Popular Hurst teacher begins final year in the classroom

Barry Guillot

It’s a priceless reward for Barry Guillot whenever he hears the words from a former student.

You’re the reason I do this.”

The longtime Harry Hurst Middle School science teacher has inspired many of his pupils to become teachers, veterinarians or to pursue other careers regarding the things Guillot passionately taught them about growing up.

“One gets to go all around the world, working in environmental safety. He told me when he’s speaking to these groups they’ll ask him how he got started in it and he says he got interested in this because of his 8th grade science teacher. And that’s pretty neat …. it always means so much to me,” Guillot said.

This year marks the end of Guillot’s time in the classroom, the final year of a 30-year run as an educator at Hurst as he moves into retirement. The popular and well-known teacher is known for his gregarious personality, ability to connect with students and for his work with the Wetlands Watchers, which he founded to provide the opportunity for middle school students to enjoy nature and get involved in positive environmental projects.

In short, Guillot makes learning fun.

Before arriving at Hurst, Guillot worked at the Audubon Aquarium, establishing educational programming there that still carries on to this day. There, he met his wife, and when the two were married Guillot was ready to move back into the classroom – he briefly worked as a teacher in Jefferson Parish before joining the aquarium. He did so for the 1994-95 school year at Harry Hurst, hired by then-principal Hank Shepard.

Coming off of the aquarium, where he was tasked with creating a program from scratch, Guillot was used to flexing his creative muscles.

“When I got to the regular classroom, I just knew there were so many things we can do besides just reading from the book,” Guillot said. “It was kind of a gift coming from the aquarium where I was using my imagination and coming up with things, how can we use the resources we have, what can we do?

“I believe in hands-on learning – make it real for them. So many kids will ask, ‘Why do we even have to learn this?’ We can go out to see and experience these things, go visit a place, surround them with it and make it real. That’s part of the reason I started Wetland Watchers and started bringing animals to the classroom.”

That last part is one of Guillot’s calling cards as a teacher. He’s cured a few phobias as well.

“I love educating people about animals … getting people over their fears of snakes – give me a chance and you won’t be afraid anymore,” Guillot said. “Now, I’m not saying to go grab them out of the canal, but if you hold one of the ones I bring, you’ll be fine.”

He brings a great energy to the job and there’s a reason for it. Guillot is passionate about what he teaches, and often students can’t help but match that enthusiasm and jump along for the ride.

“I grew up waterskiing in Lafitte. It was always fun when the swamp tour would come through, they’d be talking about giant alligators and then we go waterskiing right next to (the boat),” Guillot said. “My sad always took me fishing. When I arrived here, I thought all these kids had the same experience as me with the outdoors … I was shocked at how many kids hadn’t experienced the wetlands before,” he said. “I wanted to give them the same opportunities.”

That led to Guillot establishing Swamp School, the annual summer camp Guillot runs in conjunction with the parish’s department of Parks and Recreation.

Wetlands Watchers, meanwhile, represents another passion for Guillot. The organization has hosted students from across America and from 16 different countries in addition to his local students.

“We go see the Cypress Trees in the lake and talk about how that was on land one time,” Guillot said. “This is not just land, it’s part of our culture and when it washes away, that part washes away too. I wanted to bring attention to it … it’s something (the students) are going to face in their lifetime.”

No matter what he’s teaching his students at a given time, however, there are lessons that overlap into all aspects of life. Teamwork and leadership skills are practiced on a routine basis during his lessons and Guillot aims to help round out the whole person, not just their knowledge.

“10 years from now, you may not care about the parts of an atom, but if I can stir up that curiosity in you so that you see something and wonder, ‘How does that work?” then I’ve done my job,” Guillot said. “Teamwork, leadership, they’re going to use those skills for the rest of their lives.

“I like to set up activities where they can have a positive impact on the community, and maybe when they feel that good feeling, they’ll remember that and keep wanting that as they continue on in their life.”

Guillot said he’ll always treasure the memories with his students over the years – some of which are second-generation pupils of his.

He’ll also always remember the great support he had. The parish’s school board and government, he said, consistently supported his efforts to expand what his classroom and lesson could be. He also fondly noted his friendships with Milton Cambre and Craig Howat, who combined with Guillot in different ways to make Wetland Watchers and Swamp School the successes they’ve been,

Guillot also remembers how many of his colleagues and students made it clear how much he meant to them during one of the hardest periods of his life.

In 2018, a scary discovery about his health forced Guillot to put his teaching and love of nature adventures to the side. After dealing with an array of physical ailments that began cropping up including a drop foot, paralyzed leg, fatigue, shortness of breath and overall pain, he visited a doctor. He was routed to a surgeon and then a neurologist. It took several blood tests, MRIs, CT scans and even three spinal taps for his diagnosis to be determined: he was afflicted with Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS), a neurological disorder that affects an estimated one in 100,000 a year. It causes the body’s immune system to mistakenly attack the nervous system or network of nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord.

“I was so heartened at the way the teachers, the entire school system got behind me,” Guillot said. “We’re all a family. People were bringing meals to my wife when I could barely walk. People were coming to sit with me. It was a huge outpouring.”

One of his former students, Taylor Brown, raised thousands of dollars toward helping offset his medical costs, organizing the “Gathering for Guillot” fundraising showcase at the Edward Dufresne Community Center.

“I called her my guardian angel,” Guillot said. “That was a part of my life that I didn’t know if I’d be able to come back from.”

He battled through to return to the classroom and though he still has physical issues as result of the illness, he says he feels young nonetheless. This week, Guillot turned 57, and though at year’s end his time with Hurst will be through, he has plenty to accomplish ahead of him.

“A student asked me how old I am and I told him that when I was his age, I thought 50 was a fossil,” Guillot said. “But I can tell you, I don’t feel that way. I feel I can do everything I want to do.”


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