The Education of Ms. Barsallo

For her first job out of college, Millie Barsallo became a teacher in one of Denver’s most challenging public schools. She wound up facing two of the most profound questions of her young existence: Could she change the lives of 40 boys and girls? Or would the school change her?

September 2010

Barsallo never imagined herself worrying about children’s reading scores. A 2009 graduate of Cornell’s Department of Government, she has a friendly face, black hair, and warm, brown eyes. When she smiles—which is often—it’s followed with a giggle. Though Barsallo went to college in New York, she grew up in Aurora, where she was raised middle class, the middle child of a mother and father who left Panama to seek educations in the United States. Her parents returned to their native country in the 1980s, then immigrated back to the United States when Barsallo was an infant. The family lived in a two-story home near Buckley Air Force Base. While her dad went to work as a manufacturing engineer, Barsallo taught herself English by watching cartoons on her parents’ only television. She became a top student: Her early academic career culminated with a scholarship to St. Mary’s Academy, a Catholic school in Cherry Hills Village. There, she earned a 3.9 grade point average, was on the dance team, and was one of the school’s only students from the class of 2005 to attend an Ivy League school.

“I always thought I’d go to law school, then go to Capitol Hill, and then change the world,” Barsallo says. But at the beginning of her senior year, she got a recruiting e-mail from Teach For America, an organization that takes high-achieving college graduates and places them in some of the nation’s poorest urban and rural public schools. The concept intrigued Barsallo, whose life as a minority student in mostly privileged, white schools gave her a unique perspective. “Everyone wants to pat you on the back for the stupidest things, like, ‘Congratulations for not having a baby at 16,’ ” she says. “The expectations are pretty low.” Barsallo wrote two essays, interviewed twice, and was accepted by TFA. She then applied for jobs in Colorado and eventually was offered a job at Cole.

The chance to teach in Denver was a blessing. Not only would it give Barsallo a way to be close to her family—she loves her mother’s fried plantains—but the job would also give Barsallo an opportunity to work with children who reminded her of people she grew up with. While friends planned high profile, post-graduation gigs—at Harvard University, at Sotheby’s, at the State Department—Barsallo accepted a $34,000-a-year job at Cole, packed her belongings, and moved home.

Many of her students also took a circuitous route to get to Cole. Barsallo knew her students were either immigrants—from Mexico, mostly—or children of immigrant parents. Nearly all of them lived in poverty. Some children had only recently started attending school regularly. One boy had been homeless a year earlier.

For the teachers who worked at Cole the previous year, like veteran teacher Paula Lopez-Crespin, the school calendar became a series of battles—over discipline, homework, parental involvement, and self-doubt. Teachers who imagined themselves changing the neighborhood would quickly find resistance among students and parents. “The more you persevere, regardless of your limitations, the better you can serve your kids,” Lopez-Crespin says. “If you let it, school can seem like a major challenge every second of the day. You could second-guess yourself to death here.” It would not take much for someone young and idealistic, like Barsallo, to soon be overwhelmed.

Barsallo knew her classroom inexperience would hinder her first months at Cole. There were complaints of out-of-control parents, of a lack of direction from the administration, of a lack of support for struggling teachers. If the veterans felt pressure, what would happen to her?

On a bright October morning, Barsallo’s mother, Gilda, visits her daughter’s classroom. She chats with Barsallo’s students, shows old photos, and tells stories of growing up in Panama.

“What was Miss Barsallo like when she was our age?” a girl asks.

“Oh,” Gilda says, “she was very silly.”

The boys and girls giggle. They beg Barsallo’s mother to speak with them in Spanish, and she does.

After sending the children to lunch, Barsallo and her mother steal away to an empty teacher’s lounge near the first-floor stairwell. Barsallo pulls out a plate with a small pizza on it and quietly heats the meal as her mother watches.

“What’s wrong?” Gilda asks.

“Nothing,” Barsallo says.

“Millie, what’s wrong?”

Barsallo hesitates and looks to see if anyone is outside. She shakes her head. “I can’t say,” she says. “I just can’t say.”

The truth was that just a few months into the year, things were getting more difficult for Barsallo. She spent hours after school brainstorming ways to engage each student, then took the lesson plans home and stayed up late working on them. She’d foregone a boyfriend and any semblance of a regular social life to focus her time on Cole and her students. Every morning, though, her plans evaporated. Every day, by the day’s end, it seemed as if she’d ceded more control of her classroom to children who didn’t seem to respect her. The list of infractions was neverending: One day, two girls threw punches over a boy. Another day, Barsallo learned that some of her students were using the word “nigger” when referring to black students. And an argument between Barsallo’s fourth-graders ended with one yelling at the other in Spanish: “Oh yeah, your family is a bunch of wetbacks!”

At least three boys in her class hadn’t turned in any homework yet, and whatever interventions Barsallo had tried with them—phone calls to mothers, private meetings at her desk—resulted only in shrugged shoulders and promises to do better. She wanted to be angry, but in some ways, she understood.

Barsallo had her own challenges: For weeks at the beginning of the year, the school didn’t issue her a computer; later, she realized that she hadn’t been given a password to access a school database. When she met Zachary Rahn, the school’s 25-year-old administrative intern, for a “formal observation,” he told Barsallo that her classroom was “messy.” The notes she’d written on butcher paper and hung on the walls made her room look disorganized; her desk—with stacks of papers and books and pencils—was a distraction.

Barsallo was hurt and upset; the room was her handiwork, and she thought it was an inviting place for her students. “I’m trying,” she says, tears welling in her eyes. “I really am.” She spoke to her TFA program director, Scott Wolf. “Millie’s got to get past this,” he says later. “She can be a great teacher, but she’s got to realize that it isn’t going to happen overnight.”

Even more of a problem was the fact that her most troubled students—the children goose-stepping across the floor during independent reading time, those leaving the room without Barsallo’s permission—were becoming a constant distraction. “I’m losing the kids who actually want to be here,” she says. She considered punishing students by writing referrals to the administration’s office, but the infractions didn’t seem to warrant that. And, inevitably, the kids who would get sent away potentially needed the most attention in the classroom.

Barsallo had come to Cole expecting adversity, but not this. She went out of her way to follow school directives religiously, but nothing seemed to improve. Her class was among Cole’s worst when it came to writing ability, but the school was stressing reading this year. “It’s never-ending,” Barsallo says. The contradictions of her new life—the seriousness of her charge and the absurdities about the way it was all coming apart just a few months into the school year—confounded her.

Across the hall, things were worse. There, 24-year-old Emily Brown and Lopez-Crespin had no qualms about issuing referrals, but their classes showed only marginal improvement. After one flurry of write-ups, a fourth-grader made a prank call from Brown’s class phone. None of her students would give up the culprit, though the teacher was certain everyone knew who it was. “Ninety percent of what goes on around here is really positive, but it’s that 10 percent that grinds you down,” says Ben Cooper, a Cole administrator. “You’ve got to pick yourself up every day and make a decision. Are you going to rise to the occasion, or are you going to lie down?”

Barsallo asks herself that question with regularity. At home, inside the terrace-level apartment she shares with her sister and a friend, Barsallo walks into her bedroom, which is covered with clothes and ungraded papers. She tells the story of her own third-grade teacher, whom she last saw a few months before leaving for college in 2005. “I told her I was going to Cornell, and tears started streaming down her face,” Barsallo says. Now that Barsallo’s the teacher, she wants to know that she’s doing what’s right for her students.

“I want to be that teacher who sees one of my kids 10 years from now, and they’re telling me how they’re kicking the world’s ass,” she says. “But how can I get there when it feels like my ass is the one that’s being kicked?”