May 3, 2022

Teaching Students to Question: Meet Flagstaff’s Jillian Hernandez

Jillian Hernandez teaches at Puente de Hózhó Elementary School in the Flagstaff Unified School District. She has taught for 16 years and is an Arizona Educational Foundation 2021 Ambassador for Excellence/Teacher of the Year finalist.

Jillian Hernandez, Puente de Hózhó Elementary School

Jillian Hernandez didn’t know growing up she wanted to be a teacher, but she credits two influences from her high school days at Wichita High School East: her English teacher, Jennifer Fry, and her theory of knowledge class. Both showed her how impactful teaching can be and both taught her to question.

“It was about asking questions…and considering different ways of thinking and knowing,” said Hernandez. “Now my entire premise of teaching is based off of questioning and giving students space to question.”

These days Hernandez is not just helping students question things to learn, she’s questioning the current systems in place, from standardized testing to how money is distributed in schools.

“I want this space to be driven by inquiry and students’ passions,” said Hernandez. “We’re trying to build the world we’d like to see while living under the confines of a system built a really long time ago. . .It has to be reimagined.”

Today teachers are facing challenges that she believes go beyond burnout.

“We have to find ways to not only honor people within teaching…we need to allow professionalism and creativity to grow and shine.”

Reimagining public education doesn’t mean schools need to be dismantled but rather supported and the most important way you can support teachers is in the voting booth, she added.

“I would like it if people would pay very close attention to who is running for school board, who their elected officials are, and what they’re doing to support public education, instead of dismantling it,” said Hernandez. “Who we have in office really matters as to whether teachers are going to stay in education or not.”

To Hernandez, it feels like teaching has become misunderstood. She wishes more people understood the roles teachers have, not only in the lives of students but to society, and their importance in our society.

“The Arizona Education Foundation has this saying that ‘Everyone’s story includes a teacher.’ I would just ask people to really think about the teachers in your life,” she said.

Despite the challenges, she’s reminded of what continues to inspire her work, including getting her former student’s college graduation announcements.

“When I see students use their knowledge to make change in this world, I find that inspiring,” she said. “The purpose of education is not to impart knowledge to kids but to allow their brilliance to shine and that is what gives me hope.”