Together, Vivia Harrison and Zoraida Hernandez have taught for a jaw-dropping 88 years, much of that at the Partnership’s Mount Carmel-Holy Rosary School. They have influenced the lives of hundreds of students, some of them now even close to retirement themselves. Those students include many men and women whose stories Vivia and Zoraida can proudly tell you—who is a doctor or an architect; who struggled due to a tough family situation but is doing well now; who has sent their own children back to be taught by their former teachers.
This month, when Mrs. Harrison and Mrs. Hernandez clean out their classrooms and depart Mount Carmel-Holy Rosary to retire, they leave behind a legacy that each of us at the Partnership is honored to keep learning from. And at a time when some media attention is turning to teachers considering leaving the profession early, Vivia and Zoraida’s careers speak particularly to qualities it takes to stay in this vocation.
A Sense of Self
It takes a firm sense of self, and of one’s values. “We need teachers who are strong in who they are. The students will have you figured out in five minutes,” Zoirada says.
“Five seconds,” Vivia corrects her.
“…and if they see that you are strong, then you will be fine,” according to Zoraida. It’s not just about discipline, either; as Vivia elaborates, “being a teacher, you have to practice the same values we teach the kids in Catholic schools—humility, perseverance. You have to push yourself to find the answer, always push yourself. You want to show them those qualities so they can emulate you.”
Vivia adds, “We show them love, although there is a line there. We preserve our sanity by not befriending the kids. They call us old-school,” she adds with a smile.
While Vivia might call them “old school,” principal Molly Smith marvels at how often in their careers both of them have had to adapt, even before the pandemic compelled both of them to learn completely new remote teaching technology and methods almost overnight. “They love the kids and the work enough to adapt, repeatedly.” Indeed, we profiled some of the adaptations Zoraida made in teaching literature remotely last spring.
Both teachers acknowledge that every new principal and curriculum has demanded something different of them. “I always conformed to what principals wanted,” Vivia says proudly, like detailed write-ups of lesson plans. With some unappealing administrative changes, she admits, “I hid my pain.”
With a wave of her hand, Zoraida declares, “I was never that disciplined.” She adds, “theory is fine, but you need to be pragmatic to meet the needs of our kids.”
Not shy about calling out things they don’t think are right for students, both agree on one change: the curricula they have used since MCHR became a Partnership School. “Heaven-sent,” they say—and not just because they don’t have to write their own lesson plans, since those come with the curricula. “You can really focus on the aim,” according to Vivia. Zoraida adds that the materials “give you everything, and then let us take it and do what we know we need depending on the students we have.”
More than principles or adaptability, though, one quality has enabled both to keep making an impact and to find energy from the work: passion. “If you don’t love teaching,” Vivia says simply, “don’t choose it.”
She chose to become an educator in 1973, in Jamaica. After teaching secondary school there for almost twenty years, she moved to New York in the 1990s and had to get a U.S. bachelor’s degree to keep teaching. In 1999 she came to work at MCHR, where she has taught fifth grade.
Zoraida’s passion for the profession is rooted closer by. She grew up in East Harlem, a mile south of MCHR, where she attended St. Cecilia School. She was struck by “the compassion and the kindness” of her own teachers. “I vowed to God that’s the way I would be forever. This is the choice God made for me.”
She came back to St. Cecilia as her first teaching placement. When it closed, she moved to St. Lucy-St. Francis de Sales—and when it closed, she came to MCHR. “I walked in the doors and figured this is my home; I’m not going to any more schools after this.”
“I chose East Harlem because I wanted to teach our inner city kids,” she says bluntly. And with equal conviction, she chose her subject matter: middle school language arts. “These are stories that we can learn from—classics, non-fiction, contemporary—students can see their lives through the stories. They leave knowing that they have learned to deal with their lives, learned their history, learned to read literature on all levels. You can do so much with it. Math is one thing, science is another, but literature is the heart and soul of learning—I know I am being biased—it is everything that you are.”
Vivia, who teaches all core subjects, smiles diplomatically and explains that all the subjects grow in meaning when teachers relate them to daily life.
The passion both educators have infects their students. As 7th grader Tori explains, “Mrs. Hernandez is the type of person that keeps on building onto a thought to get an answer. When we read, she helps me find deeper meanings into the story that I never thought of. Her fascination and study of each reading helps me improve.
“Mrs.Harrison shows major focus and resilience. When I was stressed with a question, she never gave up on helping me until I got the answer on my own. She taught me the mindset of not turning back and keep going forward.”
And it is a passion that Zoraida sees now in Daniel Haines, a teaching fellow working with her. “We are one mind. He loves literature and history like I do. At the end of my career, they sent me a godsend.”
Daniel adds another characteristic to what makes these teachers great: sound judgment. Mrs. Hernandez, who he works with closely, “knows when to push and when to hold back, when to lead a student and when to let him come to a realization himself, when to take control of a situation and when to let things unfold. The good she has done over the past 47 years is incalculable.”
We will miss these two teaching legends dearly. When we think of the days coming soon, when Zoraida Hernandez and Vivia Harrison’s voices no longer echo in their classrooms, our consolation comes from two places: that their work will continue to echo for years in the lives of the students they have taught, and that they see in educators beginning their careers the qualities that have sustained the two of them, year after year.