John Nickels, SM East teacher who taught 10,000 students, set to retire

John Nickels in his World Geography classroom at SM East, which is plastered with postcards his students have brought back from trips around the world.

For more than 20 years, SM East teacher World Geography teacher John Nickels has collected a bundle of letters from his freshman students each May. And each May he drops a separate bundle of letters in the mailbox. They’re letters his students have written to themselves — penned as freshman with the intent of having them sent back to themselves three years later, a reminder of their earlier aspirations as high school draws to a close.

This May, Nickels collected his final round of freshman letters. After 48 years in the classroom — 21 at Indian Hills and 27 at SM East — he’s set to retire.

It’s a teaching career that’s reached more than 10,000 students and included chaperoning 55 trips around the world.

Incorrigible and frequently politically incorrect — he held his retirement party at Hooters, after all — Nickels is a character in the classroom who has the power to make his students shake their heads in shock one moment, and in wonder the next.

And over nearly five decades, he’s watched the world he taught his students about change in profound ways.

It’s gotten smaller, for one. When he started teaching, the idea of taking a trip overseas was exciting, special, something that not everyone got to do. Today, he says, as more and more families take trips to Europe or Asia, travel has started to seem more commonplace.

But the thing that has changed most since he started is the competition for students’ attention. The Internet and mobile technology, Nickels said, have fundamentally shifted the experience of being a teenager. With a barrage of texts and tweets coming at students all day, making a connection in the classroom has gotten harder and harder.

“It’s next to impossible to impress kids these days,” he said. “They see everything.”

Retirement will offer a respite, allowing him to sleep in a little later — “I think I’ll stay in bed until 6:30 instead of getting up at 4:20 every morning” — but it won’t take him out of the classroom for good.

He’ll continue to substitute, he says, because the idea of leaving teaching for good holds no appeal.

“This really is like my family,” he said.