Thankful Hawkeye Teacher Pays GED Training Forward

By: Andrew Wind, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier
Date Published: Thursday, November 28, 2013

WATERLOO--Cheryl Johnson dropped out of high school, but found her calling after belatedly returning to continue her education.

“I absolutely want to teach, and I want to teach adults,” said the 34-year-old Waterloo woman.

Johnson’s still a student. She began taking classes at Hawkeye Community College six years ago, with plans to earn an associate’s degree and transfer to the University of Northern Iowa. She is finishing her last Hawkeye classes and will graduate next month. Johnson has already taken some UNI classes and hopes to earn a bachelor’s degree in sociology.
Starting this fall, though, she also began a part-time job teaching GED/adult basic education classes at Hawkeye’s Metro Center. The position allows further exploration of the career field she hopes to eventually work in.  This particular job also serves as a sort of payback for the help Johnson received prior to starting college. She was once enrolled in the center’s GED classes while working to earn her high school equivalency diploma.

“Cheryl does a lot of one-on-one,” said Sandy Jensen, the center’s manager. She works with whoever needs help in their studies or on practice tests as well as doing some whole group instruction.

“I’m sort of like a sub,” said Johnson. “I go from room-to-room where ever they need me.”

She helps students create lesson plans, especially those preparing for the GED program. Many of those people are not native English speakers who need further education before studying for the tests they must pass to earn a high school equivalency diploma.

“I am extremely thankful, for one, to be given the opportunity to be here and work with so many people,” said Johnson. “Every day I come to work, I learn more and more about the process (of teaching).”

But because she also took GED classes as a student, her gratitude for the Metro Center goes deeper. “I’m thankful for this program being here at all,” she said.

Johnson dropped out of high school when she was 16 and living in Minnesota. She had gotten pregnant and felt “pushed” to leave. Over the next couple years, she attempted to return to school at points, but found it difficult because class times conflicted with her job.

She faced other challenges, as well, notably the death of her child at 3 months old. “After that, my life pretty much dissolved,” said Johnson. “I was facing a lot of emotional problems.”

She struggled with homelessness and moved from place to place. Eventually, she married and had a son and daughter, who are now 11 and 7, respectively.

Johnson attempted to work on her high school equivalency diploma while living in Minnesota, but would typically stick with it no more than a couple of weeks at a time. After moving to Waterloo, she initially followed the same pattern in GED classes at the Metro Center.

A confluence of circumstances changed that when she returned to the classes in 2007. Her daughter was 1 year old and her son, who was starting kindergarten, had just been diagnosed with a learning disability. She had also recently separated from her husband.

Johnson wanted to set an example for her kids and show up her ex-husband, who had recently remarked that she never finished anything. “Let’s say I was very motivated,” she said. 

Once Johnson started studying and taking the series of five tests in the GED program, she moved quickly. She had the program completed in two weeks.

“It’s a very rare person that finishes that quickly,” said Jensen.

The Metro Center graduates 150 to 200 people each year from its GED and adult basic education programs. It annually serves 1,200 to 1,400 people in those classes plus English language learner classes, a fraction of the 14,000 people in Black Hawk County 25 and older who don’t have a high school diploma.

Johnson said the structure provided in the Metro Center’s GED classes helped in her success. She received little guidance during the classes in Minnesota. “Here, it’s like you just walk into an environment of support,” she said.

She particularly noted GED instructors Jeanie Steffey and Carol Dick. They planted the seed that she could continue on to college after earning her high school equivalency diploma.

“I really didn’t have this sort of concept that I could go to college,” said Johnson. She “knew nothing” about financial aid and figured college would be too expensive for her.

But with the guidance of the center’s staff, she took the Compass -- a placement test used by Hawkeye -- and signed up for classes. After doing very well on the GED tests, she qualified for Hawkeye’s honors program.

Johnson didn’t initially make the cut when she applied for the Metro Center job. Jensen noted that a bachelor’s degree and teaching credentials are not required for adult educators in Iowa, “but it’s a preference of our program.”

Johnson didn’t give up, though. “She called here and was pretty determined,” said Jensen. She decided to give Johnson a chance after learning that the woman had gone through the Metro Center’s GED program.

“This is, to my knowledge, the first time we’ve been able to employ one of our students in a teaching role,” said Jensen. “It sends a very powerful message to the students.”

Johnson’s shared experience with students now in the GED program helps her relate to what they’re going through. “I am a walking example, walking around the school and people see that,” she said.

Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier
Thumbnail photo by BRANDON POLLOCK / Courier Staff Photographer