Waubonsee adult education instructor helps nontraditional learners succeed

Heather Engelhart works with Chhomnath Long, a native of Cambodia, during reading class in Waubonsee Community College’s Adult Education Division at the Aurora campus.

Waubonsee Community College adjunct instructor Heather Engelhart’s adult education students often credit her with helping them overcome obstacles to completing their educations.

Engelhart teaches English Language Acquisition, math, science and Integrated Career Academic and Preparation Systems classes. Those classes are part of Waubonsee’s Adult Education division, which consists of English language acquisition, formerly known as English as a Second Language (ESL), and high school equivalency programs, formerly referred to as General Education Development (GED).

Padma Witcher, who came to the U.S. in 2018, said Engelhart taught her about critical thinking, including which resources are the most reliable and how to determine if an argument is logical.

“She is an amazing teacher,” Witcher said. “She encourages us. She’s intelligent, vibrant and has a lot of energy. She catches your attention right away and she makes you feel there’s a reason to be here.”

Engelhart recently was recognized as Waubonsee’s Outstanding Adjunct Faculty Member in the Adult Education Division for 2022. Adjunct faculty members are nominated for this recognition by their division leadership and peers for their demonstration of quality instruction, commitment to student success and contributions to the credit and noncredit divisions.

“It’s so important for individuals to take advantage of our adult ed program to learn English, technology skills and/or work to obtain the [high school equivalency]. It’s such a great opportunity to gain confidence, improve their employment, or prep them for career/college options,” Engelhart said. “Definitely the most rewarding part of my job is seeing my students achieve their goals.”

Another student, Monique Moore, said that the way Engelhart explains things make the subjects easy to understand. She’s also a good listener, Moore added.

“We have fun in class, but she still gets us to do what we need to do,” Moore said. “She taught me a lot. She helped me to learn a better way to understand the lessons.”

Will Smith, who said he has not been in school since he was 14 years old, came to Waubonsee’s Adult Education Program at 65 to earn his high school equivalency.

“I had plenty of doubts,” he said. “Ms. Engelhart saw my doubt and frustration. She encouraged me and gave me confidence. She was my cheerleader.”

Smith, who had made his living as a master painter at Caterpillar, said he was dyslexic, making reading and studying harder.

With each test that he passed, Engelhart cheered him on, and he said his doubt was slowly slipping away. When he failed the math test, she suggested a tutor who could help him. When he took the test a second time, he passed.

“She showed me it was possible,” he said.

Smith is in his second semester of college. He is studying to become a drug and alcohol counselor.

“She’s the best teacher I’ve ever had,” he said.

Addressing perhaps the first hurdle for students entering the adult ed programs, Engelhart and a colleague created a Tech Bootcamp, where, before classes start, students are introduced to the basics of technology used in the classes, allowing them to be prepared on their first day.

Heather Engelhart is an instructor in the Waubonsee Community College’s Adult Education Division at the Aurora campus.

Engelhart also mentors new teachers and conducts professional development courses for other Adult Education faculty. She also served on a team to create curricula for the program.

“I like working with new technology and trying new curriculum and new sites to reach more students and then sharing this with other teachers,” she said.

Engelhart, whose teaching experience includes 17 years in elementary schools in Aurora and Geneva, has been teaching at Waubonsee for the past six years. Engelhart has a degree in education from Northern Illinois University and a master’s in teaching and curriculum from Aurora University.

“The connections with my students has been so rewarding,” she said about teaching at Waubonsee. “I really enjoy who I work with. We collaborate to improve our teaching skills, come up with new ideas and have developed great friendships. Our administration has always been so supportive and easy to talk to. Whether we need help, have requests for our students, or just want to chat. I’m grateful for this environment.”