It takes Dorothy Hernandez at least five minutes to walk through Washington Elementary’s school yard to reach Room 29 where she teaches third grade.
In what would normally be a two-minute walk, the delay is in all the students lining up for hugs before the bell rings from the newly named Burbank Unified's Teacher of the Year.
Even after school has let out on a recent Friday afternoon, Hernandez’ students in the after school program still have their eyes trained on her as they smile and wave back through the windows of her classroom.
Those who have moved on to middle school, high school and college return to open house, she said, when they know they will find her.
“I think that forever, I knew within my heart I wanted to be a teacher,” Hernandez said. “Except for one moment — I wanted to be a news broadcaster. But other than that, I think forever I wanted to be a teacher.”
Now 37, Hernandez began teaching at Washington Elementary in 1997, and has since endured the repeated onslaught of budget cuts.
At the beginning of her career, she taught 20 students compared to the 30 today without the once prevalent half-day instructional assistants.
Even so, Hernandez won’t let up, and at night, after she has put her own son and daughter to bed, she’s often researching teaching practices online.
Washington Principal Arlene Zenian said Hernandez is known for her leadership among fellow teachers, showing up early and leaving school late and volunteering to take in students that would make some teachers hesitate.
In Hernandez’ class, there are such things as mistakes, but they hardly matter.
“No one is ever afraid in the classroom to make mistakes,” Hernandez said.
When mistakes happen, a classroom-wide discussion follows with students willingly sharing their path to the incorrect answer.
“Once you’re in her classroom, you don’t want to leave,” Zenian said. “The kids are on the edge of their seats participating and actively learning. It’s one of the best classrooms, not just at our school, but probably in the district that I’ve been in.”
Hernandez — who grew up in Santa Rosa — began working at a day-care center when she was 12.
After 16 years of teaching — mostly first and second grades — her greatest fulfillment is in the strides her kids make, she said.
“Just seeing that growth, that spark — someone who comes in at first grade and didn’t know their letters, to becoming fluent and reading by the end of the year. That is such an amazing thing,” Hernandez said.
Follow Kelly Corrigan on Twitter: @kellymcorrigan