barrio dreams about the possibility of winning the Teacher of the Year Award, not because of what it might mean for his career but for what it would show his students about affecting the lives of others through teaching.

“I dream about winning, and having my students on stage with me,” said Barrio. “I told Madison, if I win the state award, I’m eligible for the national award.  If I win that, I get to go to the White House and, as my nominator, she’s coming too!”

Barrio has deep appreciation for Illinois State, and reminisces about how the University took a chance on him when he applied, even though his SAT scores were not high. 

“They didn’t look at my scores as much as they looked at me as a person,” he said. “That inspired me to prove that I could do it. I didn’t do it alone though, people in the college were following me every step of the way.”

No matter what happens when the award winner is named later this fall, Barrio is clearly a winner in his students’ minds no matter what, and the connections he makes with them are the highest award he can receive.