Armed with degrees in neurobiology and history of art from Cornell University, Maria Barker thought becoming a developmental pediatrician was the ideal career.
She quickly learned otherwise.
The Mesa woman was juggling medical-school study sessions and application deadlines when she realized that teaching was her true calling.
While prepping for the possibility of medical school, she started working part-time at a behavioral school for children with autism as an instructional assistant.
“Little by little, I started developing a passion for education rather than the medical side,” she said. “As I started to work with families more and actually go to a lot of those doctors’ appointments, I did not feel that same connection that I wanted to have with the kids.”
She promptly switched gears and received her master’s degree in education from Arizona State and has never looked back.
Her path led to Red Mountain Center for Early Education in Mesa, where she works as a special-education teacher for preschoolers.
Now, she has been recognized by the Arizona Educational Foundation among five Ambassadors for Excellence.
Her teaching strategy combines opportunities for movement, music and creativity for the students throughout the day. For her students, she said, learning functional communication skills is what gives them power in their day-to-day lives.
“I don’t want anyone to leave my classroom not being able to express something – one of their own personal thoughts – or in some way be able to communicate with another person,” she said.
Barker said she did not believe that she would be chosen as an Ambassador for Excellence this year. To her school’s principal, Allen Quie, the recognition made perfect sense.
“She’s very passionate,” Quie said. “She’s a leader on the campus. She’s a leader for our program.”