When first-year Woodrow Wilson Elementary principal Deb Nauerth first moved to Manhattan from Raleigh, N.C., she had no idea about the influential person she was about to meet.
The 1979-80 school year at Woodrow Wilson introduced her to Leona Velen, her third-grade teacher. The first teacher in Manhattan would prove to be the most memorable for Nauerth.
“She was very inspiring, very positive yet she pushed me hard to take on challenging tasks and things I didn’t think I was capable of,” Nauerth said.
Nauerth said she wants to let Woodrow Wilson students know that they also have great potential in them, using the example of herself as an elementary school student.
“I never in a million years would have imagined I would be sitting at this desk as the principal of Woodrow Wilson when I was sitting at a classroom desk all those years ago,” she said.
When she was a student at Woodrow Wilson, Nauerth said her favorite memories were in Miss Velen’s class when the teacher read Little House on the Prairie books.
The class would do whatever the characters were doing in the book.
“Obviously they didn’t have electricity, so she would shut off all of our lights and light an oil lantern,” she said. “When they were dipping candles in the book, she taught us how to hand dip candles.”
As principal at Woodrow Wilson, Nauerth said her favorite moments so far have been the hugs, smiles and high-fives she receives from the children. She said she looks forward to making more moments.
“It’s exciting to be able to be a part of the memories being made here,” she said. “I know I have carried mine with me through my entire life.”
Using Velen’s influence, Nauerth describes herself as a hands-on principal. She said she wants to be seen by the students whether it’s wiping down tables in the cafeteria, dancing with them or participating in P.E. activities.
“I want them to understand that their growth and development academically and socially is important to me,” she said.
As the students continue to grow academically, Nauerth does as well. She is currently going for her Ph.D at K-State after getting her bachelor’s and master’s from the university. “I tell the kiddos just like them, I have homework too,” she said.
Nauerth, in her 17th year in education, spent last year as the Amanda Arnold Elementary assistant principal and spent previous years working as a gifted facilitator around various schools in the Manhattan area.
In the summer of 2000, Nauerth contacted Velen at a Lindsborg retirement home to thank her for the inspiration.
“She still had that same tenacity and energy she always did,” Nauerth said.
Velen died in January 2001. Nauerth said she wished she had more time as an adult to spend with Velen but was thankful for the time she did have.
“She was very thankful for the visit and she said I hope when you’re on the downside of life that you too are blessed with a student who thanks you,” Nauerth said.
When Nauerth received the Kansas Master Teacher award in 2008, she got to see her name on a plaque along with Velen, who won the award in 1972. And of course, Nauerth still carries Velen’s lessons as well as the feelings she had as a student.
“I hope I can help teachers recognize the power and influence they have on their students,” she said. “The incredible power they have to build hope and instill work ethic by having high expectations.”
Nauerth said she’s fortunate to be principal at Woodrow Wilson because not many get to come back to their old school.
“It’s a full circle to come back,” she said. “I couldn’t be happier.”