AURORA | It’s hard to one-up a perfectionist.
That happened Friday afternoon at East Middle School, when band director Jimmy Day found out in a surprise ceremony that he had been named the 2023 Colorado Teacher of the Year.
“Oh my God. Thank you very much,” Day said, visibly emotional, after being brought onstage and told he had won the award.
Day was one of seven finalists for the prestigious honor, which is given out each year by the Colorado Department of Education. He will now go on to represent Colorado’s 60,000-plus educators in the national competition, and will be honored along with other state teachers of the year in a ceremony at the White House.
But on Friday, it was the standing ovation from his students and colleagues that meant the most to him.
“That was very heartwarming to see my students in the audience cheering me on,” Day told The Sentinel. “For them to be here to celebrate lets me understand that they really appreciate what I do.”
On Wednesday, Day had been told that the school was holding an assembly to honor students who had won awards and asked if he could arrange a couple songs for his band students to play on short notice. It wasn’t until he got to the stage that he learned the assembly was actually for him.
“He’s a perfectionist, so it was challenging to ask him to perform and not give him all the details,” East Middle School interim Principal Jacquelyn Brown said.
This is Brown’s first year at East, but she said that before even arriving she had heard about how inspiring of a teacher Day was. The past several years have been difficult for educators, Brown noted, which makes the award feel even more meaningful.
“It’s an affirmation that the work matters,” she said.
After being brought onstage Day said he couldn’t wait to tell his wife and kids — and was then shown that his wife and younger son were in the front row.
“That really got me,” he said about his family being there. “I had no idea. I’m going to figure out how they put this all together, because that was real slick.”
Day’s wife, Keena Day, said that the school had called her yesterday and asked if she and their kids could come to a surprise assembly. The couple’s older son is in college at Colorado State University but she and high school sophomore Jimari were able to attend.
Keena is also an educator, and said that having a front-row seat to how hard Day has worked throughout his 14 years as an educator made it extra special to watch him be publicly recognized.
“I have seen him transform so many band programs,” she said.
A native of Detroit, Day received a bachelor’s degree in music from Tennessee State University and a master’s in teaching from Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville.
After graduation, Day went on to teach in Shelby County Schools in Memphis, Tennessee for six years, and then moved back to Nashville and taught there for two years. During that time, Keena got a job offer to work in the Denver School of Science and Technology’ public schools network.
Originally, Day was going to stay in Nashville while she moved to Denver, but there was a job opening at East and he decided to apply. He’s been at the school since 2017 now. In an earlier interview with The Sentinel, he praised the school’s leadership team for helping him succeed.
“I feel a level of empowerment here that I haven’t felt in my other districts,” he said.
The Colorado Department of Education credited Day’s work rebuilding three band programs and turning them into award-winning programs throughout his career when giving him the award. While teaching at East he served as interim band director at Hinkley High School while the program was in transition, and served as a new teacher mentor in the Public Education & Business Coalition Mentor Program. In 2018, he received East Middle School’s rookie teacher award.
The teacher of the year award comes with a $5,000 check from the CDE as well as the opportunity to adjunct a course at Adams State University and to take a course free of charge, along with a $1,000 scholarship to the university for one of his students. In his student’s estimation the most exciting prize was a gift from Blue Bell Ice Cream, which handed out treats to the student body at the end of the school day.
At the ceremony, APS superintendent Rico Munn spoke directly to the students in attendance about what the award symbolized.
“What we know down deep to our core is that good teaching cannot happen unless there’s a love for kids,” Munn said. “I want you to understand when we’re saying Mr. Day is the teacher of the year for the entire state, how much love for you is represented in this building.”
Day’s band students, who Day led in a rousing performance during the assembly, described him as an exacting teacher who wanted the best for his students and helped show them how much they could achieve.
“He’s passionate and he always pushes us to try our best,” said Josue Carillos, a seventh grade student who has played trombone at East for the past two years.
Margarita Gomez Barban, an eighth grade percussion player, said that some other students had left the band program because they thought Day was too strict, but she stayed because she knew he would push them to live up to their potential.
“When he knows we can do it, he expects us to do it and even better,” she said.
Good for him! Job well done.