It’s Teacher Appreciation Week! Today’s highlight features Nicole Schroeder, a Kindergarten teacher at Cornell Elementary in the Saydel Community School District. Schroeder has 10 years of experience as an educator and was one of six outstanding teachers named as a finalist for the 2024 Iowa Teacher of the Year award.

Schroeder has been praised for her ability to connect with her young students and build trusting relationships that make everyone feel safe, supported and valued.

Recently, Schroeder shared her thoughts with the Iowa Department of Education on why she is passionate about teaching and what key things are important for student success.

Who was your favorite teacher and why?
I have been fortunate to have so many amazing educators throughout my years. It is really hard to pick just one. However, Kim Uhlenhake, my third grade teacher, made an early impact on me. What made her stand out was her incredible ability to not only teach content but also to connect with me on a personal level.

I could tell that Miss Uhlenhake loved and cared about me. We would wear matching sweaters. She had a Green Bay Packer one, and I had a Minnesota Vikings one. She would promise to play giant checkers on our checkered floor, and she created a warm and nurturing environment where I felt the freedom to make mistakes without the fear of judgment. Whenever I struggled with a concept or faced challenges, she was there with words of encouragement and support, guiding me through the process with patience and kindness.

Throughout the years, I have connected with other teachers just as I had with Miss Uhlenhake. However, when I reflect on how I connect with students and the special moments I've incorporated into my school day, it's evident that I've tried to emulate her. My hope is that every student who has walked through my door in the last decade has felt the way Miss Uhlenhake made me feel.

Why are you passionate about teaching? What things do you love about working with students?
The beauty of teaching in Kindergarten is that every day is full of a sense of wonder, awe and the opportunity to make a difference. Each year, students come to me with varying levels of schooling, socialization and general knowledge. However, what is always the same for all is their love of being in school for the first time. I love that I get to be their first experience of school. I get to set the tone of their educational journey for them. I get to be the one to give them foundational skills and teach them that they have the power to make a difference in not only their lives, but also in the lives of others.

I also love being immersed in their world. Kids look at everything with such a pure lens, and their innocence makes them insightful. I get to learn from them and laugh with them. Quite honestly, there isn’t a day that goes by where I am not in a fit of laughter over something that they said. They are just as important to me as anything else in the world, and even when they leave at the end of the year, I love that they have made a bigger impact on my life than I could ever make on theirs.

What do you think are the keys to a student’s success and how do you help foster that?
As a Kindergarten teacher, I have the pleasure of being many children’s first school experience, which means I set the tone of their educational journey. A huge key to their success is to instill in them a love of learning and wonder. This is not something that is easy nor should be taken lightly. It requires one to really evaluate what talents or skills they bring to the table and how to build it into your craft. For myself, I use my guitar whenever it is pertinent or enhances a lesson. We take what’s normally rote memorization and turn it into a song that they’ll sing endlessly in the car. I work hard to follow my curriculum at hand while also captivating their sweet minds.

Second, students not only need to love learning but also need to feel safe and loved. 
Creating an environment where students feel safe and loved is fundamental for their overall well-being and academic success. When students feel this, they are more likely to take risks, ask questions and engage actively in the learning process. Moreover, feeling loved and valued by their teachers and peers fosters a sense of belonging, which is crucial for their social and emotional development. I work to help my students feel loved by making connections deeper than the benchmarks they hit. I call their families, go to their sporting events and genuinely care about the little details in their lives.

Finally, in order for a classroom community to be successful, there needs to be clear expectations for all. I prioritize creating a sense of community that has broken down barriers and has become a safe space where students are willing to learn from all members. I establish clear expectations in order to ensure equitable access to learning. It is to be known that learning will be fun, but it will be rigorous. It is important for both myself and the students to agree that having fun isn’t equivalent to low expectations.

Over the years, how have you grown as an educator? What opportunities do you see in the next few
years in education?
Throughout the years, my genuine passion and love for my profession has stayed the same. However, I have grown more in my ability to advocate for myself and my students. When you are a younger educator, it is easy to feel inadequate, as though your lack of years gives you less of a foot to stand on. It can be scary to speak up. Throughout the last 10 years, I have learned that there is no better person to advocate for my students than me. If there is something that they need that I cannot provide, it is my duty to make sure that need is being met. I will do whatever it takes to make sure that my students feel loved, safe and successful, even if it gets me out of my comfort zone.

In the future, I see myself continuing in some sort of advocacy role for students. I am not quite sure what that would look like but for now, I know that I am in the perfect position to advocate for my kids every day.

What advice would you give to a new teacher starting out in the field?
No matter how long you have been in education, your experience is invaluable. Your lack of years in the field does not give you any less of a foot to stand on. Your excitement for education is needed. Your new ideas are needed. YOU are needed.

Find your people. Lean on them. Learn from them. And please know that when the days feel long, remember that you have one of the most important jobs in this world: shaping a new generation.

You have been celebrated as an exceptional elementary teacher who has created a nurturing and caring environment for your students. What are some details of your success and how do creating safe learning environments and strong relationships lead to success for young students?
There is a saying that every educator knows. “No one cares what you know, until they know how much you care.” Everyone deserves to have an adult who will champion for them. Everyone deserves to have peers that care about them. Everyone deserves to feel loved.

I have made it my mission to make every single child that I encounter, whether or not they are in my classroom or ever will be, feel special and cared for. I always listen to their stories, match their energy, and lift them up when they are down. I then model for my students how to emulate that type of compassion for others.

I know personally that by creating a sense of love and belonging in my classroom has helped students flourish under unfortunate circumstances. I have had students come back years after being in my class and tell me that being in our class helped them get through deaths, divorces and other trials. However, that type of support cannot just come from myself. My students helped create and sustain the environment that helped those kids feel loved and therefore could be successful.

There are so many reasons as to why that is important but there is one that I really lean on. Unfortunately, I am only their teacher for roughly 180 days. That doesn’t mean I won’t love them the same outside of my classroom walls as I did inside of them. However, I won’t be there along their side every day once they leave me, but their peers will be. They will be the ones to carry on the lessons we learned together. Those relationships are the ones that, when they flourish, will lead to success for all involved.