One professor's road trip through education

Eighteen years later as an educator and leader, Nick Pace, an associate professor in  educational leadership and postsecondary education, knows he's made the right decision. But his journey didn't start in education. As a '92 graduate of UNI with a sociology degree, he went on to work for the Missouri Department of Mental Health in Kansas City, Mo. He worked with people with severe mental illnesses to help them manage their daily lives. He was heartbroken and inspired at the same time seeing the obstacles they faced.

Professor Nick Pace
UNI associate professor Nick Pace has an extensive background in education - from coaching basketball and teaching middle and high school social studies to being a principal and current coordinator of UNI's principalship program.

Pace remembers precisely the exact moment he knew he wanted a change – it was at a red stoplight at 47th and Main in Kansas City. As much as he loved parts of his job, he wanted to teach and work with youth who didn't see their full potential, but could still seize the opportunities that so many of his clients would never have.

He went back to school and earned his teaching certificate, coached basketball and taught middle and high school social studies. He earned his master's degree in '97 and went on to be a principal at North Tama High School in Traer, Iowa.

Reflecting back, Pace says the role of a principal has changed drastically. Years ago, the principal was seen as the "hammer" or the manager, someone to keep things in line. But now it's really more about being able to provide instructional leadership for teachers to teach more effectively.

Principals today not only have to excel at the day-to-day managerial tasks and in instructional leadership, but they also need to cultivate a healthy learning environment. As Pace says, it's no easy task with an ever-changing school environment that now includes issues associated with bullying and harassment, immigration, sexual orientation, poverty, and the like.

It was Pace's work as a principal at North Tama that inspired his research interests in gay and lesbian issues in schools. His research includes the school experiences of eight kids who were openly gay and lesbian in high school. He wrote "The Principal’s Challenge: Learning from Gay and Lesbian Students" to share what he had learned with other educators who were in similar positions---having never thought about gay and lesbian issues and their role in serving all students.

He tells students who are struggling in school to not let others or circumstances define them. "You've got gifts, worth, value and potential the rest of the world may be slow to recognize. Be tenacious and resourceful."

He returned to UNI in 2000 and worked as a student teaching coordinator. Pace drove more than 2,500 miles a month all over 18 school districts observing, placing and evaluating student teachers, and providing instructional leadership to teachers. During this time, he also earned his Ed.D. in educational leadership from UNI in 2005.

Pace is currently the coordinator of UNI's principalship program. The program is organized in cohorts of 15 to 20 students who work full time in schools from all over the state—from Davenport to Spirit Lake, Dubuque to Council Bluffs. The program is completed through a blend of face-to-face, online classes and videoconferencing.

"Coming into Ed Leadership felt right – and the chance to do it at a place that has been a part of my wife's and my life since we were 18 years old has been special," says Pace.

"You've got gifts, worth, value and potential the rest of the world may be slow to recognize. Be tenacious and resourceful."

"I’ve never been a part of a team that is better than UNI's Ed Leadership program right now," says Pace. "The personal and professional relationships our faculty develop with students are inspiring. My colleagues are incredible and credible. We’ve all been there as principals and superintendents."

He credits UNI students as another reason UNI's program is so strong. "They come with such passion and desire to be difference makers," says Pace. "They’re consistently the best and brightest educators in their districts, involved in everything…and they want to lead on top of all that. They’re tenacious and serious about making schools better for students."

It's that passion and need for real life experiences that inspired Pace to write his second book, "The Principal’s Hot Seat: Observing Real-World Dilemmas."

The idea for the book stemmed from a role-play exercise Pace does with his students in the principalship program at UNI. Students act as principals in a mock situation and people come to see them about a variety of issues. It’s totally unscripted -- nothing’s out of bounds -- just like reality in the principal’s office. The students have to listen, respond, deescalate and try to come up with action plans moving forward.

As the education landscape continues to evolve, how does Pace approach such challenges?

Pace goes back to his days as a UNI basketball player. (Pace was a member of the 1990 NCAA Tournament team.)

Pace says, "I'll never forget something Coach Eldon Miller told us. Our team was struggling and we were in Detroit for a game in 1991. It happened to be the eve of the Gulf War. He told us that with the war starting, people were preparing to die. And we had a ball game to play. We don’t have any real problems,” he said. "That taught me perspective."

"One of my favorite sayings is from New York Yankees great Reggie Jackson. He said, 'A great manager has a knack for making the ballplayers think they’re better than they are.' He’s talking about self-efficacy and that’s something we talk a lot about in education. It’s not about unrealistically building people up or phony, empty praise. But if I can convince students that they’ve got the capacity, the skills, the toughness, they’re halfway there. "