Chocolates, high-fives and compassion

May 4, 2019

WESTVILLE – Westville Middle-High School secretary Debbie Niec has a sweet way – literally – to break bad news to students.

As the supervisor of the school’s in-school suspension program, she’s responsible for calling students with discipline or attendance issues down to the office to let them know they will be spending their Friday night in detention.

After she sternly tells a student the reason for the assignment to ISS, she opens the drawer next to her desk, reaches into a bag of Hershey’s Kisses, and hands a piece of chocolate over to the teen before sending them back to class.

As the administrative professional explains, there’s no such thing as a bad student – just someone who’s made a mistake.

“They need to know they are still important,” Niec said. “This is not the worst thing in the world unless they keep going down the same path.”

That combination of professionalism and compassion has made her a favorite among students – and a reliable friend among colleagues.

It’s also what caught the eye of the Indiana Association of State Principals, which named Niec its 2019 Secretary of the Year during the annual secretaries conference in March.

The announcement blindsided Niec, whose mind began racing when a conference presenter began reading off Westville Principal Alissa Schnick’s nomination letter before presenting her with the distinction, she said. Schnick had invited Niec to the conference for training, without mentioning she’d put her up for an award.

“I really am so incredibly humbled,” Niec said. “I don’t feel like people can play pranks on me very easily, but they really got me with this. I’m completely flabbergasted.”

In her nomination letter, Schnick praised Niec for her pleasant personality when dealing with students, staff and parents; and her ability to juggle multiple responsibilities, including attendance, reports and answering calls. The principal also admires Niec’s willingness to go above and beyond typical “job requirements,” including calling students who have been absent for several days to her office to let them know she missed them and is glad they’re back, Schnick wrote.

“The best word that I could use to describe Debbie is ‘genuine’,” she wrote. “She is passionate about any position she is placed in and is sincere in her decision making to fulfill each role. She is intentional with her actions and that is easy to see in her interactions with others.”

Niec earned the distinction less than a year into her tenure as school secretary, though she’s been a member of the Blackhawk family for nearly a decade.

A native of New York, Niec and her husband, Joe, moved to Westville from Colorado 18 years ago. After working for a short time at a local grocery, she opened a daycare service, which allowed her to stay home with her two young daughters while making a living through one of her passions – working with children, she said.

“Some of my old kids are students here [at Westville] now,” she said.

She soon began volunteering at Westville Elementary School, where her energy and dedication caught the attention of administrators, who asked if she’d be interested in serving as a substitute teacher. In 2010, the district hired her as its first full-time sub, working with students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Bouncing from classroom to classroom, Niec quickly learned to wear many hats while dealing with the different challenges each age group presented, she said.

“I always knew what shoes to wear,” she said. “With the smaller kids, I would be chasing them around all day, so that was always a sneaker day.”

In the process, she developed a relationship with hundreds of children and teens, many of whom still greet her with a hug or high-five while walking down the hallway or even when she’s out and about in town, she said.

Last August, the district hired Niec to take over the front desk at the school after Tammy Barnes was promoted to secretary of administrative offices.

As school secretary, Niec’s smiling face is the first thing that greets visitors, and the last thing they see before leaving. In addition to answering calls from parents, staff members and school board members, she must stay on top of attendance records, compile reports for the state, and perform a litany of other tasks to keep the school running smoothly.

“It’s a lot of paperwork,” she said. “I’m learning more every day and asking lots of questions.”

The three hours she spends every week with students in ISS is particularly meaningful, Niec said.

Given her familiarity with much of the student body, Niec tries to assist students serving detention as best she can, be it helping them with assignments, lending a sympathetic ear, or doling out advice in hopes they solve their problems and never have to return.

“Compassion is so important in this field, and in life in general,” she said.

Niec continues to serve children and her community off the clock. She sponsors the school’s pep club, which she has led to several spirit awards; and is a 10-year member of the local chapter of Tri Kappa, a philanthropic organization that donates money for scholarships, among other causes.

She said she’s honored to work alongside so many excellent teachers and administrators at Westville, and is proud that her colleagues have recognized her work with the students.

“I want to continue to make an impact,” she said. “I want to watch the little ones who give me bear hugs now grow up to become the teens who give me a high-five whenever they see me.

“To know that maybe, out of 10 students, I’ve made an impact on two they will remember for the rest of their lives – I don’t know if there’s anything bigger than that.”