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On the Job: For This Educator, the Learning Curve Was Late

Steve Niemeyer, director of the Grossmont Health Occupations Center in Santee, never really saw the point of school until he became an accidental teacher. Now he feels privileged he found his calling.

When Steve Niemeyer graduated from high school, he never wanted to see the inside of another classroom.

He and school didn’t get along. He had zero interest in college.

“I didn’t really like school,” he says. “I got enough D’s in high school to get a diploma, but I think they wanted to get rid of me.”

He’d cut classes and spend time with friends at the beach. And if he had to give an oral presentation, he wanted nothing to do with it, refusing and telling the teacher to just give him an F.

“If I were to go back and track those teachers down– of course they probably wouldn’t even remember me– they would be shocked at what I’m doing,” he says. “And anybody I knew in high school. They would be in shock.”

Niemeyer, 52, is director of the in Santee and has spent his entire career in education.

The teenager who loathed classrooms came to love them as an adult. From teaching algebra to youngsters in a small New Mexico church-run school to being the head of an adult-education complex that serves about 1,800 students a year – helping them to become nurses, EMTs, medical and dental assistants, pharmacy techs and veterinary assistants – Niemeyer found his calling and knows he’s making a difference.

Next month, in fact, he will receive the Adult Education Administrator of the Year award for Region 18 (encompassing San Diego and Imperial counties) from the Association of California School Administrators.

Before his roundabout route into education, Niemeyer worked in accounting, the and landscaping, but nothing grabbed him.

Once he found himself standing in front of a class instead of in a seat, a switch was flipped.

“It’s great,” he says of his career. “I tell everybody and anybody who will listen that if you can find a job where you love what you do, you are very fortunate because not a lot of people get to do that… Some days I work 12 hour days– but I get home and I don’t feel like I really worked that hard, and every time I get paid I think, ‘Wow, I get paid for doing this.’ ”

New Mexico exploration

So how did a school-hating kid from Manhattan Beach become a lifelong educator?

After graduation, he hooked up with a friend who moved to New Mexico. He wanted a change of scenery and got it, going from waves and beaches to chilis and cactus.

After bouncing around in odd jobs and “exploring,” he learned the church he was attending needed someone to teach math – the one subject Niemeyer always had enjoyed.

Though he didn’t have a college degree, he was the only one in the congregation willing to volunteer, and the private school brought him aboard to teach algebra to 40 kids in “a little hole-in-the-wall place.”

At age 25, he was back in a classroom, helping kids understand math principles and solve problems. He was hooked.

He taught four years at the school, then applied for a job as principal at a small, private Christian school in National City and was hired with one caveat: he needed to get his college degree.

“So I worked by day and went to school at night,” he says.

He went from Southwestern College to National University, earning a degree in math. He followed with extension courses from the University of Idaho to earn a master’s in math education, then obtained an administrative credential from San Diego State.

The entire process took about 10 years, with Niemeyer all the while working. During that span (after getting his initial degree) he left the private school to become an adult education instructor in the Sweetwater School District. His next step was becoming an assistant principal at one of the adult schools in the district – while also teaching algebra at Southwestern “for the fun of it” – before joining the about six years ago.

He moved over to the Health Occupations Center – the former campus – to become director about three years ago.

Medical education

A career in teaching was one thing. Overseeing programs in the medical field was something else.

He was out of his element.

“Absolutely,” he says now, laughing. “I thought, ‘Why am I in charge?’ ”

He knew nothing about nursing, being a dental assistant or what’s involved in becoming an EMT.

One of the first things he did was to create a folder that he kept within reach on his desk: a “learning curve” file.

He’d write down questions he had and then find the answers. He’d log information crucial to understanding how the operation worked. He’d take phone calls from the public asking about programs – he had no idea how to answer – then jot down the question, put it in his file, find the answer and call the person back.

He also sat down with his instructors and had them tell him how their classes and programs worked; then, at the end of his first year, he met individually with each of them again to find out what he’d done right and what he’d done wrong.

“It’s worked well,” says Niemeyer, of how he feels now after three years. He no longer needs that “learning curve” folder, and he’s at home on campus and with the programs he oversees. As he gave a tour of the classrooms to a recent visitor, both students and teachers greeted him as he explained the workings of each of the rooms, the equipment and the curriculum.

“My staff’s happy I’m here now. At least to my face,” he says, smiling.

Adult education brings its own special rewards, he says. Students want to be there. It’s their choice. And vocational programs like the ones offered by the Health Occupations Center are relatively affordable-- $2,900 for the vocational nursing program, for instance– that give students a chance to find a job in a down economy.

He’s heard students’ stories about how they’ve lost jobs and are now re-inventing themselves.

“It’s heartbreaking,” he says, noting that some look “shell shocked” about the turns their lives have taken.

He said one single mother in the nursing program helped pay for her classes by collecting cans and bottles.

So he knows first-hand that the HOC is making a difference.

Recipe for success

The Health Occupations Center staff hasn’t been immune from cutbacks, either.

The Center has about 40 instructors, but Niemeyer is now the only administrator. So, his days can be long with paperwork, personnel decisions, planning and scheduling of classes, meeting with students who seek advice, helping to form the curriculum and dealing with emergencies.

Classes run from 7:30 in the morning through 9:45 at night, plus weekends, so it can be hard for him to “detach.” He’s often on call, even when he’s not physically on campus.

One way he relaxes is through cooking.

When he gets home to Bonita, he heads for the kitchen. Whether it’s cooking for just he and his wife or the whole family – five children and a grandchild – he’s up for it.

“I love to cook. Everybody has to get out of the kitchen,” when he’s ready to whip something up, he says. “I can dice and chop and be in there for hours and to me it’s very enjoyable.”

He’ll make Mexican dishes or Italian food and he loves to grill outside. He learned to make tamales last Christmas. He’ll even make seafood – which he can’t stand – because his family enjoys it.

It all stems from his teenage years.

Though he may not have been paying much attention in school, he was learning his culinary lessons. Those D’s and F’s on papers were eclipsed by much better grades at the stove.

“My mom was a single mom and she worked a lot,” he says, smiling. “So if I wanted to eat I had to learn how to put it on the plate.”

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