Tim Hernández was teaching a class at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy on September 8, when the news broke Queen Elizabeth II of England had died at 96 years old. But rather than offering expressions of grief, many students in the class began to cheer — and far from castigating them for that reaction, “I celebrated with them,” Hernández says.
He points out that a large percentage of his students are of immigrant background, and many come from countries that were once under the rule of the British Empire. “I have children from Jamaica, India. And even though I don’t come from a colonial history in direct relation to the queen, I stand in solidarity with all those who have been oppressed, and the queen has had a profound influence in that.”
Had this episode taken place when Hernández was an instructor at North High School, a Denver Public Schools institution, he might have had to make his own trip to the principal’s office. After all, he was a deeply controversial figure in North, especially after publicly criticizing the way his exit from school was staged; in May he said Westword the decision was made for “retaliatory reasons” because “I openly challenge my manager on issues of fairness and anti-racism”. He was later placed on administrative leave after attending a rally on his behalf held by students and community members who felt they were being punished for being, in his words, “shamelessly brown”.
At Aurora West, Hernández is able to openly practice his brand of upbringing, which is not shy about speaking truth to power. But it still deals with the chaotic events of the past year.
Hernández was hired as a traditional teacher at North in January 2021 and quickly became a student favorite. But at the end of his freshman year, administrators argued the school didn’t have enough money to pay his salary – so he was encouraged to apply for a one-year associate position, “where the government pays half and the school pays half,” he recalls.As that term was coming to an end, he applied for one of the many open teaching positions at North, but we told him afterwards that he hadn’t been hired for any of them due to poor interviewing – an excuse he didn’t buy, since he had passed two successful interviews at the school during the previous eighteen months.
The rally for Hernández took place on May 13, and he was placed on administrative leave the same day. As a result, he notes, “I was officially kicked out of the whole DPS system: pay stubs, grades, attendance. Administrative leave. It was a pretty hard line — like being excommunicated.
Another demonstration supporting Hernández was organized before a meeting of the DPS Board of Education on May 19, and it seemed to have an impact. “The board met in private for two and a half hours, and after that the superintendent,” he said, referring to Alex Marrero, “made a motion to remove me from the non-renewal list, which m had been put because associate teachers only have one-year contracts.”
Marrero’s statement essentially claimed that Hernández would have a job at DPS for the 2022–23 academic year. But there was a problem: because he remained on administrative leave, he couldn’t personally apply for vacancies at any school – and the alternative offered to him required that he submit a detailed list of the vacancies that interested him to a member of the administrative staff. , who would then contact the schools on his behalf and let him know which ones were interested in scheduling an interview.
The results were disappointing, says Hernández. He asked to apply to five DPS high schools and two other establishments that interested him less; he never heard from any representative of his five favorites and only learned that the other two schools were willing to talk to him after he had already accepted a position at Aurora West – events which all happened before the lifting official of his administrative leave on June 13.
In retrospect, Hernández feels that the alleged job guarantee was an empty public relations move that masked an attempt to make it as difficult as possible for him to stay in the district. “It was politically favorable but structurally violent,” he says. But he insists those actions didn’t poison his feelings for DPS.
“A revolutionary is driven more than anything by love,” he says, “and I love Denver Public Schools. I bleed Denver Public Schools and I deeply love the Denver Public Schools community. I’ll be honest with you: if the principal I’m working with now was at another DPS school, that would be even better, but unfortunately that’s not how things worked out for me.
Hernández continues to live just a block north, and he maintains regular contact with his former students; he says not a day goes by that he doesn’t receive a text or other communication from one of them to check in on his well-being, ask for advice, or stay connected. But he’s also invested in the students at Aurora West, who also face many obstacles.
“Rather than teaching second- and third-generation Chicano kids, I teach refugee students,” he says. “In a classroom, 100% of the students are immigrant children, and they deserve a radical brown teacher just as much as my Northside neighborhood does. Every neighborhood deserves teachers who are proudly brown, proudly black, proudly indigenous, proudly Asian. But there’s also a lot of school-related trauma. The school has had active shooters, and there were a lot of issues under the previous principal. It’s really gripping for the culture because it’s so destabilized.
Even so, Hernández believes conversations like the one that developed after the Queen’s death are key to establishing a sense of community among her various charges. “When they chose to celebrate, I asked them why,” he recalled, “and they said, ‘Because the queen did this to me. And I said “I agree with you” and I pulled out an article from the New York Times which showed all the places where the queen had been involved in colonialism. We took fifteen minutes to make sure that these students could choose their moments and have their own experience in class. And that’s what’s important.”