Rick Nielsen doesn’t call himself a superintendent.
“I loved being a school teacher and I still call myself a teacher,” Nielsen said. “When people ask me what I am, I most often say I am a teacher or an educator.”
Nielsen, the superintendent of the Nebo School District, now has another title to add to that list — the 2020 Utah Superintendent of the Year.
Nielsen has led the district since 2010, gets choked up when speaking about the district’s students and has Zotz on his desk as a tie-in to the district’s 2019 theme, Discover the Power Within.
He’s taken the theme to heart. Nielsen was walking through a school when he ran into a student who struggled with going to class. Nielsen stopped to talk to the boy, and explained that like a Zotz candy, the students has power inside them. Later, he used the lesson on a second child who resisted the classroom.
“It is just so touching that there’s two kids who I know were struggling, that given the message of Discover the Power Within and Zotz has got them engaged in and involved in school,” Nielsen said.
In addition to being a superintendent, Nielsen is also a member of the Utah County Board of Health, is on the Utah Valley University Board of Trustees, is the chair of the Brigham Young University Public School Partnership, is a co-chair of the UVU Mountainland Technical College K-16 Alliance and was recently on the board of the Nebo Credit Union. He’s also the president of the Utah School Superintendents Association and is on the Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce’s education committee, among other roles.
His days stay busy.
His award doesn’t come as a surprise to those who work around him.
“He is a remarkable individual,” said Duff Thompson, the chair of the UVU Board of Trustees.
Thompson is glad Nielsen is on the university’s governing board, and said the superintendent has invaluable experience.
“He brings a perspective that no one else does,” Thompson said.
Nielsen sees his different community roles as a way to give the district a voice in different settings, but to a point.
“I will never sacrifice my family to serve in other capacities, and I will not sacrifice Nebo School District or my effectiveness as a leader,” Nielsen said.
It’s a position Nielsen never intended to have. He was an assistant superintendent when the job opened, applied and then decided that no matter what happened, he was going to dedicate himself to being the best assistant superintendent he could be.
“I honestly do not think I would have been disappointed if I hadn’t been selected for that,” he said.
Nielsen said he’s honored to be recognized, but said the award is mostly a tribute to the district and the community.
“I just have the humble privilege of being the man who gets the handshake and the plaque,” Nielsen said. “In all honesty, I wish that every employee and every student and everybody involved with Nebo School District got every congratulatory email and every handshake and every pat on the back. Leadership in organizations like this don’t get recognitions if everyone else isn’t doing good things.”
Despite the awards and duties, Nielsen jokes that students don’t know who the superintendent is. He said it’s the people they interact with daily who are making the direct differences in their lives.
“Kids care about the people who are providing the service to them day to day to day,” Nielsen said. “No kid goes to bed worried about who their superintendent is, and I am reminded of that every day of my life. I am here to remove barriers from the people who serve students. That is my job.”