When Kim Nickel walked into a sixth-grade classroom at Heritage Elementary School in 1989, she reminded herself to be confident. Not only had these kids been in school together since kindergarten, but for the first five weeks of the school year they had a string of substitute teachers. So Nickel drew upon her experience student teaching at Vinewood Elementary School under Nancy Scott to set up and manage her first classroom.
"I still use things today that I learned from her," said Nickel, a fifth-grade GATE cluster teacher at Reese Elementary School. In fact, Nickel took mental notes on her teachers all through grade school in Sacramento.
"I would watch them and think, 'I like that, I can use that,' or 'No, I don't like that very much. How can I do it differently?'" she said.
It seems those notes have served her well. Nickel was selected this year's Classroom Hero for the elementary school level. She learned about the recognition when the News-Sentinel's Cyndi Carter stopped by her classroom Monday to announce it. This year, nominations poured in. Four hundred and fifty-two nominations came in for 132 teachers in all.
Nickel was nominated by several former students who were touched by her teaching.
"She was my favorite teacher. She was kind of strict, but it kept us all in check," said George Bria, now a sixth-grader at Reese.
Others said she is creative and organized.
"She's kind of like a second mom to me," said sixth-grader Juliana Jackson, adding that Nickel is quick to pull students aside for extra help during tricky assignments.
Parents call her the "project queen" for all the hands-on, creative tasks she assigns to her students.
"On Back to School Night, everyone knows you're in Mrs. Nickel's class," said Jackson, carrying a heavy load of projects in her arms.
Seeing the learning process happen for each child brings a smile to Nickel's face.
"I love to watch their little brains go through it," she said. "I like to see the light bulb go off."
Nickel's involvement doesn't start and stop with the school bells.
Thirty-four students in Math Olympiad meet with Nickel and another teacher on Tuesday mornings to drill facts and solve creative problems. Last year, Reese students were among the top two percent in the nation.
"It's great to see kids outside of the classroom learning environment. You get to see them in a different way," she said.
Nickel is also a student council advisor, supervising Red Ribbon Week activities, community service events like the canned food drive and a jog-a-thon, and the annual talent show.
As a mom of three, maternal instincts sometimes come on strong when anything threatens the peace of her classroom family, like bullying, name-calling or arguments.
"We need to care for each other, to learn from each other," she said. "Everyone is here to learn. Everyone is different. If they weren't, it would be really boring."
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.