There was never a doubt in Gordie Nickels’ mind that he would become an educator.
“I knew from early on what I wanted to do,” the outgoing Sparta superintendent said. “I used to play school with my older sisters.”
Other than boyhood dreams of becoming a pilot after his first plane ride, and a brief thought of becoming an astronaut, Nickels knew he was headed for the classroom. “I always came back to teaching, and after middle school age I never wavered.”
The only change in his focus came during college when he switched his career goal from secondary education to elementary on the advice of his father, who was both a teacher and a principal. “He had such a huge impact on my life,” Nickels said. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about him.”
Nickels began his career in Kentwood as a first-grade teacher and taught both fourth and fifth grade before becoming a principal in the Caledonia district. He came to Sparta in 2012 after serving as assistant superintendent for Byron Center Public Schools.
“Coming to Sparta was truly a blessing for my life,” he said. “In the five years that I have been here I have come to respect the community and the district. In my opinion Sparta is second to none because of its wonderful people that live and work here.”
Watching District Grow
While many would point to the 2016 $58 million bond passage — which provided new construction, security priorities and upgrades in technology — as the most important change during Nickels’ tenure, he prefers to focus on district academic goals and the people he has grown to love.
“I came to Sparta when the district culture was hurting, and it was my goal to work with everyone to build it back up and to get people back to believing in what Sparta was doing,” he said.
He points to a budget crisis with a 20 percent deficit, and said the goal to balance the budget was met each of his five years. “And the district had just had to lay off 20 teaching positions, and we have been able to hire that many and more back,” he said.
‘Coming to Sparta was truly a blessing for my life.’
— Sparta Superintendent Gordie Nickels
Also on his list are upgrades for professional development and updated curriculum programs in math and language arts for kindergarten through 12th grade, with a similar update in sciences ongoing.
“I credit this incredible team and dedication of the staff and administrative team for these advances,” he said.
The people around him made the decision to retire difficult.
“To me the highlight was the opportunity to work with these people and do what is right for the kids. It has been an incredible journey and is hard to leave.”
Nickels is poised to become the executive administrator for Cornerstone United Methodist Church, which is based in Caledonia. The church has two additional campuses, one in downtown Grand Rapids and one in Wyoming.
“It was a hard decision, but I am first of all a man of faith and I felt nudged to do something different. God put on my heart he was needing me in another area.”
Nickels calls his 35-year career in area schools a mission, and said that he will always be a firm supporter of public education.
“It doesn’t matter what social or economic status you come from, you get the same level of education,” he said. “Our forefathers got this right when they created public education. I will continue to support public education and advocate for it.”
Nickels and his wife, Lois, have been married 31 years. They have three daughters: an elementary teacher, an accountant, and one heading for a career in physical therapy.
“You can take the boy out of Sparta, but you can’t take Sparta out of the boy,” he said. “This will always feel like home.”