Last year, Isabella Dicken Elementary School welcomed a new Principal - Nicole Neufeld. I so remember the awe I had for principals I had growing up in Fernie. I still see many of them, and have yet to call them by their first name, much to their disappointment. A great teacher and/or principal can impact us in life. And from what I have heard, IDES is bursting at the seams, not just population wise but with amazing, life-changing teachers and administrative staff. With my own daughter starting there this month, I just had to get the inside scoop and who better to chat with than Ms. Neufeld.
Nicole started her studies in Kinesiology, as she loved sports. Through her studies, she worked in day camps and as a swim and ski instructor and realised that she wanted to go into teaching. Originally from the Elk Valley, she had escaped to the coast with no thoughts of coming back. After graduating, she started teaching in Whistler and Squamish. “I just couldn’t see raising a family there,” she tells me. She came home for her ten year reunion, and pregnant with her first daughter convinced her partner that they should move back. “Houses were dirt cheap, and Fernie was the little mini ‘Whistler to be’ so that was it,” she adds.
Nicole continued teaching, interestingly her first contract was in Jaffray where she attended school herself. In 2004, she began teaching at IDES. “It was not easy to get a job here then. I literally taught everything, doing what I could,” she tells me. Driven to continue her education, Nicole completed her Masters and applied for the VP position at IDES in 2008. “It was good timing, not many other working teachers were interested to getting into admin and I had done a lot of leadership stuff in school. Rick Gris and Bob Smith encouraged me to apply.”
When asked what she loves most about teaching, it’s a quick and confident “the kids.” As a VP, Nicole still had the opportunity to teach, working with the students in the classroom setting. She couldn’t see herself in the Principal position for this reason. But as she continued her career, and the opportunity arrived, she admits that it was a natural transition.
“It was just a different step. Last year was the first year I didn’t teach, which was a bit sad, but I am still involved with the kids and get to see them a lot, so it was easier than I thought it would be,” she tells me, adding that it helps that whenever she has a break she heads out into the halls or to the classrooms “to find somebody little to talk to.”
In her new found role, there were definitely projects and ideas Nicole wanted to champion. “I always wanted a playground out back, so put the idea out there. We just had the perfect PAC this year, so it actually happened. It needed to be done, for the kids,” she says. Other than that, Nicole admits that a lot of her energy is put towards dealing with the growth of the school. “I want to preserve the community of the school, to preserve the feeling. I’m worried about having these satellite portables. How to make those students feel a part of the school. The staff is doing a fantastic with this space challenge.” Unfortunately, the Ministry’s priority is seismic upgrades in the lower mainland even if a new elementary school for Fernie is a priority in our District. “But it’s inevitable. It will happen, because it needs to happen and everybody wants it,” she adds confidently.
Additionally, each year the teachers and administration create a growth plan.
“We write it together. This year, we’re focusing on social and emotional learning. The research out there shows that it’s a real indicator of success. Building kindness, gratitude, self regulation skills, empathy, resiliency in children… We started looking at this last year with some professional development as a team. It’s important for us to be connected, we have an excellent team at IDES and it makes it easy to be principal because of them.”
Nicole is a firm believer that there is a lesson to be learned in everything you do in life… “You learn so much more in school than in schooling,” she says. “As educators and parents we need to embrace this. Every time a child goes through something in school, there is a lesson. The key is knowing this and not focusing on the results, rather the process.” She also is open to how education is changing. “It’s a hard time to be an educator. Kids can google anything, parents can google. You are no longer the expert. Rather a facilitator. To teach the process of being able to learn. We have to role model the willingness to learn and do something new.”
Another goal for IDES is taking students into the community and nature. “School is no longer about sitting at a desk,” she says. “I want students to embrace this. Janet Kuijt our VP is huge on environmental education, we are looking forward to seeing more of this.”
Personally, Nicole admits that it’s pretty full on as principal so it’s tough to do much outside of this within the community (although, as her children grew up she was heavily involved in the activities and organisations they were). A general goal for her is, “fostering the growth of our school while ensuring that all students, staff and parents continue to feel welcome, safe, and connected to the school community.”
Thank you, Nicole. I couldn’t be more excited about the community my daughter and family is becoming a part of this fall.
1. When did you first arrive in Fernie and what brought you here? I was born in Cranbrook, and raised in Elko. Came back ten years after graduation in 1998.
2. Who did you first meet in town? It’s a hard one because I grew up here. My mom used to work at the Day Lodge at the ski hill, that’s how we got to know the older ski hill crowd. Other than that it was my parents and friends.
3. Do you remember your first general impression of Fernie? One was coming to the ski hill on the weekends. We got up early and drove with her to work, waited for the hill to open and skied all day until she was finished working before we could head home. Another was figure skating lessons at the arena. For some reason those involved early mornings as well. We would drive to Fernie, skate in the morning then my mom would drive us back to Jaffray for school starting at 9am!
4. What keeps you here? The community, my life, my job, my kids, my friends.
5. Do you have a favourite Fernie memory or pastime? Over the years, I have done a lot of running and training for marathons or half marathons. Running on the trails, spring, summer or fall on my own with my dog is truly a favourite.
6. What time of the year do you love most in Fernie, and why? Summer, because I like the warmth and to hike and bike and run and play soccer, be outside, float the river, be at the beach. I’m a summer person.
7. Where do you see or hope to see Fernie in five years? Not much different.
8. How do you start your day or what is one of your daily rituals? Morning coffee, and then either walking the dog with a girlfriend or we go to the gym.
9. Tell us something people might be surprised to learn about you. Actually most people are surprised when they find out I grew up in the South Country ( Elko-Galloway strip, school in Jaffray) BUT also most people don't know I spent a few summers working as a whitewater rafting guide and I keep my old guides licence as proof.
10. Quote to live by: It’s a magnet on my fridge so I guess it’s the best one for me: Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever. Mahatma Ghandhi