The LANGUAGE INSTRUCTOR
BY DONNA CRARY
Talk to Nereida Steele and you can’t help but get impacted by her love for teaching. Her enthusiasm is contagious. Teaching is a special calling, she shares, a Godly mission for her life.
“Every morning before I go to work, I pray, ‘God, I want to be your hands, your eyes, your mouth … I want to make a difference to these people and actually help them out,’” she says. “I’m hungry to help someone who really needs it.”
Steele instructs English as a second language at the Martin County Adult Learning Center in Indiantown. Her students range from ages 16 to 70. At the school, she opens up a whole new world to those who want to learn English.
“Her work does not accomplish one big thing; there’s not one student who went on to become a surgeon or something like that,” explains husband Judge Darren Steele.
“What it is are a thousand small good things … so it might be where somebody who otherwise couldn’t get a job, can now get a job and is a foreman because he speaks English. And the look in someone’s eye when they attend the conference at their kid’s school and understand what is really going on. Or when they go to the doctor and comprehend what’s going on, or do all the things that we do in our normal day-to-day life.”
Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Nereida moved to the United States when she turned 14. She credits her elementary school teacher in Puerto Rico for giving her an appreciation for Spanish literature as well as a foundation for effective note taking.
“Miss Victoria, she showed me how you should always have your paper neat,” Steele says. “If it’s not neat, how can you write? You don’t want to look at it again. And that’s a simple concept that I show my students.”
After moving to the U.S., she attended Taravella High School in Broward County. There the hard-working student was greatly influenced by Edith Smith, an English teacher who taught her the basics of English grammar and how to write essays. Smith was awarded Florida’s teacher of the year in 1985.
“This lady, I loved her to death,” recalls Steele. “It was my second year of high school and she made an announcement, ‘If you need any help in English, come and see me after school.’ I don’t think she was expecting anybody to come see her. I showed up and she taught me grammar after school for a whole month. What I know today is because of her.”
Later on, Steele graduated from the University of Central Florida with a bachelor’s degree in communications. For many years, she followed in her father’s footsteps pursuing a career in pharmaceutical sales. It wasn’t until after her second child was born that she followed her mother’s career path and entered the world of teaching.
She received her teacher certification and applied as a substitute teacher with the Martin County School District.
“I remember going into my teaching job and saying to myself every single morning, ‘Wow! I can’t believe it. For 35 years, I didn’t know it would feel so great to be a teacher,’” she says.
As a substitute teacher, she instructed in many of the schools within the district. That vast experience helped her value the high standards in Martin County’s educational system.
“There’s not one school that I wouldn’t send my kid to in this county, and I’m talking in any area, especially Indiantown,” she points out.
It was during this time of substitute teaching that she realized she could impact students’ lives. She recalls fondly how a young boy with a learning disability in a Head Start classroom got her attention. The first-grader was struggling with penmanship and basic addition that the other students clearly understood.
“Everybody was telling me in this class, ‘Oh, he doesn’t know how. He has a problem,’” she recalls. “I would say to him, ‘Don’t worry, it’s okay.’ What do you do when a kid doesn’t know what zero plus one is? And the whole class knows it’s one, but the child says it’s zero?”
With a little determination and unwilling to accept defeat, the dedicated teacher worked with the student until he understood addition.
“When that kid got it and the whole class saw and celebrated it, he was so excited!” she remembers. “Those opportunities are so rewarding. When you hear, ‘I did it! I did it!’ I had goosebumps. So I came home, and I thought, ‘I did this today. Someone couldn’t add, and he’s adding now.’ How good is that?”
Steele also taught Spanish full-time at Martin County High School. Then in 2015, another door opened for her to instruct English as a second language at the adult learning center in Indiantown. The only problem was she had no students. When she began working, there was only a receptionist and Steele in the whole school. But with a mission to teach people in need, she reached out to a priest at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Indiantown to help fill her classroom.
“So, he tells me to come to church the next Sunday and announce what I’m doing,” she says. “My husband, I, and our two kids go, and the priest lets me talk after each of the two masses that Sunday. We were there for a long time. Guess what? The next day all these people came to the school, and the receptionist was freaking out saying, ‘What’s going on? Where did all the students come from?’ They came because this was a resource to help them to learn English and get their GED.”
Steele has been happily providing instruction at the school since then and has no problem finding students. Empowering them to learn and speak English hits home with her. It’s personal. She knows firsthand the challenges of learning English and what it means to help her students pass a citizenship test, earn a driver’s license, get a library card so they can passionately read books, pass the GED, and even go to college. She understands because she knows the power of education and how it changes lives.
Lives in: Palm City
School: Martin County Adult Learning Center in Indiantown
Family: Husband, Darren; son, Lucas, 18; daughter, Katherine, 10
Education: Bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of Central Florida. Florida teacher certified in world languages: Spanish (K-12).
Background: Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, arrived in U.S. at age 14. Her mother, Nereida Cividanes, was a Spanish teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County. Steele worked many years for Astra Zeneca in pharmaceutical sales before starting a teaching career.
How I got into teaching: “After my daughter was born, I decided I wanted a career where I could be home with her. I was so surprised when I discovered that I loved it.”
What I like best about teaching: “Making a difference in students’ lives. Knowing that whatever I tell them today, they can actually go out and use it.”
Something my students probably don’t know about me: “The fun trips that I take with my family.”