Denver Green School Northfield teacher Justin Barney was selected for recognition by Honored, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping great teachers in the classroom and to inspiring a new generation of talent to pursue teaching. Honored believes that the special one-to-one relationship between a teacher and a student is the foundation of great education, and each month they shine a spotlight on one Honoree who has changed the life of one student.
What does Justin Barney, a Spanish teacher at Denver Green School Northfield (DGSN), consider to be his superpower?
“My classes during virtual school were 40 minutes, and we would spend 15 a day talking about mental health. That could be a superpower: a laser focus on the importance of mental health, not only for students but also for teachers.”
For students Kade Bassoukos, Amaya Whitehead-Bust, Talya Sigel, and Norah Krause, all of whom nominated Barney for the Honored award, Barney’s focus on each student as a whole person makes all the difference. “The DGSN community loves Señor Barney, but the important thing is he loves his school, colleagues, and students back,” says Krause.
Barney’s classroom displays colorful character cut-outs that his students design during the improv portion of his lessons. A poster shows an orange and black monarch butterfly pictured over the eyes of a brown woman with long black hair. The words underneath say “no human is illegal.” Next to that, a protest photo of what appears to be an empowered Latino fist says “Si Se Puede” (“Yes, We Can”) on the forearm. His message behind the posters? “I think that it is important for students to see their teachers as activists in terms of how they engage with the outside world.”
Barney explains his teaching methodology is to offer an immersion experience. “A lot of our curriculum is class-created content, and the whole process is in Spanish. I have an easel, and the art is based upon what the class comes up with. Once it is done, that character becomes a protagonist in a story. The coolest thing about it is that the story is wacky and hilarious—the process makes it engaging.” Sigel says, “We are learning, but it doesn’t feel like a boring school day. Class is always hands-on, even during online learning. ”
In late 2013, while teaching Spanish at a Lutheran school in Phoenix, Barney got a wake-up call as he hit what he described as “the 8-year wall of teaching.” A mentor and former professor at Valparaiso University, Alan Bloom, passed away suddenly from a heart attack. “It was a shock. He exemplified what I try to exemplify: how to teach and how to live—boldly, prioritizing connections with students, as a bleeding heart activist, unabashed advocate for people who are the most vulnerable in society. And he did this at a Lutheran University. Here is this guy who was living out loud even though the religious doctrine was sort of against what he was saying—he lit a fire in me on how to live.”
A few months later, on a service trip with 12 seniors in San Miguel de Allende in Guanajuato, Mexico, Barney was approached by a student asking him if he thought it was okay to be gay. He responded honestly with his truth, “I do think it’s okay to be gay, and I think that the Lutheran stance on this is wrong.”
Upon their return to Arizona, the school’s principal admonished Barney for sharing a belief that was not in line with their teachings. Barney calls this a pivotal moment in his life, “It was maddening that I couldn’t share my opinion in a way that’s loving, compassionate, and accepting of individuals. That’s when I decided that I could not work there anymore.”
One year later, an opportunity opened up for both Barney and his wife to serve as volunteer coordinators at a school for the deaf in San Miguel de Allende, fulfilling their dream to live abroad. After six months in Mexico, they taught in Costa Rica for two years, then returned to Denver. In 2019, DGSN hired Señor Barney to teach Spanish as a founding member of the faculty.
Kartal Jaquette and Erin Miller are Lead Partners at The Denver Green School, which is based on a shared leadership model. Jaquette says ”Señor Barney has strengths that few educators possess, and at DGSN, his strengths are leveraged to do the exact thing he wants, which is to help his students grow as people and learn Spanish.”
Senor Barney makes everyone feel safe and loved, says Amaya Whitehead-Bust, which was important to her during this past year. Kade Bassoukos, a transgender student, says, “The first day I learned about Senor Barney and his personality, he opened up a whole new world at school for me. I had come out to my parents in June. I emailed Señor Barney about it, and he immediately used language to call me “amigo,” (male friend), and that felt so nice. I felt like I had finally been accepted.”
Barney’s impact on Bassoukos’ life led him to do a Google search for national teaching awards. He found Honored and submitted a nomination for Barney. Norah Krause, who writes for The Goat Gazette, the school’s newspaper, was looking for a teacher story. When she learned of Bassoukos’ nomination, she also sent one—and she invited fellow students Talya Sigel and Amaya Whitehead-Bust do likewise. In Norah’s article entitled “Sr. Barney Gets Nominated For National Teacher Award,” she wrote about how Barney and Bassoukos mutually look up to each other and see each other as role models.
When asked what touched him the most about this nomination, Señor Barney says: “I took care of them before the pandemic. And then through the pandemic, they took care of me through this nomination—because this has been extremely hard. What does a community do during tough times? You lift each other up.”
Bassoukos says Señor Barney checked in with him during quarantine: “I had a very hard time with mental health and one day I got an email saying, ‘How are you doing?’ I talked about how I felt for the first time with a teacher—he understands what it is like to struggle, and if he doesn’t, he wants to learn. When I came out as trans, I did not think that I would have this much acceptance. But I have acceptance from everyone—the teachers even correct people on my pronouns—the school made it so easy.”
This year Barney says his class will be co-exploring many issues including what it means to be not male or female through characters like a fish that is gay and a dinosaur that is non-binary. Bassoukos adds how this impacts him: “When we truly and deeply respect someone, we learn.”
Barney has a You Tube channel with more than 17,000 views of his Rap, Yo Juego Fortnite. “I bring music into the classroom by giving each character a song—through repetition of the vocab; it gets stuck in their head. I am certainly not the best rapper, but I know how to make something where a kid will go, ‘Oh, this is weird—my teacher is rapping, and it might not be the best thing ever, but also it is not terrible.”
“Teachers have been going through the wringer this year. With virtual school, hybrid learning—we have had to modify our whole job to fit this pandemic. I know I was not connecting with my students as I do—so I felt bad about myself. ‘Always do your best,’ drives home that we extend ourselves grace, forgiveness, and permission not to do great work—then go to bed at night and say today was crap, but I did my best.”
Señor Barney offers these final words for his students and fellow teachers: “Be yourself because the world is always trying to get you to be something that you are not. I think that our spirits are perfect, and something healthy occurs when you are just okay with yourself the way you are and celebrate it—the most mentally okay thing that you can do is to be okay with you.”
Edited for length by the Front Porch
Photos by Honored photographer Lance Murphey