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Sandy Nichols retires after 37 years of teaching 3rd-grade in Spearfish

By Kaija Swisher Black Hills PioneerMay 16, 2019

SPEARFISH — She’s taught students in classrooms in four elementary schools in Spearfish – Central, West, East, and Creekside — and after 37 years of teaching third-grade, Sandy Nichols is retiring at the end of the school year.

“I will miss the kids most of all,” she said. “It’s all about the kids, and they have brought me so much joy.”

As she looks back over the years and thinks about the opportunities she was given and the opportunities she hopes students and teachers will continue to receive, Nichols decided to donate the classroom quilts her classes have made over the last 27 years to the Spearfish Foundation for Public Education. The foundation is hosting an online fundraising auction, which opens Friday morning, featuring 24 of the quilts created, as three were given to families who lost a child who had been in the class, in memory of their child.

Nichols started the quilt project after reading “The Keeping Quilt” by Patricia Polacco to her students in 1992. The story tells of how one family’s quilt is created and passed down from generation to generation, and Nichols wanted to incorporate a “keeping quilt” into her classroom family. Each student in the class designs a square for the quilt, and through time, a theme is chosen each year, with the current year’s theme about gardening. For the last decade or so, Nichols’s mother, Gwen, hand-quilts the final product, and Nichols irons on a photo of the class in one of the squares. Each of the students signs their square, as well.

The available quilts are currently on display at Creekside Elementary, with four at Spearfish High School, and photos will be posted on the Spearfish Foundation for Public Education’s Facebook page of each quilt for sale, along with the class list from each year. Each quilt measures about 3-by-4.5 feet, and interested bidders can participate starting Friday morning through 7 p.m. Thursday, May 23. Bids start at $25 and increase at $5 increments, with all proceeds benefiting the Spearfish Foundation for Public Education. Those who win the bids can then pick up the quilts Friday, May 24, or choose the option to have them shipped somewhere.

“Now it’s my turn to give back,” Nichols said of her decision to donate the quilts to the foundation, describing that she has had the opportunity to utilize grants from the organization and hopes others can do the same.

“They love it,” she added of the students’ reactions to creating the quilt. They assist in choosing the fabric, creating their squares, and this year, with the gardening theme, the class picture will take place on May 28, when the students transplant the plants they started in their room that will be moved to the Creekside garden.

“The foundation is humbled to be a part of Sandy’s generous student quilt project contribution and honored to be a part of her legacy,” Mary Pochop, of the Spearfish Foundation for Public Education, said, describing that such a donation allows the foundation to continue to provide educational grants to teachers who have innovative ideas for their classrooms. “The foundation is well aware of Sandy’s contribution to enrichment learning in her classroom. A few years back, Sandy’s classroom utilized a grant for each third-grade student to create and write animal habitat books. With this project, students learned not only facts about their chosen animal but also learned the parts of a putting a book together. Students created a poem about their animal using interesting facts they discovered while researching and illustrated their animal, as well. Each student received a copy of their published book.”

Nichols also taught all four of Pochop’s children over the years.

“She is an amazing teacher who provides creativity in learning, from the third-grade magic show, to the creating and publishing of ‘Creekside Elementary School,’ a book written by her and her students that journaled the chronological order of the building of Creekside Elementary,” Pochop said. “Sandy’s classroom provided a safe and nurturing environment for students of all levels of learning, a classroom where students felt empowered to do their best. It was through her kind spirit she gained the respect of her students and their parents, and yet instilled accountability for all her students. She will be greatly missed!”

Originally from Watertown, Nichols studied early childhood education at South Dakota State University and went on to get her elementary teaching certificate. In 2002, she received her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from Black Hills State University.

Nichols always knew she wanted to be a teacher, and she described that at a young age, she taught swimming lessons. Being able to teach someone something they didn’t know how to do, and then see them take off doing that skill was something she loved, and she knew elementary teaching would fit. She wanted to teach multiple subjects and skills, and she enjoys third-graders for many reasons.

“They’re like sponges at this age,” Nichols said, describing that they are hungry for learning and love school.

Over the years, Nichols has had the chance to partake in the Fulbright Master Teacher Program, spending six weeks in Japan; she spent a week at the Exploratorium in San Francisco through a grant; she took a Mountains of History class and was able to hike to the top of Mount Rushmore and has a photo of herself sitting on top of George Washington’s head; and she was named the Spearfish School District Teacher of the Year in 2000.

Some of her favorite projects with students include an end-of-the-year magic show with the students; publishing a class book every year; and the class quilts.

When she looks back, the thing that has changed the most over the years is technology. When Nichols began teaching, they used a ditto machine, a primitive photocopier, and she remembers that when the school first got a copy machine, teachers had a limit of 100 copies for the year.

She also gives students an assignment at the beginning of the year to see if they know their address and two phone numbers. Two years ago, one student wrote for the phone numbers, “Hold 7 to call my mom, hold the button with the small ‘b’ to call my dad.”

“Technology has really changed!” Nichols said.

What has stayed the same are the students — while names change year to year, Nichols said, kids are always kids, genuine, and kind, and lovable.

“They’re just like family to me,” she said.

And she has had families’ worth of students, whether all of the siblings in one family, or generations of students, or aunts and uncles, etc.

“They have to love the children,” Nichols said of her advice to future teachers, describing that excitement spills over to the students. “You teach third-graders, and not third grade – you have to teach the children, and it’s all about the kids. As long as you focus on them and make sure that you are loving and kind to them, if they know that you care about you, they’re going to move heaven and earth for you because they’re excited about school.”

Creekside Principal Dan Olson described Nichols as a wonderful teacher.

“She has a tremendous ability to accept people for who they are and work with them at any level,” he said. “Sandy has often been the glue that held the third-grade teachers together, helping them become a productive team.”

“As a teacher, Sandy Nichols has been timeless,” he added. “Even though she has been in education for 37 years, she still embraces new teaching techniques and strategies. Her ability to remain enthusiastic year after year really speaks to her love of education and children.”

Olson said that every year, Nichols makes a point to become part of her students lives outside of the classroom.

“She can be seen at dance practice, soccer games, plays, or swim meets,” he said. “I have often had parents comment to me that they were surprised to see her at some activity. Sandy has also been a great friend and confidant. She is one of the kindest people I know. However, she is confident enough to share critical, sometimes uncomfortable information, with me and others. She will always hold a special place in my memories for her courage to say the things that needed said.”

Olson described that Creekside staff and students will miss Nichols and wish her a wonderful retirement.

“She has definitely earned it,” he said.

The end of the school year is bittersweet, Nichols said. A month ago, she didn’t expect to be retiring, thinking she would teach for another year or two – but then plans changed when she learned her son and daughter-in-law, who live in Arizona, are expecting a baby.

“We’re over the moon about that,” she said, describing that she has been asked to help when the baby is born, and initially, she thought about taking leave, but then didn’t want to be away from her classroom for that long. The more she thought about it, the more it made sense to retire so she and her husband, Bob, can have more freedom to decide what kinds of things they want to do with retirement. Next year’s focus is all about the baby, she added.

Nichols is in the process of going through 37 years’ worth of classroom materials, determining what might be helpful for other teachers, what might be useful with her grandchildren, and what might have outlived its usefulness.

She is keeping focused on making the end of the year go as smoothly as possible, and she pointed to her mother, Gwen, for always encouraging her to go to college and get her degree, as well as her husband, Bob.

“Without his help and support, I couldn’t have gone the extra mile at school,” she said.

In addition to missing the students, Nichols will also miss fellow staff who have become her school family, she said.

And she hopes people will check out the quilts during the online auction.

“We are pleased to have raised money for the foundation,” Nichols said.

For more information about the quilt auction, visit the Spearfish Foundation for Public Education Facebook page or spearfishschools.org, under the “Donate” tab.

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