Former LHS teacher takes familiar support role

Jim Nicholl (middle), a teacher at Lakeview High School for 20 years, has taken on a new role at schools working with kids as the Lake County Justice Department’s Youth Investment Coordinator.

After 20 year of teaching at Lakeview High School Jim Nicholl was ready for a change, now he finds himself in a new role on familiar grounds.

A beloved physical education instructor and soccer coach, following the graduation of his youngest daughter and facing the prospects of being an empty-nester, the Nicholl family considered their future options. A chance encounter set in motion a new career path, making a difference in children’s lives the way he always has, roaming the same school halls he did before -- now as the Youth Investment Coordinator for the Lake County Justice Department.

Earlier this year Nicholl struck up a conversation with Grady Vandenberg, a probation officer who worked often with Youth Investment Coordinator Mike Patterson at Lake County’s three high schools. Patterson was leaving the position, and the prospect of working with kids in schools across Lake County beyond his job at LHS was immediately appealing to Nicholl.

“I had seen Patty Barnhart in the building for years, she held the job for 16 years, but I didn’t really know what she did,” explained Nicholl. “I met with Jake Greer (Lake County Corrections Director), and just started going through the process unsure of what it would look like to make a transition after 20 years of teaching. The more I looked at it, the more I liked it.”

Nicholl received support in the job change from school administrators, albeit sad to see him leave the teaching ranks. Now Nicholl finds himself still roaming the same halls each day interacting with kids, but without a classroom his task is not based on grades or any substantive measure of testing, but what steps he can take each day to make sure that kids know that they are cared about, listened to, and supported.

The job task is largely up to Nicholl to define for himself with little oversight, working one-on-one or in small groups to form supportive relationships as a person that students can trust for a heartfelt conversation one minute, and a pick-up basketball game the next. He spends time at all three Lake County high schools, working with administrators and middle and high school students to offer a nonjudgmental open ear, soft shoulder, and sharp wit.

“My favorite part of teaching was always developing relationships with kids, and I thought this job had the opportunity to do even more of that,” said Nicholl. “It doesn’t have classroom management, it’s all about getting to know kids, and that’s what I really enjoy – celebrating good things in their lives, being a part of their lives, and keeping in touch with them after they have left.”

In a sense Nicholl serves as an unaffiliated branch of the popular mentor program by proxy, tasked daily with simply being a positive friend to all and to help softly guide kids on a path to success. It is a job that comes naturally to Nicholl, who revels in high-fives and quick jokes with nearly every student he encounters between classes, doing little daily positive things that can add up to a making a big difference.

Implementation of his role has taken months, from training events and seeking advice from other county programs, to establishing relationships at Paisley and North Lake schools where he admittedly didn’t have the same connections, understandably so, as at LHS.

While the Lake County Youth Mentor Program has already established a female student support council, called the GoGirls Program, under the One Circle Foundation, Nicholl is preparing a similarly structured council for male students. He is also prepping summer programs for daytrips or overnight excursions to learn outdoor skills and participate in fun activities. He has already taken students rock climbing, hiking, biking, and played disc golf, among many more. He has approached administrators about being an advisor on school field trips. He also tries to get kids connected to their community through volunteer efforts, including the explorer program in Lake County Search and Rescue.

“So much of it is just time spent listening to kids, everyone wants to know they are cared about and supported,” said Nicholl. “The challenges of being a youth today in society are so different from what they were when I went through school, and those make it really difficult for kids to feel good about themselves today. I am blown away at how resilient kids are with some of the challenges they face, and rise above, that I didn’t know about when I was teaching. To be a part of that journey with them is amazing.”

There has been adjustment to the job, as no longer being a teacher Nicholl is not seen as an authoritative role as much as support. He admits sometimes it’s hard to listen and not want to interject advice the way a teacher might do so. Now instead he uses motivational techniques to help students reflect on their own lives and set goals, more focused on character than success.

Whether or not Nicholl has been successful in his efforts may not be noticeable for years to come, but he remains undaunted to change lives a little every day through kindness and supportive friendship. He has stepped aside from coaching sports, though he did assist LHS girls soccer early in the fall season, as the rigors of the job proved too great. It takes time to be every student’s friend, but for Nicholl it just comes with the job.

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