As the school day drew to a close, Hernan Hernandez sat perched on a miniature plastic chair, captivating the wide-eyed audience eager to learn the fate of “The Runaway Pancake.”
More than a decade after he passed through the halls of Del Mar Elementary as a student, Hernandez is back — as the school’s newest kindergarten teacher.
On Monday, Hernandez began his second week of teaching his class of 21 students as one of the school’s four kindergarten instructors, the grand payoff after years of 15-hour days, student teaching assignments and a longstanding goal of returning to his hometown with his dream job.
“It feels like a dream come true,” Hernandez said. “It’s refreshing. There was a lot of hard work, but it paid off.”
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Hernandez, 24, considers himself a product of San Luis Coastal Unified School District.
I knew it was going to be a challenge — but here I am.
Hernan Hernandez, Del Mar Elementary kindergarten teacher
Born in Chicago, he moved with his mother, who owned a beauty salon, and younger brother to his parents’ hometown in Cuernavaca, in the Mexican State of Morelos, about a two-hour drive south of Mexico City. His father, a cook and chef, stayed behind and worked restaurant jobs in Illinois and California, including in Morro Bay at Maya restaurant, sending money to the family in Mexico.
Hernandez attended kindergarten and first grade in Mexico before he and his family joined his father in Morro Bay at age 6. After attending a couple years of elementary school in Los Osos, he move to Del Mar Elementary for fourth through sixth grades.
“I always considered myself as having been made here, because really most of my elementary days were spent here in San Luis Coastal Unified School District,” Hernandez said. “Everything was very steady once we finally got to Morro Bay — and we’ve been here now a long time.”
Hernandez’s father eventually bought Mi Casa Restaurante Mexicano, a restaurant on Morro Bay Boulevard, where Hernandez began helping out at age 13 and worked during his high school years at Morro Bay High School.
Hernandez said higher education wasn’t always his goal when he was young, but his parents changed that.
“Most of my friends and family were of the belief that, well, you’re going to do what your mom does or what your dad does. But my parents were always thinking, ‘No, you’re going to go to college,’” he said. “They just wanted something better; they wanted something for me that I’m going to enjoy doing with my life.”
Following years of advanced placement classes, soccer and cross-country practice, Hernandez would become the first among his family in the U.S. and Mexico to go on to a four-year university.
Much of the time, he was on his own. Due to a language barrier, Hernandez said his parents were unable to help with much of his homework.
“It was on me; I had to find a way. That prepared me to be independent and prepared me for college,” he said.
Hernandez landed at California State University Chico, decided he wanted to teach, and as a liberal arts major, began volunteering at local elementary schools and working student teaching assignments. After graduation came the search for a job, and Hernandez said he had just one district in mind.
The thing about Hernan is he has what you can’t teach: his personality, his passion for teaching, the interaction with the children... just how quickly he was able to engage those kiddos that he’d never worked with before.
Del Mar Elementary Principal Janet Gould
In May, he was one of more than a dozen applicants interviewed for two open positions with the district. Hernandez said he was very nervous until he caught a glimpse of Principal Janet Gould, who he remembered as a teacher when he attended Del Mar.
“I said, ‘I want this job and I’ve got to make an impression,” he said. He ran through a 30-minute lesson in front of administrators, and two weeks later got the call from Gould offering the kindergarten job.
“I remember exactly where I was: I was at my house grading some papers, and I just stopped — I didn’t cry with her on the line — but when I (got off) the phone, my wife was asking me, ‘What? What?’ And I couldn’t even talk at first,” he said.
Gould told The Tribune she’s thrilled the district could hire Hernandez in his preferred grade level, especially in a competitive district.
“The thing about Hernan is he has what you can’t teach: his personality, his passion for teaching, the interaction with the children ... just how quickly he was able to engage those kiddos that he’d never worked with before,” Gould said. “It’s that connection that teachers make with children that you can’t teach.”
Asked what he likes about kindergarten, Hernandez said every student thinks he’s a superhero. Among his favorite classroom activities: sing-along lessons.
He said he credits several teachers from throughout his life with his success, including former Del Mar teachers Cindy Vix and Ed Reed, Morro Bay High School teacher Tirtza Abuan, and Chico State lecturer Elizabeth Stevens.
Hernandez said he plans to stay with the district as long as he can at the elementary level, and is looking to pursue a master’s degree in the near future.
“I knew it was going to be a challenge — but here I am,” he said.