Business leader discovers she has the heartbeat of a teacher
Debi Nichols was one of the 15 million people who lost their jobs in the recession of 2009, but she didn’t spend a lot of time in panic mode. She had a bachelor’s degree in business, had reached high levels of influence in the corporate world, and had groomed countless others on paths to reach their production and effectiveness peaks. She was ready to take her own best advice.
Debi recognized that this was an opportunity to narrow the scope of her own objectives. “I’d been living on airplanes, staying in hotels and traveling most of my professional career. It was time to do something else.”
She asked herself the same questions she had posed so many times to those she guided. “Where is your passion? What are your strengths?”
“I love mentoring and training other people,” says Debi. “I love seeing others grow into their success and know I had a little part in that.”
At the center of this sales and marketing professional beat the heart of a teacher. She just didn’t realize that yet.
Debi’s business and organization acumen lead her to receive an invitation from San Joaquin Valley College’s Rancho Cucamonga (now Ontario) campus to sit on their Advisory Board where she might influence the Business Administration program’s curriculum, practice and employer relations. She was eager to contribute to the college’s continued success.
It didn’t take long for Robyn Whiles, Campus President, to recognize Debi’s many talents and to envision the influence she might have in a more direct basis with SJVC’s Business Administration program students. There was a part-time instructor position open, and she wanted Debi to bring her considerable talents directly to the classroom.
“Most of my career life was officially in sales and marketing, but I have been teaching my entire life,” says Debi. Now it was official. She enjoyed the idea of smaller class sizes for greater one-on-one contact with her students. “I need to know more about each of my students; everyone’s at a different level.” Her teaching style is very hands-on.
Over the next few years, Debi moved with ease from instructor to assessment coordinator for the Business Administration program, division manager, academic dean on another SJVC campus, content expert for the Business Administration task force assisting in development of the new program content until, finally, a return to instructing on the Ontario campus. Someone as trusted and talented as Debi is highly sought after for pockets of high-impact areas of contribution.
“One of the best things about working for SJVC is the college’s ability to change to better meet the needs of our students and our graduates out in the business world,” says Debi. “SJVC is forward-thinking and ready to act on progressive ideas. They recognize the talent they have in their faculty and the content experts that are out there and utilize that.”
With that kind of support behind her, Debi enters the classroom ready to provide everything she can to help her students become successful in their careers. “I want to give them two things,” she says. “First, is the ability to apply theory; to take what they learn in the classroom and be able to take it out into the business world and do something with it. Second, I want them to know that I care about their success, and I want them to have that same passion for their profession.”
Debi admits that she administers a little tough love in the classroom. “I don’t accept late work. Period. In the real world, integrity and respect are valued; and I want them to know the real world because I want them to be successful.”
Debi likes to introduce her students to the concept of PMA: Positive Mental Attitude. “It’s the importance of taking a negative and turning it into a positive,” she says. “Say you get a performance evaluation and don’t get a raise. What’s the positive in that? Maybe it’s a signal that you should look for another opportunity, rather than stay where you’re at and dissatisfied. Or it’s an opportunity to look at yourself and ask how you can improve in order to warrant a raise. It’s a positive attitude rather than wallowing in the negative.” It takes strength to seek out painful truths and courage to act on them.
Strength and courage can be contagious. As a child and young adult, Debi absorbed much of her mother Martha’s positive influence. “She was 4’10” and what they called a spitfire,” Debi laughs. Martha never went to college but worked as a secretary all her life. Often Martha was the only parent working, as her husband struggled to keep a job after World War II.
“She was a doer, an organizer and always corrected my grammar,” says Debi. “And I always wanted to emulate what she was able to do.”
Martha’s influence was profound and found a willing vessel. “She always told me that I could be anything I wanted,” says Debi. “She supported me completely in that.”
Debi has carried that work ethic throughout her life, and imparts those gifts to others she influences. She has witnessed the colorful blooms of those scattered seeds.
“Each graduation I stand at the bottom of the stairs to the stage and see them get their diplomas,” says Debi. “I meet their families, see how proud they are, and I know that sometimes these students are the first ones to achieve this success. You know what they’ve gone through and you can just see their pride. That’s my favorite time, and I never tire of it.”
And it’s not unusual for her to hear a whisper, “I couldn’t have done it without you, Mrs. Nichols.”
Teaching feels just right. “I don’t see me doing anything else,” says Debi. “It fulfills me in a way that I don’t think I could replace.”
That is what the beat of a teacher’s heart sounds like.
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