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From Shy Student to School Leader

Portrait of Yolanda Wiggins
Yolanda Wiggins attends a NELA workshop at NC State's Friday Institute for Educational Innovation.

It’s hard to imagine that a woman who can break boards with her bare hands, an award-winning teacher and self-assured school administrator, was once the shyest kid in class.

But when a high school teacher threatened Yolanda Wiggins with a zero unless she answered questions out loud, the A and B student took an F.

“My husband loves to tell that story,” Wiggins says, with a laugh.

Over time, Wiggins found her voice. She won awards for poetry and became a reporter for the hometown newspaper in Halifax County. The school superintendent, a frequent contact, suggested that Wiggins become a teacher. A year later, after asking if he had been serious, Wiggins decided to continue her education.

Turning Points

After initial trepidation that she was “too little” to teach middle school, Wiggins became an award-winning seventh-grade language arts teacher, working for 13 years in her native Halifax County. The mother of two honed her confidence in taekwondo class, progressing toward a black belt.

Then another challenge surfaced. Wiggins tried to duck an invitation to a central office meeting about preparing to be a principal, but the superintendent, her colleagues and her husband urged her to go.

NC State’s Bonnie Fusarelli, co-director of the Northeast Leadership Academy (NELA), also saw leadership potential in Wiggins, a product of rural schools.

“She told me, ‘For what it’s worth, I think you’re exactly the person we need in this program,” Wiggins recalls.

Turnaround Specialist

Wiggins signed up for NELA, a federally funded Race to the Top program that trains leaders for high-needs schools. “It was exhausting and fun at the same time.”

Her assignments included role-playing tough conversations with parents and students, as well as a 15-minute timed exercise: writing a note to parents explaining the school’s response to a gun being found on campus.

Matt Militello, NELA’s co-director, challenged Wiggins to express herself in class and make presentations at regional and national conferences.

To complete her master’s degree in school administration, Wiggins spent a year as an assistant principal intern at Hollister Elementary School in Halifax County and a summer in a community internship.

NELA graduates agree to work in one of 14 northeastern North Carolina school districts for three years. Wiggins started in Halifax County before switching to the Nash-Rocky Mount district, where she’s assistant principal of M.B. Hubbard Elementary. Her responsibilities include equipping teachers to use technology, coaching staff on effective discipline practices and modeling effective teaching. As a NELA graduate, Wiggins gets practical advice from a career coach, NC State’s Andy Overstreet.

She enjoys working with younger students. “I saw students struggle when they came to me in seventh grade with gaps in reading. We can fill those gaps when they’re in elementary school.”

On challenging days, she looks forward to dropping in on classes, where she’ll pull up a chair next to the quietest kids in the room, ready to listen and to draw them out. “Student voice is very important to me,” she says. “These kids have a special place in my heart.”

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