Wake County

Tar Heel: No stopping tutoring pioneer Pat Richardson

Pat Richardson helped establish Wake Tech’s Individualized Learning Center in the 1970s.
Pat Richardson helped establish Wake Tech’s Individualized Learning Center in the 1970s. hlynch@newsobserver.com

For four decades, Pat Richardson has given a boost to students who came to Wake Tech needing extra help, whether they were soldiers, immigrants or young high school graduates.

Richardson was an early adopter of the idea that these adult students, who come from so many different backgrounds, needed tutoring that treated them as individuals, not the standardized approach that was in place when she started in the 1970s.

Over the years, she helped pioneer a series of programs that culminated in the college’s Individualized Learning Center, where trained staff now help students catch up in crucial subjects such as math, reading and writing by creating personalized study plans in one-on-one meetings.

Richardson rose from a tutor to the first director of the center, and later became the first dean of the department created to include the center and other services to support struggling students. Now nearing 80, Richardson still works two days a week, tutoring students in writing and study skills.

“Pat has been an integral part of programs that support student learning and an advocate for students’ success,” says Carrie Carreño-Zingaro, coordinator of the Individualized Learning Center. “It was truly her inspiration to tailor the learning process to individuals.”

Though she briefly taught younger students, Richardson says she loves working with adults, particularly those seeking second chances after previous academic failures. While her role has been to get their skills to the level needed for college work, she says part of that is helping them understand their own potential.

“You never know what happened in years past that is holding people back,” says Richardson. “Not everyone is a diamond in the rough, but all of us have something hidden in there. Some people it’s never unearthed, and that breaks my heart.”

Starting small

Richardson’s own life was marred by tragedy early on.

She was born and grew up in Benson, raised on a family farm that thrived on tobacco. Her mother was sick throughout much of her childhood, and her younger brother died young. As a girl she remembers resisting the idea of being the spoiled only child, doted on by the father who raised her.

She also remembers loving anything creative – art, dance, and particularly music. She was a regular in theater events in high school and planned to study music at Salem State University.

But her plans were derailed when her father died during her senior year of high school.

She studied voice and piano at Campbell University and eventually graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a teaching degree after a brief stint at Meredith College.

Her first job as a teacher was at the U.S. Navy base in Virginia Beach, where she went with a few of her fellow graduates. From there she got a job as a reading specialist at Fort Bragg, where she taught soldiers in the 82nd Airborne.

She married and had a son, but after seven years of marriage, she divorced and moved to Raleigh with her son.

She taught in public elementary and middle schools for a few years before taking a job at Wake Tech in 1972, in what was then called the “Programmed Materials Library.”

It was a closet-sized space where students came to study for the test that could earn them the equivalent of a high school diploma, using a set series of reading and math exercises.

Wake Tech, less than a decade old when she started, was primarily a vocational school back then, preparing its graduates for careers as plumbers or automotive technicians. Early on, many of her students were veterans whose reading and writing skills kept them from completing these courses.

Richardson, a reading specialist, found herself making changes to the set program that she thought would help students succeed. She ruffled feathers, for instance, by allowing students who were performing well to skip some exercises and move up to the next level, a small concession that she felt motivated them.

The lessons she learned in those early days were the ones she would later use to build up the college’s tutoring efforts over several decades, even as the demand to prepare students for higher education increased.

“They had dropped out of high school for many reasons, and their needs were very different,” she says. “I felt so strongly early on that adults learn differently than children.”

Training generations

Over her long career, that personal approach became more accepted in her field, and she continued to hold that torch at Wake Tech. She trained generations of tutors, held workshops on lifelong learning and worked to train teachers in different learning styles.

Later, when the college started a transfer program to four-year colleges and universities, the student body would change dramatically, and the level of skills they needed to complete an associate’s degree would grow.

A wave of new students whose first language was not English presented new challenges, and Richardson would help develop the college’s first programs for English language learners.

Over the years as she moved into leadership roles, she sought both to improve the role of the center and to increase its reach. That meant removing the stigma of having to get tutoring.

Instructors also failed to see the value in the center: “Until you really meet the needs of the students and they communicate that to the instructor, whatever we said fell on deaf ears.”

The center moved from a room at the library to a large trailer.

Eventually she helped pioneer a totally new approach involving separate centers for math, writing and computer and study skills at each campus. An online component now helps distance education students.

Through her many years coordinating the center, she fought for more staff to do the manpower-heavy work involved in individual treatment.

“They’d say ‘Why do you need another math tutor?” she says. “And I’d tell them one person can’t teach one person algebra and another person fractions at the same time. It’s impossible.”

After a semi-retirement years ago, she started recruiting and organizing volunteers to help out in Wake Tech classrooms and the study centers.

She also has worked for many years teaching and helping coordinate the high school equivalency program at Broughton High School, and as a volunteer at veterans hospitals.

In all of these roles, Richardson’s approach has always been to respect people, understand their needs and make sure they believe they can reach their goals.

“I would never tell someone they’re reading at a second-grade level,” she says. “I’ll say you need to be here and you are here. And this is a good situation, because you respect yourself and you’ve made a good choice.”

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Patricia G. Richardson

Born: July 1936, Benson

Residence: Raleigh

Career: Tutor and retired administrator, Individualized Learning Center, Wake Technical Community College

Education: B.A., education, UNC-Chapel Hill

Family: Son, Gregory; three granddaughters

Fun Fact: Richardson says her family tree includes some pretty colorful characters, including her grandmother, who had her grandfather’s grave moved twice because she was unhappy with its location.