COTTONWOOD - Barbara U'Ren calls it the "teaching career bell," and for her, it first rung when she was 8 years old.
"I started my career teaching the day I went out to the back yard and set up my first teacher's desk on top of the air-conditioning unit," says U'Ren, superintendent at Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District and 2016 Verde Champions Educator of the Year. "I wanted to be just like my third grade teacher, Mrs. Goodman."
Both of U'Ren's parents were educators, recalls U'Ren, who began her career in 1984 when COCSD hired her to be the school's special education paraprofessional.
From there, U'Ren became a teacher, assistant principal, principal, assistant superintendent and for the past 10 years, U'Ren has been the district's superintendent. After more than 30 years in education, U'Ren is still passionate about her work, especially helping her kids find success.
"What still excites me is that we always have opportunities to make things better for kids," U'Ren says. "I'm a dreamer. I always believe that education evolves to meet the needs of the kids we serve and I get excited about the possibilities and pushing the boundaries."
COCSD Instructional Coach and Testing Coordinator Lynn Winslow has watched U'Ren both as a fellow educator and as a parent. Winslow says that U'Ren has always been focused on serving her district and her community.
"She was my daughter's first grade teacher at Oak Creek School and she was exceptional," Winslow says of U'Ren. "She is committed to education, and not just for her students. She has encouraged her staff to continue in the pursuit of excellence through professional development, sometimes leading it herself."
An "inspiration" is how Dr. Daniel Bright Elementary School Principal Nancy Erickson describes U'Ren. Erickson, who has worked with the district superintendent for 20 years, says U'Ren is "always looking for the next best thing to improve teacher instruction and student academic achievement. She is innovative and a true change agent."
"She has been a great inspiration in my own development as an educator and is always willing to share her expertise to up and coming administrators," Erickson says.
Leadership is more than being the boss. Tricia Winters, the district's administrative assistant and Governing Board Secretary, considers U'Ren a "distinguished role model," especially for the community's young women.
"One of her greatest gifts is in recognizing the talents, assets, and abilities of those within our district and strategically positioning them within the system to best suit the needs of students," Winters says.
Though U'Ren says she is honored to receive the Verde Champions award for 2016, she says what means more to her is that the award recognizes the efforts of her teachers and her staff, that they all work together for one common goal - to enrich the lives of their students.
"They work tirelessly, planning and preparing lessons and ensure that their instruction is focused and driven towards meeting the unique needs of each individual student in their care," U'Ren says. "It's nice to be honored, but it is nicer to know that it is the team you work with that made this possible."