"As kids get older they require more from you. Not only as an individual and as a teacher, but as a role model"

Tired of Jacksonville, Florida’s heat and humidity, Nickalas Collins returned to his hometown of Kansas City looking to reinvigorate his passion for serving the community. Today, Collins is inspiring Kansas City’s children as a 7th grade science teacher at Guadalupe Center Middle School after being placed there through the Kansas City Teacher Residency program. However, since teaching licenses do not transfer between states, Nickalas initially accepted a role in operations at Tico Productions upon his return to the community.

While representing Tico Productions at a chamber of commerce event, Nickalas connected with a Junior Achievement volunteer who raved about her own experiences in the classroom. He was intrigued by the idea of volunteering with JA. “I thought it sounded like so much fun because I love teaching. I’m used to teaching about atoms and molecules, but I could lead financial literacy too…why not?” After his first session in a third-grade classroom, he was hooked. “Anytime I could, I’d volunteer.” Nickalas also appreciated being able to pay it forward to the district he was educated in himself and how supportive his employer was. Reminiscing he said, “I was really fond of working with Kansas City, Kansas Public schools, because I was born and raised in KCK. Tico was really cool about it…they allowed me the flexibility to do the full-day program!”

While volunteering with JA, Nickalas engaged with students at every level. “I ended up teaching it all…there wasn’t one I didn’t teach, from elementary all the way up to high school programs.” This broad spectrum of experiences helped him identify an unexpected love of teaching older students. He also came to recognize the unique responsibility that came with working with young adults. “They require more from you. Not only as an individual and as a teacher, but as a role model.” Stepping up to fulfill this role allowed Nickalas to reflect on his own goals and motivations in life. Nickalas admitted that students weren’t shy when it came to trying to understand what motivates adults. “If you say you’re motivated by money, the students will ask you what you do with it. What if you did not have money? What if something else? What if? They can catch you off guard.”

During his volunteer experiences, Nickalas realized that it wasn’t the questions which were difficult so much as the introspection they required, “With the upper grades you have to put yourself in a state of vulnerability and open-mindedness to communicate with them. Older kids can see through insincerity in an instant.” But there was an upside to be found for volunteers willing to connect with the students on this level. “To make an impact on a high schooler is a little harder because it’s a different mentality. But for me, it has a greater reward.” Once engaged, older students deeply value the opportunity to see firsthand what their life could be like in just a few years. “You can tell a group of first graders all about being a doctor, and it will make an impact, but how to trace that years later is difficult. With a high schooler, they see someone who is a lawyer and DECIDE they want to do that. Their teacher and counselors’ advice are valuable, but there’s something special for the kids about directly interacting with volunteers who have a career they’re interested in.”

As a teacher himself, Nickalas is in a unique position to evaluate the strengths of the Junior Achievement curriculum and process. “The programming is meeting the new criteria for how to engage students with difficult concepts of money, community, family, taxes, government…all that stuff.” Nickalas continued to reflect on the strength of the programs he led adding, “JA curriculum uses strong linguistic and visual components. We want students to learn outside of reading and writing. We want them to create, draw, imagine, and participate in advanced problem solving. The rigor evident in JA curriculum is incredible.”

When asked who inspires his personal and professional journey, Nickalas credits two key individuals in his life. “I’m blessed to have an amazing mom. She made me do things the hard way intentionally. Because of her, I understand the power of human connections. She’s mentored a lot of people in this city, so to be able to call her my mentor is huge.” Thinking for a moment, he continued, “My other biggest mentor right now is my principal, Claudia Meyer, at Guadalupe Center Middle School. The first time I met her, as she was giving me a tour of the school, she said “I’m going to tell you right now, I’m a badass Latina.” Those were her exact words. That is when I knew I was home, and she proves it every day. Those kids love her.”

His own role-models have taught him important lessons. He offered up one of his favorite takeaways saying, “You’re never the smartest person in the room. If you are, it means you have nothing left to learn. You MUST keep learning. Be a sponge…absorb everything!” Nickalas suggests kids look for three qualities in mentors for their own lives. “Find people who have the cross between being persistent, having grit, and being relentless.”  For Nickalas, this sets Junior Achievement apart, “Elsewhere, it’s all about the now. With JA, the now is inseparable from the future. There’s interconnectedness.” Wisdom like this is one of the most valuable things volunteers bring to JA students. Hearing about volunteers’ paths and experiences gives children invaluable insight into what it takes to become a successful adult.

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