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!