Nydia Negron-Lopez, English Language Learner and High School Equivalency Coordinator at Sampson Community College

When I first met Nydia Negron-Lopez, I was inspired by her bravery and enthusiasm. Dressed in red, white, and blue decorations, she acted out the part of a human firework for a group cover of Katy Perry’s “Firework”. She was not afraid to look silly for a good cause and bring on the laughs. It made me want to know more about her, so I contacted her for an interview for this blog.

Nydia was born in New York and raised in Puerto Rico. She loves summertime and the beach and spending as much time as she can with her family. Nydia has a passion for reaching the needs of the Latino community. She started teaching adults in 1999. She worked for the Employment Security Commission (now NC Works) and taught part-time at Wayne Community College and Sampson Community College. She continued working like this for seven years before a position opened up for her to become the ESL and HSED Coordinator in the College and Career Readiness Department at Sampson Community College. 

Interview Q & A

What made you choose to become an adult educator?

I chose to become an adult educator because of my interest in helping adult students become better educated, especially the English language learners who are in need to learn English and integrate into the community.

The adult student is different depending on local demographics and what academic level you are teaching. Describe the average student in your classroom today and some of the ways you encourage their engagement in the classroom.

My class is very diverse, but most are Latinos.  To encourage students, I ask them to do their best.  I assure them that it is ok to make mistakes because that’s how we learn.  I also allow and encourage students to help each other while understanding that respecting everyone is imperative

As an educator of English Language Learners (ELL), I’m sure you have heard a lot of stories from your students about why they are pursuing their education. What are some of the biggest motivating factors they have shared with you?

There are many factors why students are enrolled in English as a Second Language program.  Some students had shared that their willingness to learn English is to be able to incorporate in the society or to get a promotion at work that might get them a higher salary.  However, the reason that stands for why they are in class is to be able to help their kids with school work and able to understand school officials and teachers.

ELL students create a community environment with their classmates and instructors that encourages growth and retention. Why do you think this is a characteristic trait of ELL students?

One characteristic of the Latino population is that they like to accomplish what they have in mind and their commitment to learning the English language.  That’s what attributes a positive learning environment where everyone helps each other and learns. These students incorporate students from other counties and make them feel welcome immediately.  There is a sense of camaraderie. They value their instructor and the effort they make to help them learn the language and their new culture

What are some of the ways you encourage the community environment in your classes?

Explaining we all are diverse, and we can learn from each other is a method to create a positive learning community.  We have events where students can showcase their culture, their food, and their folk. Another way to create a positive classroom environment is by having students understand that the differences make us unique; therefore, we have to respect each other at all times.

You have a natural charisma that makes you work well with others, how does that help you in the classroom?

I think what helps me is that my parents raised me explaining that we all are human beings despite our skin color, who you are, where you come from,  the social status, or everything else society tried to dictate us. My parents preached to us that being humble, and help others without judging is what we need to do to make this world better.  Therefore, I place myself in my student’s shoes. I put myself if I am in a foreign country unable to speak the language, unable to understand, speak or not even knowing the culture. Nonetheless, I try to understand their needs, assist them with school and to provide community information.  One important rule is we can do all by respecting everyone.

What life experiences do you believe best shaped who you are as an educator today?

Many life experiences shaped who I am today; anyhow, the education I received from my parents was the most significant one.  Another person who influenced how I am today as an educator is my aunt. She was a professor, entrepreneur, and now retired from one of the most prestigious Universities in PR.  She had a Ph.D. in Math and wrote children’s books. She taught us that educators could improve people’s life; by teaching valuable lessons, where students not only learn academics but life skills.

What are some helpful ways that you have been able to reshape negative situations into positive opportunities in your life?

As with our daily lives, we learn from our negative outcomes.  This is how we also used the classroom negatives outcomes and turned them into a positive one.  For example, when a student makes a mistake, and the outcome turns wrong, it is imperative to explain to the students that it is normal, healthy and that is how we learn.  Always explaining them we fall many times before we learned to walk, we mispronounced many items before we learned to talk; therefore, with practice and time, we will master our objective.

How has the ability to shape negatives into positives helped you with your students? Explain.

It help me demonstrating students that mistakes are the way we reach perfection.

What are some things happening in your program at Sampson Community College that make it unique from other colleges?

What makes SCC ESL classes unique is the way faculty and staff approach students.  Making them feel welcome, comprehending them while providing an excellent classroom atmosphere, and going above and beyond to make sure students are receiving the best in academic and their necessary daily skills.

As educators, we are always encouraged to teach towards jobs and job markets that haven’t been created yet, so we stay ahead of the curve and teach what is needed for the demand of the marketplace.

We also see a changing demographic in our student populations over time. Based on your experience, what do you predict the future student to be like in your program and what do you think the job market will be for you to fill?

I foresee the Community College system providing more trade and certification classes. This way students are more prepared to enter the workplace with knowledge and some training and experience.  

What advice would you give to a new instructor coming into the field of ELL education?

My advice to a new instructor is to make sure to understand and nourish the students. Understanding that every culture is different and by not establishing bias or judging because we never know what the reasons are for why they migrate to the USA.

Sonja Redmon, Director of Transitional Programs to College and Career at Wayne Community College

Hello readers! Today we are talking with Sonja Redmon, former Director of Transitional Programs at Wayne Community College. Ms. Redmon has 30 years of experience in education including 22 years in the director position. During her tenure, she saw the program through many changes and helped it grow to one of the Top Ten in Enrollment in the State of North Carolina and Top Three in State Performance Measures.

The end of June 2018 marks the end of Ms. Redmon’s educational career. As she looks forward to retirement and the new adventures there, she has taken a moment to reflect back on her career and her legacy and share some wisdom with us.

How long have you worked in education? At which colleges? In what roles?

I’ve worked in education since 1988 when I was hired as a part-time Adult High School English instructor.  I worked as an instructor for a few years and was then hired as the lab coordinator. In 1996 I was hired for the director’s position. All of these roles were in the Basic Skills department at Wayne Community College.

What made you choose a career in education?

As the saying goes, I fell into education sideways. In other words, I did not choose education as a career, it chose me. My mother worked at the college in 1988 and heard about a need in the Basic Skills department for an English instructor. I was ready to get into the job market at that time since both of my children were in school and I had an English degree so the rest is history. No pun intended since I also have a history degree!

You have worked in both instructor and administrative roles in your career. How did these different roles help you become a better educator and communicator with others?

Working as an instructor helped me tremendously once I became an administrator. I could still identify with the needs of the instructors and that is something that stayed with me throughout the years. Sometimes, budget or higher ups would get in the way, but I always tried to do what was best for instructors and students.

What are some of the biggest lessons you learned from teaching?

Ha ha. I quickly learned in the beginning that I didn’t know everything and that if I only listened, the students had a lot to teach me as well.  Another lesson learned was that I couldn’t save them all no matter how hard I tried. It took me a few years to learn that bitter lesson.

Besides advancing your career and salary, what made you change roles from teaching to administration?

That change was primarily about career advancement and salary. Back in my day as a teacher, the maximum pay for part-time was $9.00 per hour and that was even with a masters degree.

What are some of the biggest lessons you learned from leading other educators?

I’ve learned that like the students, other educators had much to teach me. Even after all these years, I was still learning from other educators including my teachers as well as teachers and administrators from other colleges. I never attended a meeting or workshop that I didn’t learn something. That’s why I have always been a strong proponent of professional development.

You have worked in fields outside of adult education. What made you choose to work in Adult Education?

I liked helping people. It was just that simple. I liked making a difference in a student’s life, and I liked making a difference in my instructors’ lives. I cannot even count the number of times an instructor has said thank you to me for hiring them. That has been special.

You chose to not only work in adult education but get your degree in it. How did that help your career?

Being in education administration, I knew I needed to go back to school myself and earn a masters. Adult Education seemed the only way to go since I enjoyed what I was doing. I also knew an Adult Ed degree allowed for multiple career opportunities. When I applied for the director’s position, a Master’s in Adult Ed or a similar degree was a requirement, so I can safely say that my degree helped me to get hired as director.

I’ve always been glad I made that choice.

You have been an avid supporter of professional development for your team. In your opinion, why is professional development important?

Lifelong learning is important in all aspects of life and especially in this career field. Change in adult education is constant whether it’s a better way to teach math or new requirements from WIOA and OCTAE. Learning from an expert and learning from peers at other colleges is vital to stay on top of the game. Teachers and staff have been fortunate to have access to the strong adult education staff at Appalachian State University. Like I said in a previous question, I’ve never been to a workshop or even one of our weekly meetings that I didn’t learn something. For those of you reading this, if you think about it, neither have you.

We all know that education is a challenging place to work in because it is often thankless, politicized, and changing. In the past few years alone, we saw a lot of changes in adult education that affected our budget. What advice can you give to current and future administrators navigating their way through shrinking budgets?

All you can do is keep a positive attitude and plan, plan, plan. By planning ahead, you may be able to save a job or two when in a low budget year. You do this by trimming out the non-producing areas. That is hard for me to say because I’ve always thought that a class with only one student was a class that was a gift to that one student. He or she needed the one-on-one at that point in life.

Communication is also critical. Instructors and staff must realize that they hold the power to make or break a program. Enrollment and retention are 90% instructors and staff. The best recruiter is a satisfied student and the best retention is when a student learns and doesn’t feel the class is a waste of time.

When negative changes happen, it is hard to stay motivated. What advice can you give for motivating your team when circumstances are demoralizing?

I believe communication is the key. Just keep everyone updated on what is happening. Often not knowing leads to imagining even worse circumstances. Communication also allows for input from everyone on how to deal with the situation. We all like to feel useful and when we do, it’s a natural motivator.

In your experience, what has been the biggest thing that helped you adjust to changes when they happened as well as help you lead others through those difficulties?

Patience. Patience with the changes. Patience with teachers and staff protesting the changes.

A lot of the changes in adult education have influenced educators to leave adult education or retire before their positions were cut. With so much fear over job cuts, why should anyone stay in adult education?

Adult education is a worthy cause and a good career. Job cuts can and do happen in all areas of education as well as in the private sector. There were positions cut this year in curriculum. It’s just a fact of life, especially in this day and time.

Think positive and make yourself valuable to the team is my best advice to anyone whether in adult ed, curriculum, or K-12.

You have been the Director of Transitional Programs to College and Career for many years and many of the current employees you leave behind have only known you as their leader. What do you hope will be your legacy as you leave this role?

I hope that I’ll be remembered as someone who cared for both students and employees. I also hope to be remembered as the director who grew the program into one of the top ten in the state enrollment-wise and one of the top three in the state performance-wise.

As you retire and look back on your career, what advice would you give to younger educators working in adult education now?

Accept change.

Persevere through the bad times. You’ll have more good times.

Hire the best team possible. The instinct for that will be gradually learned.

Stress professional development. Knowledge makes everyone’s jobs easier.

Thank you, Ms. Redmon, for sharing your time with us today. We appreciate your insights and all you have done for your program at Wayne Community College. We wish you much joy and success in your retirement. 

Karen Burnette, Program Quality and Accountability Coordinator for Transitional Programs for College and Career at Wayne Community College

Hello readers! Today we are talking with Karen Burnette, Program Quality and Accountability Coordinator for Transitional Programs for College and Career at Wayne Community College. Ms. Burnette has 27 years of experience in education including four years of teaching in public elementary and high schools. Her experiences in the community college system include work with literacy skills and instructional team leading. Prior to entering education, Ms. Burnette worked for seven years in scientific and agricultural research.

The end of June 2018 marks the end of Ms. Burnette’s educational career. As she looks forward to retirement and the new adventures ahead for her there, she has taken a moment to share with us some insights from her long career and advice. Thank you, Ms. Burnette, for sharing your time with us today. We appreciate your insights and wisdom.    

What made you choose a career in education?

I had always wanted to be a veterinarian, but when I took Chemistry at NCSU, I decide to become a Biology Teacher!

You have worked in both instructor and administrative roles in your career. How did these different roles help you become a better educator and communicator with others? 

It helps to have worked on both sides of the desk!  I have implemented and developed curriculum as an instructor and then used this knowledge to assist others and develop ways to manage and streamline the process from an administrative view.

What are some of the biggest lessons you learned from teaching?

Never prejudge a student.  Listen and be patient. Always remove a student from a situation before reprimanding or discussing.  There are always two sides to a story and the truth is usually somewhere in between.

Besides advancing your career and salary, what made you change roles from teaching to administration? 

I have always enjoyed technology part of education combined with; learning and making decisions, improvements, or adjustments to programming based on data.

What are some of the biggest lessons you learned from leading other educators?

It’s OK to make a mistake, but learn from it and don’t keep making the same mistake! Don’t procrastinate on a deadline. Don’t be afraid to try something new. Give others the trust and allow them to be creative. Be empathetic. It’s OK to ask for advice. Make a decision, because sometimes, no decision is worse than a wrong decision.

You have worked in fields outside of adult education. What made you choose to work in Adult Education?

Actually, Adult Education found me.  I was looking for something at a community college when I lived in Virginia and was working at an elementary school in Roanoke Rapids. The Literacy Skills Specialist position at Halifax Community College was advertised and I thought my diverse background would be a good fit for that job.  I had experience as a student teacher in a Middle School, taught high school biology (Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced), and worked in an elementary school as a reading teacher for 3rd graders.

I got the job and loved it!

You worked in the private sector before coming into education. Tell us a little about your other career experience and how that job influenced your career in education.

The private sector was where I learned all about technology and computers.  I ran High Pressure and Gas Chromatography, used large databases to run reports for manufacturing facilities, used computers back during the “DOS” days to run our robot named “Tobor” (Robot spelled backward), and was sent to school to learn SAS programming at Research Triangle Park.  I was also trained with Lotus 123 and WordPerfect the popular programs at the time.

All this experience gave me the knowledge to use computers, software, and new technology in the education field.  

What advice would you give to those currently working in another career field but wanting to work in education?

The reason I left the private sector was the frequent turnover in the industry of buyouts, mergers, and name changes.  When your company is bought out you do not have the security of a job. The state does not merge with other states and so job security was better at the time.  The unfortunate part of working for the state is the pay. It took 17 years working at WCC before I matched the salary I made in the private sector. But the benefits are good for me, due to the fact I started with the state in time to get health benefits and a pension when I retire.  

We all know that education is a challenging place to work in because it is often thankless, politicized, and changing. In the past few years alone, we saw a lot of changes in adult education that affected our budget. What advice can you give to current and future administrators navigating their way through shrinking budgets?

Hard decisions have to be made, but always make sure we remain student-centered.

When negative changes happen, it is hard to stay motivated. What advice can you give for motivating your team when circumstances are demoralizing?

I believe in involving the team and giving them a chance to communicate ways to implement change.  I think the “Huddles” we started have been good to voice opinions and listen.

In your experience, what has been the biggest thing that helped you adjust to changes when they happened as well as help you lead others through those difficulties?

I have experienced several major changes over time from testing changes, WIA and WIOA, to personnel changes.   I think the first time you go through major changes is the hardest. Once you have experienced a successful change, you are better able to implement and support future changes.   You can understand the anxiety for those going through a change the first time but can talk about previous changes and how they were hard at first, but eventually work out just fine.  

A lot of the changes in adult education have influenced educators to leave adult education or retire before their positions were cut. With so much fear over job cuts, why should anyone stay in adult education?

Good question!  You have to love what you are doing to help others!

ALWAYS keep your resume up to date!

You have led a very diverse career in both business and education. Now you are retiring to start another career in real estate with your sister. What advice can you give to those looking forward to retirement someday?

Set up an NC 457 plan now.  DO NOT procrastinate. It is very easy to do!!!  Just let Melanie Bell know you would like to do so and it’s a piece of cake.

The NC 457 is a place you can stow away as little as say $25 a month, tax-deferred, and you will never miss it, but you will be glad you did when you are ready to retire. You can access this money as soon as you retire.  It’s not like a 401K where you have to wait till you are 59 years old.

As you retire and look back on your career, what advice would you give to younger educators working in adult education now?

Karen’s Top Ten Advice for Younger Educators (in no certain order):

  1. Keep a notebook of your accomplishments and certifications.
  2. Every week, give a compliment to someone you work with, work for, and works for you.
  3. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake or try something new.
  4. You can’t do it all in one day….it will be there tomorrow to finish.
  5. For the above, don’t wait until the last minute to get something done.  Work on it and have time to sleep on it before it has to be complete for a deadline.
  6. Leave your personal problems at the door!
  7. Be flexible and always have a backup plan.
  8. Spend money on good shoes, a good chair, and a good mattress.  
  9. Be a good listener.
  10. When making a big decision, go with your “gut” feeling, because it is almost always right!