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Principal Keith Nemlich: The Thoughtful Leader

By December 4, 2019November 26th, 2021K-12 Teachers, Star School Leader

Keith Nemlich was once the lead technology administrator for a school near his hometown. Now as a principal, Mr. Nemlich views technology as a way to open doors that may otherwise be closed to kids from a rural environment.

Along the same line of uplifting those often left behind, Principal Nemlich often supports the community of Central Elementary School in Bellows Falls, VT by taking on responsibilities that may be beyond the purview of a typical school administrator. His caring involvement in the well-being of his students centers him as a resource that can be trusted by teachers and learners alike.

This is the penultimate spotlight in a series of twelve, in which we feature the winning recipients of Kiddom’s annual Star School Leader Award. Look for the next one over the coming months by signing up for our newsletter.

Principal Keith Nemlich describes his job in a way that may contradict the closest and most common perceptions of it: “My job is to reduce stress—for my teachers, and for the support staff, and for the students,” he says. “If there’s any more stress brought in, that impacts learning, teacher performance, and everything else.”

Unlike a handful of the Star School Leaders featured before him, (and droves of principals across the nation), Mr. Nemlich does not have a class to teach. Still, one of many methods he uses to relieve stress around his community is to maintain a consistent presence in every classroom. “Quite honestly one of my concerns about becoming a school administrator was that I would just sit not in an office and lose that contact with students. But the size of the school gives me the chance as principal to connect with kids on a regular basis.”

Each morning, Principal Nemlich drives an hour out to Central Elementary School, a K-4 school where 65% of the population receives free/reduced lunch. In Keith’s words, many students have come to view the school as a haven: “When they get here in the morning, they are genuinely happy to be in school. And we just thrive off of that energy and give ourselves a wide berth for having fun.”

What makes Principal Nemlich a remarkable leader is his willingness to share the same ground as his staff, orienting himself to face the same obstacles and triumphs. “I bet if you ask the kids, you’ll find that there’s probably five or six other people that they will name —‘Oh yeah, that’s the principal’—simply because it’s a very much of shared leadership environment.” This closeness also allows staff members to take the lead in fields that nurture their own passions, making sure every teacher has the space to give the best of themselves to the community.

Building Community Around Turmoil

For Keith, the work of empowering others to become leaders does not stop at the staff level. He is most proud of the fact that his school secured funding to become the first official “Leader In Me” school in Vermont. Based on the ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ by Stephen Covey, the program imparts the same values on K-4 students as it offers to corporate leaders.

“That’s huge because a lot of these kids, as early as kindergarten, have to become their own biggest advocates,” Keith says. “We’ve got a lot of kids in families of tremendous turmoil, and they’re the ones that are going to have to keep their ships afloat. It’s really about giving them a framework and tools to help them with that process.”

As much as he appreciates consistency within the program, Keith emulates it by encouraging students and teachers to rise to a sense of responsibility to each other, to their families, and to their community.

“Mr. Keith Nemlich is a principal who truly prioritizes children’s needs. He is a caring, compassionate, thoughtful, inspiring leader who models patience, persistence and playfulness.”

— Judy Verespy, 1st grade teacher at Central Elementary School, VT

As a Common Core school, Central Elementary is held to performance standards that are somewhat removed from the community they have built. Added to that is another layer to which many schools can probably relate: “Our kids don’t come in at the starting line. In many cases, they come in about 20 steps behind the starting line. For a lot of kids, it’s almost like constant catch up.”

In other environments, this strain might detract from the satisfaction of teaching and learning. But again, the strength and size of the community ensures that students are there for each other. “Nobody really feels behind everybody else. It’s just business as usual. That makes for a very comfortable environment. These kids really know each other, and care about each other.”

The innately familiar bonds that kids form with each other must be modeled somewhere. It’s likely that they learned to view each other as complete and complex beings as a result of Principal Neimlich’s leadership. On a daily basis, he’s making decisions and interventions that affect students far beyond the classroom.

“Every day you come in and it can be just about anything. Yesterday, our septic lines backed up and we had to get the plumbers and clean out the lines. Or it might be helping parents understand how to interpret testing results from a school psychologist. Just about everything and anything to helping a kid tie their shoes. You know that it’s really the the full gamut every day. And I really love that. And just watching the kids grow.”

“I’m very fortunate to work where I work. It’s a community is very different from my hometown, and it’s a very different school than where I had just come from as the tech administrator. But it’s the kind of place where you come in every day and feel like you make a difference.”

— Principal Keith Nemlich, Central Elementary School, VT

Opening Doors with Technology 

Principal Nemlich’s career began with a strong interest in the intersection of technology and education. He began as a middle school math teacher, and then gravitated toward a role as technology administrator. “Every couple of years my super superintendent would call me into the office and say, ‘When are you really going to get serious about this stuff?’ Which was their way of trying to get me to think about becoming an administrator.”

Eventually, the technology administrator role was removed from the school budget, in an effort to consolidate services throughout the district. This prompted Keith to look for a role as principal, but he never left behind his passion for technology:

“The thing that’s so promising about technology is that it holds the potential to be sort of the great equalizer in education and public education. Technology holds the promise of allowing a kid in rural Vermont to receive the same experience in regards to technology as a kid growing up in a more affluent area.”

–Principal Keith Nemlich, Central Elementary School, VT

To Keith, it’s not just the jobs of tomorrow that students should be concerned about. He’s seen firsthand how a lack of experience with technology can put professionals behind in their search: “My wife is a human resources professional. And she can say very clearly, contact with computer equipment on any level is like the biggest determiner for her. There’s so much extra training that they would have to do in order to feel comfortable.”

Within education, Principal Nemlich has applied this knowledge to implementing technology at any school he works with: “It’s not about devices and you know, I can’t put any more time in our day. So we have to be very mindful of the tradeoffs between resources.”

Even better than tradeoffs are the chances one gets to develop or gain more than one skill. In communicating change to parents, Keith often finds himself praising technology for its ability to promote what he calls double learning: “If your child is working on an essay for school and they’re writing on a device, they’re working on their writing skills but they’re also working on their computer skills and those are both real, marketable skills. And they really do need to be taught. Because while kids may have a lot of exposure to other technology, they aren’t going home to play around with spreadsheets.”

Recap: What Makes a Star School Leader?

Great school leaders empower their teachers. What teachers do is one of the most difficult, and often thankless jobs. And while we all agree that teachers are the true heroes of every school system, it takes a special kind of leader to enable their teachers with the right support to focus on the important things. Like teaching.

The Star School Leader rubric stands on three pillars, hanging from one common theme:

  1.  Empowering others by setting a positive attitude, culture, and environment.
  2.  Empowering others with the right use of technology as a means and not an end.
  3.  Empowering others through supportive coaching and access to professional development.

To read about the rest of the Star School Leaders, visit our recipient announcement page.


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