The Harbinger Online

History Teacher John Nickels Bonds with Students

Forty-six years ago, when John Nickels sat as the head of his first classroom, he didn’t know what he had gotten himself into.

At the time, Nickels’ sole intent was to get through the next year or two of teaching to get back to what he believed were his real passions: computers and his previous job at NASA. Out of college, Nickels worked as a computer programmer for the Apollo program inside of NASA. But in 1963 when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Nickels and many of his colleagues were let go as part of a hiring freeze and a shrinkage in funding.

In 1964, Nickels received his education degree and began teaching at Indian Hills Middle School as a way to pass the time while he waited for his job back at NASA. Despite it not being his intention, Nickels quickly fell in love with teaching and the interaction with young students. Two years after beginning teaching, Nickels got the call from NASA asking for him back.

“It came down to kids versus computers and kids have personalities and computers don’t,” Nickels said. “They keep you young and alive.”

Year after year with each classroom of students, Nickels reassured himself of his decision. And he quickly developed a teaching style unique to East, a teaching style that focused on the student not the facts.

With every new trait he noticed that the children possessed, Nickels admired them more for who they are were and what they put up with.

“Kids are cool people because they see a lot more than what most adults recognize, they’re a lot sharper and a lot more pressured than what they are given credit for,” Nickels said. “There is so much going on now demanding things from the kids.”

Nickels believes that because of the East area demographic, the expectations placed on these students are much higher. This just builds up on the pressure that they have to deal with already. But due to the budget cuts, standardized testing and public demands, the job for students and teachers alike is more difficult.

“The East area is just a different clientele now,” Nickels said.  “We have a much wider variety of students and many need all different kinds of attention and the public has no tolerance for anything that is less than perfect for their kids. Teachers today are teaching more kids, with testing everywhere to see how much they got out of everything. It wasn’t all built around testing. It was much less stressful for children.”

Nickels’ philosophy and goal as a teacher isn’t necessarily to get his students to grasp and understand all of the ideas and facts that he lectures about. He is more about teaching them the process of learning.

“Their well being and their wanting to learn is more important than every little fact you can cram in them,” Nickels said. “Don’t expect them to know every little detail. Teach them how to learn, get them wanting to learn and try to get them interested in things. That’s the key.”

Several years ago, an East principal used to always preach the motto: Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Ever since, Nickels has tried to approach each class and each student with that idea. Nickels believes that if you work to understand and get to know the kid then the kid will respond and will at least try to work for you.

“You can’t just be your friend though,” Nickels said. “You’ve got to push them and you can’t just give it to them because they won’t respect that. They will only appreciate it if they had to work for it. Then, they figure out they learned some stuff.”

Nickels believes that receiving an “A” should be something that is earned and prides himself in it.

Over his 46 years of teaching at East, Nickels has shown that he is a strong believer in having a good classroom atmosphere for students. To Nickels, a classroom has to be a place where the student feels comfortable and if the classroom feels comfortable than chances are the student will feel comfortable in learning from the teacher.

The collage of postcards decorating the walls started as a collection of his travel but as time went on, his students began buying postcards on their own vacations with Nickels in mind to add to it.

Starting during his time at Indian Hills, Nickels began to spread his love for traveling to his students by telling them about the places he talked about. After 46 years of teaching, he has taken student groups to 55 countries, ranging from the British Aisles to the New Zealand locales in which “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy was shot in New Zealand.

“Kids can look around and see the world, and if I want to tell them about a place, it’s up here somewhere,” Nickels said. “I just have to find it which is kind a fun to go on a search. Like a scavenger hunt.”

Nickels has realized that to keep a class motivated, engaged and interested, they need to have a teacher that they can relate to, but they also need to have something they look forward to in the class. Through his stories of claiming to be “the worst coach in East history,” and proving to the class that he can fit through a basketball hoop; Nickels has mastered this.

A sign of a teacher that has a long tenure is when they begin have the children in class of the students they taught years ago. Nickels has surpassed that. Over the last couple years he has began to tap into his third generation of students that he has had.

Going on 69, Nickels knows that it is only a matter of time before he decides to retire. For the past few years teaching, he has believed that it was the right time. But every time the idea enters his head, he remembers the kids. They were the ones who got him into it and they are the reason why stepping aside will be so difficult.

“I think about it every day,” Nickels said. “I wonder about going because there are young teacher thats need jobs too. I keep selfishly saying that I don’t know what I’d do. I need the kids. Every year, I think, ‘OK, this might be the year I’m done.’ Then, I see kids that I don’t want to not see the next year.”

Nickels believes that the time to go won’t be this year. Once it happens, there is no question that Nickels will have left a lasting impact on the 10,000 students he has taught.
Read more about Mr. Nickels here

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