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Tim Hernández, a former North High School teacher and fierce advocate for students of color, made a lasting mark on his pupils before Denver Public Schools (DPS) let his contract lapse this past school year. With a new position teaching in Aurora Public Schools, Hernández reflects on his time at North, the student walkout protesting his departure in May, and the scoop on what students can expect from Freedom Literature, his radical, self-designed curriculum.
Editor’s note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
5280: Despite glowing testimonies from many of your students, DPS declined to renew your contract, which I understand is pretty rare. The official explanation from the district was a statement about your interview performance. Can you walk me through that?
Hernández: In January of 2021, I was hired for a traditional teaching position. But by May, after teaching the first semester, I was approached by school leaders who told me, ‘We don’t have enough money to keep you on full time. Will you take this one-year associate contract?’ The entire purpose of the Associate Program is to get young teachers, teachers of color, get them into school, give them professional development, and to retain them. I took the position because every single associate teacher that has ever taught at North High School, except me, has been retained. Every single one.
Why do you think you were the exception?
Because white school leaders did not appreciate the ways that I advocated for students. As a first-year associate teacher, I was elected to the school leadership team. Out of 160 people, I was one of three staff members elected [by other staffers]. That meant I had a first-hand role in developing policy for the school.
When the school was randomly locking bathrooms, and students were having menstrual crises, I went to the school leadership team and said, ‘Hey, we should re-evaluate this bathroom policy; we need something that works differently.’ On my third day at North, I received an email showing a screenshot of camera footage asking us to identify students that we recognized for an unnamed purpose and offering a bounty [essentially public praise] if we could name the student to the entire staff. And I openly said, ‘I don’t agree with that. That’s surveillance; that’s policing; that’s criminalization.’ How is that restorative? We were asked as an entire staff to document every time a student wore red, a Nebraska Huskers hat, a Chicago Bulls jersey, anything like that, and I openly stated, ‘This is racist. Here’s how gangs actually operate.’ They didn’t like being told what they were doing was racist.
In just a year at North High School, you seemed to have made a powerful impression on your students, many of whom marched in support of you when they learned about the district’s decision not to renew your contract. Why do you think you had such a strong connection with your students?
I think there’s two things. One is who I am. I look like my students. I talk like my students. I dress like my students. I’m not just a 40-hour-a-week teacher. I saw my students at the grocery store. I saw them at church. I saw them at their community programs. I saw them when I was walking around the neighborhood with my partner. I have lived their experience. I’m from the Northside.
The second part is what I taught. I designed both the first course of Latinx Literature and the first-ever section of Latinx Leadership at North. The school was not willing to give me funding for the books that I wanted, so I raised the money from the community. I did everything on my own. I taught them about colonialism, indigeneity, Chicano muralism. I taught them about very real issues that spoke to the experiences they were having. And I taught them what the fuck we could do about it.
You recently got a new position teaching at Aurora Public Schools. What was the process like for getting the position?
I’m going to try not to cry. The story starts with the walkout. Students organizing for me was the biggest blessing I could have received from young people; from anybody. To risk being arrested. They flew a police helicopter over my kids when they were walking the streets. And when my students were planning their walkouts, I couldn’t talk to them or help them because they knew if I did, I would get in trouble.
So when they began organizing, they met at one of their peers’ homes. The student’s father, a Northside Chicano, cooked them pozole and let them organize in his house. That father also happened to be a principal in Aurora Public Schools. And so when the walkouts happened, when I was placed on administrative leave and it was very clear I would not be returning to DPS, he reached out to me and he said, ‘Look, I’ve already seen everything that you can do. I’ll let you teach whatever you want. You can come to our school. Please help me transform our school.’
And you’ll be teaching courses in Freedom Literature there. What will that look like?
I’m teaching four sections: Two of them are Black Freedom Literature, and two of them are Latinx Freedom Literature. The curriculum I designed has three goals: to look at systems that have inherently taken away our freedom in this country; how our communities have historically made themselves free; and what that freedom looks like for us now.
So the Freedom Literature students in the Black section are going to be reading things like Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, which is a wonderful book told from the perspectives of an enslaved woman and a woman in continental Africa, who are both members of the same family tree. I’ll also be teaching Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates to discuss how we reclaim our own power and narrative.
For the Latinx section, we will be doing a research unit on indigeneity, colonialism, and U.S. imperialism, making use of novels like In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez about the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic that was destabilized by the United States in the 1960s. In the second semester, we’ll explore the history of Chicanas and Chicanos in Colorado through Sabrina & Korina, the short story collection by Denver-born writer Kali Fajardo-Anstine. And finally, we’ll have a joint unit to end the year with the Chicano/a/x Murals of Colorado Project, in which students will be designing an original mural dedicated to freedom. A Chicano muralist will pick one of the murals and paint it with students.
When it comes to American history and slavery, many parents around the country are fighting to keep politics out of the classroom. Is that even possible—or is the act of teaching always political?
Teaching has always been political. Politics are already in the class. Politics dictate how many dollars we get, which informs what type of resources—like desks and books—that we can buy for our kids. That’s not an educational decision. That’s a political decision. Somebody approves a budget for that. It’s a political decision to say what curriculum we’re going to teach. It’s a political decision to say ‘Who do we want to teach this?’ What we’re observing is that teachers are beginning to realize that they don’t have to align themselves to a politics that doesn’t serve the communities they come from or the students they’re working with.
I’m not interested in teaching to the political reality we inherited. I’m interested in teaching to the political reality we want. And, unfortunately, that’s disruptive. Unfortunately, that’s not the nicest and most comfortable thing, right? But what we forget about anti-racism is that if racism is uncomfortable, anti-racism has to inherently be uncomfortable. Because if we’re not actually disrupting anything, then what the fuck are we doing? What are we talking about?