When University of Findlay alumna and current superintendent of the Northeastern Local School district Nicole (Meyer) Wells ’07 started this school year, she had her staff write down a word that they could focus on for the year. She, of course, included herself in the motivational exercise. The word she chose?
“It meant two things, actually,” Wells said after a recent stop at University of Findlay as a visiting educator for the College of Education. “Obviously, that things are a bit uncomfortable due to the pandemic; also, though, I wanted to encourage myself and them to get out of our comfort zones a bit more.”
Wells is one of the youngest superintendents in the state of Ohio, and that comes after an eight year career as a teacher and five years as a principal. Maybe the most impressive of these educational landmarks is that it has all happened within the same district: Wells taught fifth grade at Tinora Elementary before becoming its principal, and now oversees all students, kindergarten through senior, as superintendent. Although they’re her top priority, the students aren’t the only obligations she attends to, however. There is the faculty/staff of 150 people. There are also parents. There is finding time for paperwork, for meetings, for trips as a visiting educator. There are bus schedules and fog delays. And, while it is certainly a lot, Wells said that, due to the education and preparation she received as an Oiler, along with her long-time desire to be a leader, she’s confident and happy to take it all on.
Wells came to UF on a volleyball scholarship, but tore her ACL as a freshman and, after a total of five surgeries over the course of her athletic career, was done playing, not just for the season, but for good. She stayed on as manager, though, and later went into coaching during her senior year at UF, all of which taught her, she said, valuable time-management skills, among others. It’s partly because of these skills, along with those she was taught both in the classroom and through the hands-on experience in the education program at UF, that Wells has made such a meteoric rise within the field of education for her district in a relatively short time. She said that getting out into the classroom as freshmen at UF to observe and learn methods, creates, very early, educators who are well-equipped throughout college and after graduation, and the guidance of knowledgeable faculty doubles that preparation for teachers. “The [UF] professors know what they’re doing,” she said. “Students should listen to their advice, and they should really take it in when they go to methods, observe, and student teach. That’s when I learned, and that’s when they learn the most. UF absolutely had me fully prepared.”
As Wells answered questions from the EDUC 161 Teaching as a Profession class at UF, it was abundantly clear that that preparation has also manifested itself into both a well-versed knowledge of and a genuine and deeply-instilled passion for education. She spoke candidly to students about time management skills when things go off-schedule (They do nearly every day, she said); she spent time on building relationships and educational obstacles. She covered preparation and disappointments for teachers. But, with every answer, the topic inevitably returned to the kids. Regardless of the questions Wells received, and whether it was advice or a story that she replied with, she always pointed the students in the direction of the future students that they, themselves, would be managing in whatever role they ended up in. Even as a superintendent, she said, although she’s in the office more than in a classroom, at the end of the day, she’s out in the bus lot interacting. “If you create the opportunities,” she explained, “then [the kids] will come to you. That should be your motivation – kids remembering you while you’re teaching them and remembering you after graduating.” She mentioned that, as a teacher, she often made it a point to show her students that she is human. “Standing on tables to show them that I’m real,” she said, “things like that. Make mistakes, Laugh at yourself. Get on their level. Show them that you care.”
Expounding on her choice of “uncomfortable” as her word for the 2020/2021 school year, Wells told students that she wasn’t exactly planning on becoming a superintendent when she was a student at UF. Her focus, at that time, was clearly pointed toward getting her education and becoming a teacher. But stepping out of her comfort zone to pursue administration aspirations was part of her motivation to add to her education, first getting her principal licensure and then taking some more classes to become a superintendent (“I have a ‘Master’s-plus,’” she said.); it’s important for education students to keep their options open, she told the class, because you never know what might present itself. “I thought I would be teaching for a long time,” she said. “Life takes turns. Step out of that comfortable place, but stay calm and collected while you’re doing it. If you’re calm, so are your students, and, in my case, your staff members.”
Regarding the discomfort of a year that has been like no other, causing everyone, including teachers, to shift their perspectives and methods, Wells told students that, by being in a position to learn-as-they-go during the current pandemic, they will surely have a leg up on the future of education. “You who have been studying education and getting out there during this specific time have a distinct upper-hand on handling it if you think about it,” she said. “In my experience, younger teachers were helping veteran teachers a lot in the way of technology and connecting with certain kids, and you’re not only doing it, you’re learning about it as it happens from your professors and colleagues.”
Although she’s looking forward to some semblance of a summer break with her family, which consists of husband Kirt, and daughters Kalli, 10, and Kenlee, 8, she said that summers are maybe even busier than the actual school years. They consist of hiring, planning, and organizing, and, in yet another example of the benefits of leaving one’s comfort zone, last summer, her school moved into a whole new building in the middle of pandemic. “We moved in two days prior to school opening, so I had to get all 150 staff members on board with that. So now, in addition to my other duties, I’m also a ‘construction manager’ in charge of making decisions for a new building.” Yet, however, she said that she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“No regrets,” she said. “Again, UF prepared me for all of this beyond measure. I know it’s cliché, but I honestly don’t feel like I’ve worked a day in my life. I’m happy to get up and see the kids. I told the students today that when you’re in education, you’ll know you’re in the right profession when you realize you are impacting the future leaders every day. I knew at UF it was right decision, and when they get their own classroom, they’ll know too.”