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Maday Leon’s life has been a whirlwind of change.
At 23, when most of her classmates were walking across the stage picking up their teaching diplomas, she stood by crying. She wasn’t crossing the stage with her peers.
She had met all the graduation requirements. But she was in Cuba. If she had accepted her diploma, the government would have forbidden her to immigrate to the United States.
She chose freedom.
Now, she’s three months into her job as the lead instructor of South Florida State College’s Bachelor of Science degree in elementary education (BSEE) program.
“The lack of freedom is what brought me to America,” said Leon, who has immersed herself in the routine of coming up to speed meeting the demands of her new job. “My father was a political prisoner of the government, and we had an intense desire to live in a country where we would be free.”
Leon has spent the last three months learning about Highlands County, its public schools, and the challenges prospective teachers face when trying to break into a career in teaching.
Leon is no stranger to elementary education. She comes to SFSC after 12 years teaching elementary and middle school students in Lee County. She specialized in teaching reading and English to Speakers of other Languages (ESOL), a skill increasingly important to teacher education programs, especially in Highlands County.
“I know what’s it’s like to struggle learning English,” said Leon, whose speech is accented by the Spanish she grew up speaking. “When I arrived in Miami, it was a nightmare learning English because wherever I went people would speak to me in Spanish.”
To get past the hurdles she ran up against, Leon resorted to an unusual approach. “I got the Yellow Pages and started calling up companies with American-sounding names so that I could speak to people in English,” Leon said with amusement.
Determined to build upon the teacher education she had received in Cuba, Leon enrolled in Miami’s Barry University, where she specialized in ESOL.
With her bachelor’s degree in hand and a family that included a girl and an infant son, Leon set out on the next phase of her life.
“My husband and I weren’t happy with the quality of life in Miami,” Leon said. “So in 2004 we chose to move to Cape Coral, which we thought would be a better community for our children.”
The move to Cape Coral was an education for Leon. “I have to say it was a big culture shock,” said Leon. “Unlike Miami, it lacked the diversity of a metropolis, which taught me much about adjustment and helped me understand how new teachers might be better trained.”
After teaching elementary school for three years, Leon wanted to burnish her teaching resume. She got a master’s degree in education from Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) and began teaching middle school. She sought out an assignment at a school with a student body drawn from neighborhoods grappling with low income and families in distress.
“My heart is really in teaching and helping students learn,” said Leon. “I knew these kids could succeed, and I even had my own son attend the same school.”
Sensing that she could use her experiences— both as immigrant and an instructor working with children from low income backgrounds— to train new teachers, Leon returned to FGCU to earn a doctorate in curriculum and instruction.
Leon’s graduate research and dissertation focused on educational diversity. Her work on the subject led to the department chairperson asking Leon to teach an introductory course in diversity to students in the university’s teacher education program.
“The course was a wonderful opportunity from me to share my knowledge and experience with new teachers,” Leon said. “But not just that, it gave me a chance to share my passion for teaching too.”
Only a few months later, Leon saw an announcement. SFSC was searching for a lead instructor in its program to train elementary school teachers.
“I saw the ad for the position and I said ‘wow’ that’s the place for me,” said Leon, who is no stranger to the Heartland.
“When my family moved to Cape Coral, we immediately bought a small farm with a few cows in Arcadia, in DeSoto County,” Leon recounted from her new office on SFSC’s Highlands Campus. “I grew up in a rural area in Cuba, and I’ve always had a connection with the land.”
Leon saw an opportunity to put her teacher training skills and experiences to work in a program that launched in fall 2014. She is particularly excited over two features she said makes SFSC’s program different from other colleges.
“Our students complete their program with teacher endorsements in ESOL and reading,” Leon said. “That’s not something you find in other teacher training programs.”
Leon said the endorsements are much sought after by school districts looking to hire new teachers. What’s more, she said, the Highlands County school district will see a wave of retirements in the next few years. “This is the time for people who have been thinking about a career in teaching to come in and talk to us.”
Recruitment is one of Leon’s chief responsibilities. She has been working candidates with a view toward getting them ready to start classes in the fall, when SFSC will enroll its next cohort of students.
Applicants to the elementary education program must have completed their associate degree or higher. The state also requires applicants to pass a test of general knowledge before they enroll in the program. Leon said she is eager to hear from those who are interested in making a career change.
What does Leon think of Highland County and its residents?
“So far, I love it,” Leon said. “I couldn’t be more happy with the move to Highlands and my job at SFSC.”
Leon just wrapped up the purchase of a 10-acre tract of land with a house near the Air Force bombing range.
“We can now move our cows right to our new home,” Leon said with a beaming smile. “Buying a home is major commitment,” Leon said. “I am staying put.”