"My classes during virtual school were 40 minutes, and we would spend 15 a day talking about mental health. [I have] a laser focus on the importance of mental health not only for students but also for teachers. We need to take care of ourselves and each other."
When you enter Señor Justin Barney’s classroom at Denver Green School Northfield (DGSN), whether virtually or in person, the first thing you hear is the soft sound of lo-fi hip hop music—short for low-fidelity, described by experts as an endless loop of chill beats that calm the nerves. This exceptional teacher has intentionally set the mood that would best engage his students while providing a safe place, creating a “cocoon” for learning. He emphasizes that his students’ mental health check-ins have always been a paramount focus for him. Even more so today, he makes it his priority in light of the unpredictable challenges resulting from the anxiety and stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. When asked what he considered his superpower to be, he says thoughtfully:
“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. We need to take care of ourselves and each other because when we can’t be with our community, things feel weird.”
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. Kade agrees that Barney truly cares: “I remember that one time there was something bad that happened to me at school, he asked me if there was anything he could do to help.” Nora stated, “The DGSN community loves Señor Barney, but the important thing is he loves his school, colleagues, and students back.” Talya added, “He made sure to keep a routine and made on-line learning feel normal—he makes everyone feel comfortable.”
Just looking at the wall behind his desk, one can tell Barney encourages learning through awareness and creativity. He displays the colorful character cut-outs that his students designed during the improv portion of his lessons. One poster shows an orange and black monarch butterfly over the eyes of a brown woman with long black hair with the words underneath “no human is illegal.” Next to that, there is a protest photo of what appears to be an empowered Latino fist whose forearm is covered by the Spanish words “Si Se Puede,” translated into English—“Yes, We Can.”
“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.”
Justin Barney on his mentor, Professor Alan Bloom
When asked for more details about the characters, specifically the yellow triangular chip cut-out the class named Ollie, Barney explains his methodology based on Comprehensible Input (CI)—offering an immersion experience as a successful learning tool:
“A lot of our curriculum is class-created content, and the whole process is in Spanish. All of the art is by the students—I pick somebody, they come in front of the class—I have an easel, and the art is based upon what the class comes up with. Once it is done, I hang it up, and 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—the final result is intoxicating to a student because they get to say, ‘we created this.’”
Talya stated, “It’s amazing the learning environment that he creates. We are learning, but it doesn’t feel like a boring school day. Class is always hands-on even during online learning.” Amaya reflected, “Every day Señor Barney teaches us how to communicate, and while doing this, he is constantly communicating with us.”
When asked if there is any message behind his poster choices, he thoughtfully points out,
“Well, yeah, that is just my stance; I think that it is dehumanizing to refer to a human being as illegal. I much prefer the term undocumented, or maybe no term at all—I think that it is important for students to see their teachers as activists in terms of how they engage with the outside world.”
Señor Barney, born and raised as a Lutheran in Southern California, has gained a lot of outside world experience since he began his career as a teacher 14 years ago. Graduating from Valparaiso University, he spent three years at Chaminade College Preparatory School in St. Louis, Missouri. One of the photos behind his desk proudly boasts a pre-pandemic picture of his current 7th graders with Bradley Beal, one of his former students from Chaminade, and a three-time NBA All-Star who plays with the Washington Wizards. Because establishing solid connections with his students is essential, Barney says that he kept in touch with Brad over the years. With some of his current students, they met up in Denver, and “after the game was over, we got to sit on the actual court in an empty arena, and I got to watch these eleven-year-olds’ eyes pop out of their skull seeing this person who was an NBA All-Star speaking to them in Spanish. It was a full-circle moment—seeing them all together was surreal.”
Toward the end of his time in St. Louis, he got married and then moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where he taught Spanish for five years at a small Lutheran school. At the end of 2013 beginning of 2014, he got his wake-up call to shake things up when he hit what he described as “the 8-year wall of teaching.” In October of 2013, a mentor and former professor of his at Valparaiso University, Professor 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, which was quite amazing to me. 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, in 2014, he was on a service trip with 12 of his Seniors, working with Casa de Los Angeles in San Miguel de Allende in Guanajuato, Mexico. He was always open to questions and discussions around challenging conversations; he was approached by a student asking him if he thought it was okay to be gay. And, he responded honestly with his truth, “I do. 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 from Mexico, one of his students must have told his father, a Lutheran pastor, about this conversation, and he got in trouble for what he said. The school’s principal admonished Barney for sharing a belief that was not in line with their teachings. Barney says that he had no regrets in saying it, clarifying that this was a pivotal moment in his life, “I was upset. 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.”
"I had come out to my parents in June. I emailed Señor Barney about it, and he immediately used language to call me 'amigo,' which means male friend, and that felt so nice—I cried because of that. I felt like I had finally been accepted.”
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, that same magical town where he decided to speak his truth. There they spent six months realizing their dream to live abroad. After Mexico, he and his wife moved to San Jose, Costa Rica, to teach for two years, then they returned to Denver, Colorado. In 2019, DGSN hired Señor Barney to teach Spanish as a founding member of the faculty.
To be sure, the Denver Green School is not your ordinary middle school. Based upon a partnership leadership model, teachers participate in an environment that is both innovative and ground-breaking. DGSN’s Lead Partner, like a co-principal, Mr. Kartal Jaquette, proudly states that his school “serves students at the highest level because we prioritize not just academic growth, but also engaging lessons, shared leadership, and joy. Our students and staff are incredibly talented, and in this ecosystem, where a school is well-organized and founded on values we all aspire to, we see students and staff thrive.” Mr. Jaquette shares the role of Lead Partner at DGSN with Ms. Erin Miller. Mr. Jaquette continues, “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.”
"He understands what it is like to struggle, and if he doesn’t, he wants to learn."
In this inclusive environment that engages all learners to flourish, Barney met students Kade, Norah, Talya, and Amaya as 6th graders. Described as fun, heartfelt, loving, humorous, inspiring, and down-to-earth, throughout the stories shared, Barney has provided to these now-7th graders the respect, understanding, and empathy that make the learning experience enjoyable.
And, boy oh boy, were they grateful to have him as their teacher—especially during the pandemic. Amaya emphatically states that he makes everyone feel safe and loved, which was important to her during this past year.
Kade volunteered, “I am a transgender student at school. I’ve known Señor Barney for two years now. First-year I was a very nervous kid—the first day I learned about him 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,” which means male friend, and that felt so nice—I cried because of that. I felt like I had finally been accepted.”
When Kade shared how Barney impacted his life with his therapist, she encouraged him to nominate Barney for an award. “That night, I typed into google [a search for] national teaching awards, and Honored came up. I typed in the whole nomination and sent it in at midnight. The next morning Señor Barney emailed me to say, ‘thank you so much—this is crazy.’ He has made such an impact on how I learn, to see that I can make him happy as well; that was big and made me very happy.”
"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. They must have sensed through zoom that I struggled with not getting that daily connection from students that sustained me and drives my passion for teaching."
Justin Barney, on being nominated for an Honored award by his students
Norah, who writes for The Goat Gazette, the school’s newspaper, was looking for a teacher story when she typed in Justin Barney and discovered Kade’s nomination for this award. When Norah reached out to Kade over text to ask him if it was okay to write about his story with Barney, he agreed. Then, Norah invited her fellow students to join Kade’s nomination; that’s when Talya and Amaya wrote one too. In Norah’s article entitled “Sr. Barney Gets Nominated For National Teacher Award,” she noted that Barney felt appreciated and that the nomination had strengthened his already special relationship with Kade. Norah wrote that they mutually looked up to each other and see each other as role models. Barney said that made his whole summer.
When asked what touched him the most about this nomination, Señor Barney said:
“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, it has been difficult for every individual, every adult, every kid—this is pain. And, what does a community do during tough times? You lift each other up. They must have sensed through zoom that I struggled with not getting that daily connection from students that sustained me and drives my passion for teaching. Their words were so touching.”
Kade said that Señor Barney checked in with him during quarantine: “I had a very hard time with mental health and remember one day I got an email from him saying, How are you doing? Are you okay? I talked about how I felt for the first time with a teacher, and that is really cool—he understands what it is like to struggle, and if he doesn’t, he wants to learn.” Kade shared that Señor Barney had always been inclusive, welcoming, and helpful to LGBTQ+ students in his classes. “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 corrected people on my pronouns—the school made it so easy.”
Embracing differences, Barney is excited for this year. Together as a class, they are co-exploring many issues including, what it means to be not male or female through the daily class lessons creating characters like a fish that is gay and a dinosaur that is non-binary. Kade added how this had impacted him: “When we truly and deeply respect someone, we learn.” Plus, he adds that Barney is silly, fun and loves to have a good laugh with them, referencing his teacher’s YouTube channel where he posts raps he creates based on the characters the class designs. Señor Barney commented on his “career” as a YouTube sensation with over 17,000 views of the 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.”
A firm believer in communication, Barney focuses on connection in a community where students need to feel safe, seen, loved, and supported “because they are like little flowers—it’s the same as the DGSN garden outside, the theme of sustainability surrounds everything we do. And, how do you create a school that can sustain itself? You take care of it.”
"When we truly and deeply respect someone, we learn."
When asked for a quote that inspires him now, he relayed that he is guided by The Four Agreements written by Don Miguel Ruiz. “When I was able to live out these (be impeccable with your words, don’t take everything personally, don’t make assumptions, and always do your best), everything fell into place for me.” But it was “always do your best” that he expounded on:
“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. And, when teachers don’t do their job well, they internalize that and feel bad. 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.”
Again, as he thought about the legacy he wishes to leave, he recalled his mentor Professor Bloom, “a lot of times I would watch a video of myself teaching.” Then, he paused, teared up, and sighed, “I didn’t expect to cry—I would think, I look like Professor Bloom—animated, big hand movements, doing crazy stuff, keeping kids on the edge of their seats, just a lightning bolt of inspiration.”
He recognized that this was another surreal, full-circle moment where he was being honored for speaking his truth while empowering others to own theirs. Referring to Kade, Norah, Talya, and Amaya, he declared, “these are truly exceptional kids.” Señor Barney offered these final inspirational 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.”
His favorite Spanish words and mantra are, “Empatía es todo”—Empathy is everything! And Amaya agrees: “Señor Barney has an ‘obscene’ amount of empathy which was important throughout virtual learning.” With awareness, his teaching journey that started 14 years before continues. A wake-up call led him down a path to become a teacher who builds bridges of connection rather than walls of division. There, he will continue to create a beautiful legacy inviting others along. And that deserves to be honored. Muy Bueno, Señor Barney—well done!
Photos by Lance Murphey
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