Woodrow Wilson Elementary School Principal Nancy Van Wyk, 51, has dedicated nearly half of her life to educating children. Now, after 24 years in the business, not only is she stepping away from her school, she’s stepping away from the profession she loves.
“My mom’s in hospice, so that’s my top priority, to take some time with her,” Nancy said. “After that, I don’t know … My husband still works in Montezuma and so, at this point, we don’t know what our future plans will be. We’d love to travel. We have kids in Houston. So yeah, we’re kind of playing it by ear.”
While Nancy and her husband, Marvin, are still deliberating their next move, she acknowledged how hard this decision was for her.
“It was incredibly difficult. I’ve lived my whole life for this,” Nancy said. “I would have never guessed that I would just step away and be OK with that, but I am. I have total peace, and I don’t know what the Lord has for me next, but I know that I have peace for right now, and this is what I need to do.”
Getting to her current level professionally, and then just leaving it all behind, was not an easy task for Nancy. She said she’s held a job since she was 10 years old, and back when she was a high school student in Indiana, she discovered her love of teaching children.
“When I was a senior in high school, I was a part of a training track for business. And so, we would go to school in the morning — to finish our credits for high school — and then in the afternoon, we had a job in a business to kind of give us that internship type of experience. Mine was back in my (old) elementary school library.”
That experience of working with kids in the same building where she received her formal education changed her perspective and helped her determine her future.
“Something just happened inside of me, and that’s when I decided I had to be a teacher,” Nancy said.
Nancy would go on to attend Indiana State University and earn her bachelors of science in elementary education. While in college, she said she never wavered on her decision to become an educator and eventually she made her way to Iowa and got a job with Des Moines Public Schools.
“I worked my way from classroom to administration in Des Moines,” Nancy said. “I got my master’s actually while working with Des Moines Public Schools, (taking) evening, weekend and summer classes, which is like how most people do it.
“I was a single mom at that point, and I got my masters and continued to just pursue my goals.”
After more than a decade of working in Des Moines, Nancy pursued an opportunity to become an LMC (library) director in the Newton Community School District. She has worked in town for nine years and spent the last four at Woodrow.
June 17 will be her last day and she talked about her students’ reaction to her pending departure.
“That was interesting, because right away, I had three or four sixth graders come right in and give me a hug,” Nancy said. “It’s been bittersweet in that sense. When everything you do is for kids for the last 24 years, there will be such emptiness there without that motivation.
“Some of them I’ve seen grow (up) since kindergarten and preschool all the way through sixth-grade. I’ve known these families, I know the siblings and really, my work has been my life. I don’t really have a life outside of this because my time, emotional energy and efforts went into this. This is what I’m about.”
Despite the enormous amount of heart that Nancy pours into her job, she feels that she can walk away without regret. The accomplishments of the students and staff at Woodrow under her watch have given her sense of well-being. She said test scores have gone up, her staff is a very cohesive unit and that they truly believe in the “whatever it takes” mentality the district follows for every students’ success.
“That’s what I go away with thinking: I’ve accomplished what I was here to do,” Nancy said.
She also has some sage advice for her eventual successor.
“I have the most fabulous secretary in the world, rely on her, rely on her. Keep empowering the staff. Let the staff do what they know how to do, let them use their expertise and don’t limit them. And get to know the families,” Nancy said.
“You have to know your audience, so to speak. You have to know your clientele and that’s when you are going to make the best decisions, when you know what the climate and culture of your town is — that’s vital.”
Although Nancy said she doesn’t think the significance of her decision will truly hit her until Aug. 1, which is when she usually returns to her building to prepare for the new school year, you can already tell she’s going to miss it.
“It has been an incredible privilege to work for Newton schools. Sometimes, you feel guilty about getting a paycheck because you love what you do, you love the people here, you love what this district is about and what their goals are,” Nancy said.
“There are just absolutely no regrets. It’s been nothing but a great journey to be on.”
Senior staff writer Ty Rushing may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 426, or at, firstname.lastname@example.org