By Greg Mellen
While in college, Norma Hernandez wasn’t sure what her future held career wise.
She majored in psychology, but it was her minor in teaching that opened the doors to her future.
As part of her class requirements, Hernandez asked to be assigned to her old junior high as a teaching assistant. While there, she met a ninth grader who didn’t know the alphabet.
“I saw (education) from a different perspective,” said Hernandez, who helped the teenager take halting steps toward literacy. “I wondered what happened to make her fall through the cracks?”
Helping the girl inspired Hernandez. The feeling she gets from helping students succeed and thrive, particularly those who may struggle, has now carried her through a quarter-century in education.
On January 31, in front of a room full of about 150 educators from across the Capistrano Unified School District, Hernandez was surprised by district officials who came into the meeting to announce she had been named the CUSD Elementary School Teacher of the Year.
As the announcement was made, Hernandez’s colleagues from Viejo Elementary gave the transitional-kindergarten teacher a standing ovation.
Making the presentation were about 10 administrators, including CUSD Board of Trustees members Judy Bullockus, Amy Hanacek, and Gila Jones, CUEA President Joy Schnapper, and CUSD Superintendent Chris Brown.
Viejo Elementary is one of four dual immersion elementary schools in CUSD, where students become proficient in both English and Spanish. The District has promoted language immersion since 1992 and has earned recognition and awards for its programs, which develop stronger thinking and reasoning skills, build respect and appreciation of other cultures, and support future careers where biliterate skills are needed.
At Viejo Elementary, Hernandez stands at the doorway as a TK teacher. Hernandez said she loves teaching children at the younger ages.
“They believe in magic,” she said. “We play. We learn. I just really like their sense of wonder.”
Parents from across the District drive to Viejo to enter their children in Hernandez’ class.
“They all come to me with different needs and abilities; therefore, my teaching can’t be a one size fits all.” Hernandez said, noting that about half her class is Latino and half are non-Latino. “I love that people come from diverse backgrounds. It’s so empowering to know two languages. At this age they absorb everything.”
In addition to giving instruction in Spanish and English, Hernandez helps the children learn to play together to support their social-emotional learning, a process of developing self-awareness, self-control, and empathy.
Throughout it all, Hernandez jokes that through hands-on activities, songs and play, she is “tricking them into learning.”
“She is a master teacher,” said Viejo Principal Jesus Becerra, who hired Hernandez to the school in 2015. “She is amazing in what she does.”
Becerra said Hernandez is a quiet leader among the faculty. In addition to empowering and leading children, Becerra says Hernandez does the same for her colleagues and parents.
“Her level of expertise and knowledge is above and beyond,” he said. “Norma is one of the top teachers people go to for support and guidance. In my mind, she’s the top teacher in the state.”
That wasn’t always the case. After graduating from the University of California, San Diego, Hernandez said she was given an emergency teaching credential from the San Diego Unified School District.
“I was hired a day-and-a-half before class started,” she said. “I prayed all that first year.”
Hernandez was humbled by the award and said of her colleagues, “Everyone works so hard, any one of them could have been called out today.”
Jones, who represents Viejo Elementary for the CUSD Board of Trustees, recalled an interaction with Hernandez and Voice of OC publisher Norberto Santana, whose son attended Viejo Elementary. Jones remembers Santana exclaiming, “This is a fine example of what a Latina can be.”
To Hernandez, early education for many of the children is about much more than learning the alphabet, or el alfabeto.
It’s about “empowering them to believe in themselves,” she said. Hernandez said she believes this is a big component of her work as a teacher. “They’re unstoppable if they believe in themselves!”