Diana Molina | Lessons in Leadership and Learning

August 23, 2023

“Vulnerability is not winning or losing,” says Brené Brown in her bestseller Dare to Lead. “It’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage”—words that Diana has taken to heart. She has shown she has the courage to show up and be seen by the educators who she serves as the bilingual early childhood pathway coordinator at Metro Community College in Omaha, Nebraska.

“I share my story,” she says, “when I go to Head Start centers to get early childhood teachers enrolled in our Child Development Associate® (CDA) Credential™ program at Metro. And once they do, we guide them in earning an associate degree at our college”—a process Diana went through nearly 20 years ago, at a time when her prospects looked grim.

“I was in my twenties and working as the manager of an apartment complex,” she recalls. “I didn’t like it, but my career options were slim because I had dropped out of high school. Education wasn’t important to my parents, Mexican immigrants who didn’t give me much support as they struggled to make a living. I was raised by an aunt and grew up thinking I didn’t need to go to school. Yet the career assessment tests I took in high school always said I was best suited to be a teacher.”

And the tests turned out to be right after Diana volunteered at Educare, a Head Start center her niece attended as an infant. “I wanted to make sure my niece would be okay there,” Diana recalls, “so I began helping the teachers at the center. After a few months they offered me a job as an assistant teacher and the chance for professional growth. That was a turning point when I realized I needed more education to advance in my career, so I finally earned my G.E.D. Then Educare gave me the support I needed to apply for a T.E.A.C.H. scholarship to earn my CDA® and associate degree in early childhood education. Afterward, I also got financial aid to earn my bachelor’s degree, and now my current job is paying for me to earn my master’s degree.”

Diana knows she wouldn’t be where she is today if it weren’t for the people who provided her with support as an adult. “One was a co-worker from Educare,” Diana says, “who gave me the motherly advice my own mom didn’t and the motivation to always go for more. The other is our head instructor for early childhood education at Metro, and she was also a former colleague at Educare who urged me to keep growing during the 12 years I spent at the center.”

While working there, Diana faced challenges. Yet she was reluctant to ask for help since she hadn’t yet learned that vulnerability is not a weakness. “As a new teacher,” she says, “I thought I had to do everything on my own. But everybody needs help.” And she did as she tried to teach the whole class while working one-on-one with children who had behavioral issues. They included a four-year-old boy who expressed frustration or anger by stripping off all his clothes.

“I met Alex during my last year at Educare, and I had never seen a child who acted the way he did,” Diana says. But she was able to help him where other teachers had failed. “What I did different was give him that one-on-one time. And it was hard,” she admits, “because he had no communication skills to express that he was hungry, unhappy or mad.” But Diana was determined to build a bond with him and found a way.

“When he took off his clothes,” Diana recalls, “I would wrap a towel around him and ask him if that was okay. Then I would ask if I could hug him, and he would say yes. Finally, I would put his clothes back on and he would be fine. In time, I was able to help him find the words to express his feelings, so he stopped taking off his clothes. By the time he left my class, I had managed to get him where I needed him to be. Now he’s in kindergarten and still doing fine.”

Her skills working with children had caught the eye of a former colleague who was already working at Metro College. “One day, she called me up,” Diana recalls, “and told me they were looking for a coordinator. I took the position on a part-time basis about three years ago, and it was tough to do that while I continued working at Educare as a teacher. I had to leave work and go out to see CDA candidates at random times during the day, but Educare understood because they had 30 people enrolled in Metro’s CDA program.” And Diana’s been able to serve candidates like this even better since October of 2022, when Metro received a grant that paid for her to come on board full time. And in this role, she spends all her time helping educators advance in their careers.

“I go to Head Start centers to talk about the CDA, recruit educators and get them enrolled in our CDA program,” Diana explains. “If they reach out to me afterward, I give them more information, and when they enroll, I like to go to their center and bring the CDA books to them in person. I also mentor coaches who guide candidates through the CDA process, and I work a lot with the candidates, too. I assist four to five candidates a week in putting their CDA portfolios together and accessing the technology they need to use to earn their CDA.”

Many of the Spanish speakers who Diana works with don’t know a lot about computers, as she explains. “So, I work with them on basics like how to log in, how to save a file and where your passwords go. Then I walk them through the whole process of getting a CDA. And this is very rewarding to me because I grew up without much support, Now I love being able to provide it as an adult.”

She also loves seeing candidates advance, like one Spanish-speaking teacher who earned her CDA about a year ago. “She did it in English,” Diana says, “and now she’s coaching Spanish speakers to get their CDA. She’s also working at the front desk of her center, and she’s enrolled at Metro to get her associate degree.”

Diana is also moving her career ahead by pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Nebraska. “My goal,” she says “is to teach early childhood classes in Spanish since we don’t have a Spanish-speaking professor at Metro. I want to make the pathway clear for Spanish-speaking educators from the CDA to the associate degree, and that keeps me going. I want Spanish-speaking teachers to realize how far they can rise in their careers. So, I keep telling them that I came from nothing and here I am standing before you as a leader. I struggled to get here without any support, and that’s why I’m here to give it to you.”

And it starts by helping the teachers earn their CDA, Diana explains. “Earning the credential helps you become a better teacher, and it helps you earn more, something that matters in our low-paying field. You’re worth more because you’re a high-quality teacher who can provide high-quality early learning to young children.”

Parents also play a big role in helping children learn, so Diana is determined to give the right support to her six-year-old son. And “being in the early learning field makes me a better mom,” as she points out. “I didn’t grow up with the best education, and my profession has inspired me to turn things around for her son. He knows school is important because I impress the value of education on him. Everything my parents didn’t do for me; I’m offering to him.

Diana also offers a great deal of herself on the job, and that still presents a challenge. “We don’t have a big staff in our pathway program at Metro,” she says. “It’s just me going to different centers each day and working with the teachers. I even help out with the children because I know what it’s like to be short on staff, as many centers are. I just wish there were more time to get things done,” she says in a wistful tone.

What keeps her moving ahead are the lessons she’s learned over time about being a leader. “I’m better at asking for help,” she says. “I’m better at listening to other people, and I’m better at walking in someone else’s shoes. I know how to be strong and use my voice to speak up for the teachers,” Diana says. And that’s what it means to dare to lead, as Brené Brown explains in her book. “I define a leader as anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.” Diana is doing that by building a pathway for the educators she serves.

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