Photo by Kathy Tran.

Lake Highlands neighbors tend to be informed and knowledgeable about local politics. Ask about our last three District 10 council members, and most could easily click off the names of Kathy Stewart, Adam McGough and Jerry Allen. Ask about Dallas’ last three mayors, and most could recite Eric Johnson, Mike Rawlings and Tom Leppert.

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Press for the names of elected officials in Richardson, though, and you might get a few blank stares. Parents in Lake Highlands send our children to Richardson schools, but most know little about the governance of our municipal neighbor to the north.

Did you know one of Richardson’s six council members is a teacher at Lake Highlands High School?

Dan Barrios was elected to a two-year term on the council one year ago, and he represents District 3, which is bounded, generally, by Coit, Campbell, Spring Valley and 75. He’s finishing his fourth year teaching business at LHHS after a previous career as an account manager for a food and beverage company. There, he was responsible for key accounts including Walmart, and he handled sales and merchandising teams with more than 2,000 employees.

“Coming into teaching, I’m now the low man on the totem pole learning a whole new industry,” he jokes. “I’ve loved most of it and have appreciated being welcomed into the RISD and the LHHS community. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some incredible teachers and administrators who have helped me adjust, learn and grow. While I may still be learning the ins and outs of teaching, I have 20 years of experience I bring with me and never-ending stories to pull from.”

Barrios works to link his experiences from the work world to lessons within his curriculum. He doesn’t hesitate to share personal lessons he learned the hard way.

“Students love hearing stories that I connect with learning,” he says. “Stories about launching product lines, ethical dilemmas I’ve faced, having to lay people off, or things I’ve learned through my own mistakes. By far, the most rewarding part of teaching for me is connecting and developing relationships with students. I’m Hispanic, bilingual and a first-generation high school graduate. My father went to prison when I was five, and I was a troubled teen. As a kid, I grew up in Section 8 housing, and in seventh grade, I changed schools eight times. When students hear stories from my executive experience and then get to know me and my background, I often connect with students that many other teachers have not connected with. I hope that my experiences and authenticity help students understand that we always have room to grow, we are not alone, and life has the ability to get better if we do not give up. I hope they see a bit of themselves in me.”

Barrios’ students and their parents aren’t eligible to vote for him since they don’t live in his district, but he does share lessons from the election. During his campaign last May, he brought yard signs, push cards, T-shirts and other campaign materials into the classroom during a curriculum unit about marketing, and he displayed his campaign on social media and website as a teaching tool. One supporter of his opponent authored a blog post with negative comments, and Barrios had his students read it as part of a class lesson.

“Students explored possible responses,” he says. “They weighed the positives and negatives of responding, considered tone and how a response may appear to the public at large. It was great seeing them work through that and understand that.”

Occasionally, students will ask what issues the council is grappling with or which events Barrios attended over the weekend. He’ll bring in mementos from his weekends like a Golden Dragon gifted to him at a Lunar New Year Gala, a cake slicer from Richardson’s 150th celebration and a hand-painted bowl from Turkey gifted to me by the Dialogue Institute of Dallas. One recent weekend, he visited Washington, D.C., with a delegation to talk policy with Senator John Cornyn and six members of Congress at the Capitol Building.

Barrios encourages his students to be involved in their community — especially as they approach the voting age.

“I find that many students and adults are greatly unaware of issues around them or local government. They are aware of some of the big state and national issues that get headlines. Due to technology and access to information, they are much more engaged and aware of the national talking points than I was at their age,” he says.

Students are often surprised to hear Barrios makes just $5,000 per year for the 30-35 hours per week he spends serving on the council, and they’re doubly surprised when they bump into him attending an event in his official capacity.

“Sometimes I’m being ushered through a crowd, into a building, or onto a stage and they catch a glimpse of me, and I see the surprised look on their face. That piece never gets old,” he says. “When I see them in public at events, I always make it a point to make a big deal and introduce them to the mayor or VIPs in attendance. They always get a kick out of that.”

Luckily, Barrios has a kindred spirit around the horseshoe. Mayor Bob Dubey is a graduate of RISD schools and former athletic director for RISD. He was elected mayor in 2023 after serving on the council for six years.

“It’s an honor to serve alongside Mayor Dubey. We both share a passion for children and youth and helping them reach their full potential,” Barrios says. “I think voters are willing to vote for people who listen and are committed to working with others to make our community stronger. It’s no secret that teachers don’t do this job for the money — they do it because they want to make their community better.”

Before becoming a teacher Barrios traveled extensively with work, completing more than 100 flights each year and spending about 200 nights in hotel rooms. Though his schedule remains very busy, he works hard to prioritize family and community. He’s often on campus by 6:30 a.m., grading papers or preparing lessons in his classroom. When the bell rings at 4:20 p.m., he’s off like a shot to attend an event in Richardson by 5.

“I could not serve in this capacity without the love and support of my family,” Barrios says. “Serving in office is a family commitment.”

Barrios says working as a teacher and serving on the city council aren’t goals he set for himself as a young man preparing to enter the business world. Today, he can see how each experience has built upon the other.

“Sitting on the city council has taught me many things, but I think it is the experience I bring to the council because of my teaching that carries the most weight. Like anything in life, you do not stop being someone when you leave that location. I do not stop being a teacher when I leave campus at 4:30. Nor do I stop being a Christian when I leave church on Sunday morning. Or a dad. Or a husband,” he says. “Being a teacher is now and will forever be a part of who I am, and this experience makes me a stronger community servant and brings a unique perspective to the dais and community I serve.”