Principal Therisa Cherian sets high standards for Mount Alvernia Prep
Therisa Cherian is the current principal of Mount Alvernia Preparatory School (MAPS) in Montego Bay, St James. According to her, the small-population school is a high-performance institution, which has been producing high-achieving students year after year. Yet, the retired educator, now administrator, herself has a long track record of excellence.
She was born to Indian parents in Brunei, a small Asian country sharing the island of Borneo with Malaysia and Indonesia. Her father worked with British Shell Company drilling for oil. It was a charmed life that her family led in Brunei as the cost of living was very low at the time.
After, she completed her GCE O'Levels at age 16 her family returned to India so that she and her two sisters could be immersed in their Indian culture and heritage. At school in India, she pursued, among other things, botany, biology, physics, zoology, and chemistry. She eventually earned a first degree in botany. Yet, she had dreams of being an air hostess and obtaining a Master of Philosophy degree, but they did not materialise.
Cherian taught in public school for two years, focusing on biology, got married, and was encouraged by her husband to come to Jamaica to teach biology, the same subject that he had been teaching at Mount Alvernia High School (MAHS) since 1975. In the early to mid-1970s, science teachers were scare on the island.
She was excited about the prospect of coming to teach in Jamaica, which she had learnt about through songs such as Harry Belafonte's Jamaica Farewell, which was her favourite song, she said. She had a mental image of an idyllic lifestyle on the island. But because of bureaucratic reasons, the vacancy at MAHS was filled before she arrived.
However, Cherian got a job to teach biology at Montego Bay High School (MBHS) in the said parish. It was to be for two terms. The reception at MBHS, she said, was very warm. She got much support from the staff, especially then principal Barbara Smith, a Mrs Craig, and a Mrs Lemonius. "They made me feel so at home," she recollected.
At MBHS, Cherian developed a reputation for being a committed, strict, no-nonsense classroom teacher. Her reputation for being a disciplinarian is legendary. She explained: "Standards, discipline and standards. They could not come to my class and waste time. It didn't matter who you are. It didn't matter how bad or weak you are ... I am teaching, and they better learn. They had no choice."
The educator, who does not like disorder, continued, "Our Jamaican children are very intelligent, but they lack discipline ... They were forced to learn ... they were driven by fear ... I would push them and push them." And because of that push, her former students have stories to tell. Some of the narratives are about the good grades that they have got through her guidance.
"Students jumped for joy when they got the results ... I got excellent results because of the discipline ... I always started my year by saying, 'I need distinctions,'" she said, if not, a credit (grade B or Grade 2). A pass (Grade C or Grade 3) was totally unacceptable, and so were the Us that students were getting in the years prior to her arrival.
At GCE O'Levels, at the time, U (Ungraded) was the result that candidates got when they failed to get an A, B, C, D, or E. Cherian said that she never knew people could get such grades. To her, a U represented 'Unacceptable', perhaps, and so she decided that those Us would be things of the past. And they became such.
Yet, her sessions were not always tense and stiff. She and her students engaged one another. "Classes were exciting, nonetheless ... They kept me on my toes, as well," she recalled. There was fun and laughter, but the work more than anything else, had to be done.
What was to be two terms of it at MBHS stretched all the way to 27 years, during which the teacher par excellence evolved senior teacher, head of department and vice-principal. And while she was still At MBHS, a vacancy for a principal appeared at MAHS.
Cherian applied and got the job at the school where her teaching career in Jamaica should have started. Needless to say, the transition to MAHS was quite smooth for more reasons than one. She stayed there for eight years until she retired. Cherian assumed her current position at MAPS in September 2016.
When asked if she is as strict an administrator as she was a classroom teacher, she said that she had "mellowed with age" and had grown in her "emotional intelligence". In reflecting on her long career in education she said, "I have really built the country ... I have enjoyed it ... I am proud ... proud to be a teacher. I have touched lives, and no one can turn around and say, 'Mrs Cherian messed up my life.' I have done my best."
Her two sons, Joseph and Christopher, were St James Spelling Bee champions. Christopher got a government scholarship for his GSAT performance and the Emancipation Scholarship for his CAPE performance, while his brother got a Jamaica Scholarship for his CAPE performance.