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WSHS Teacher Ryan Nelson Honored as Rising Star Under 40

10/18/2019 3:47 pm

West Salem High School social studies teacher Ryan Nelson was recently honored as a "Rising Star under 40" by the 7 Rivers Alliance. He received this honor for making a positive difference within the community. Read more about Ryan and his contributions below and click here to read the Tribune article. We are very lucky to have him as a member of our staff here at the School District of West Salem! 

Congratulations on being recognized as a dynamic young leader in the 7 Rivers Region. Why do you believe you were nominated for this recognition and were you surprised?:
Was I surprised that I was nominated? Yes. Was I surprised that a nominee came from the School District of West Salem? No. I am the beneficiary of a wonderful educational system and a supportive working environment. I am as strong as I am because of my stronger colleagues and students who support and lead in their own right every day. To my predecessors in West Salem and to my current colleagues, friends, and students: This is for you and because of you. My name appears above because listing the colleagues and students who have made a difference and have inspired me every day would take too much space. 

My work with West Salem High School's acclaimed Senior Exit Project (SEP) earns recognition state-wide, but I am just one part of a larger team--a team that blazed the trail and did the hard work long before I arrived. And talk about the hundreds of students who have passionately and innovatively lived their dreams through their projects...you deserve this, not me.

My work with our high school leadership council, based off the mission of Minnesota-based Youth Frontiers, also garners media coverage. But, again, the students have done the work, from planning local Unity Day activities to combat bullying to creating an intergenerational video at a local assisted living facility. Further, our work to help the De Soto Area School District and the De Soto community recover from devastating flooding a couple of years ago and our work to raise more than $15,000 for the American Cancer Society over the past several years are reflections of West Salem students' unwavering passion and the West Salem community's selfless heart. Thank you. 

What is your proudest professional accomplishment?:
When I was a child, my parents taught me to always do what is right, even when no one is watching. It is a lesson that I carry with me every day. I have been fortunate in my short career; I really have. With respect to the accolades that I have received, people must have watched me at the right times because, believe me, I have made mistakes; I have made mistakes every day. But I have grown from them. My mom always says, "We are as smart as we are for all of our mistakes." And I certainly have had many opportunities for reflection.

That said, my proudest professional accomplishments relate to my "what," my "whom," and my "why."

When I was awarded the 2018 Herb Kohl Teacher Fellowship and became a finalist for Wisconsin Teacher of the Year, I was honored because I was recognized for my effective teaching in and out of the classroom...my what. What I do is teach. And teaching results in a check.

When I was awarded the 2017 Ashley for the Arts Humanitarian Award, in a surprise ceremony at West Salem High School that I will never forget,  I was honored because it meant that my team and I were making a difference in our community...my whom. Whom I serve is the community. The community provides the check.

But when I was voted commencement speaker by the West Salem High School Class of 2015, I was honored because the accolade reflected the deep relationships that we had built that year...my why. Why I teach is because of my students. My students are the true payment for my work, not the check.

I am proudest of my relationships that I have built with my students, relationships that I will cherish forever.

Please tell us what community and volunteer activities you're involved with-and why?
I am a believer in the strength of modeling. As a teacher, I cannot expect my students to do something if I do not do it first or if I do not do it with them. We have to be the change we wish to see in the world, right?

In the fall of 2018, I enjoyed volunteering with West Salem High School students to provide flood relief to the communities of La Farge, Ontario, and Sparta. The power of Mother Nature was awe-inspiring, and the damage was horrific, but I believe that our students learned more that day by shoveling gravel than they could in days in the classroom reading a book. I also have been humbled by volunteering with our students at the Salvation Army and providing relief to our community neighbors on some of their darkest days. Finally, this past spring, I appreciated working with West Salem students to raise money for West Salem's newly created community assistance and disaster relief funds.

The idea of service is strong in West Salem and core to our mission. 

Tell us what inspired you to be a leader in your organization and in your community:
As most teachers will say, I had wonderful teachers as a child who inspired me to carry on their good work in my own classroom. From Hamilton Elementary School, as it was known then, to Lincoln Middle School to Central High School, thank you, teachers and all school staff, for showing me how to make a difference; I have not forgotten you, and your influence still guides me today. As I look beyond my childhood, I am forever indebted to my mentors in the School District of La Crosse for providing me with the opportunities and advice in college that helped set the foundation for the professional that I am today.

I would be remiss if I did not credit Viterbo University and its wonderful education programs for further shaping my professional career. More significantly, however, I thank Viterbo University and its people, at every level, for teaching me to lead a life of compassion and service. I will never forget the compassion that every Viterbo employee demonstrated when my father passed away in 2008; you taught me to do the same for my students. Thank you.

I further credit my Sparta colleagues and friends for my progression as a professional educator. Of course, I must acknowledge the role that my past and present West Salem colleagues have played in my personal and professional growth. You have consistently challenged me and pushed me to improve in every way. Thank you. I am proud to "Serve with Passion to Ignite Creativity, Innovation, and Excellence" with you.

Most importantly, though, I thank my parents, Linda and Dick Nelson, for making all of this possible. Mom and Dad, you made innumerable sacrifices so that I could have opportunities that you did not, and you supported me every step of the way as I pursued my dreams. You taught me how to be a good person. You taught me to fight for others. Every accolade that I receive is a reflection of your parenting and the work ethic and morals that you instilled in me. I accept this award in memory of my late father, my best friend. This one's for you, Dad.

What advice would you offer younger leaders to aid their success?:
Find your why. What is your calling? Choose a career, a true vocation, that you are passionate about, not just one that you are good at.

Remember to have fun. There will be tough times, stressful times, and times when you feel like quitting, but always strive to look for the positive and bring the fun. Life, as they say, is too short.

Listen to the more experienced, but be bold enough to blaze your own path. Take risks. Make mistakes. Reflect. The most powerful tool that you have at your disposal, both personally and professionally, is reflection. Strive for personal improvement every day, but only compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to others.

But recognize that you need others. Individual success always starts with positive relationships; everything good in life starts with positive relationships. Individual success is impossible without a strong team because everything is made easier with a broad support system. It is important to work hard, but it is more important to love hard. Today, as America becomes increasingly divided, never lose sight of our oneness as a human race; we are more alike than we are different. Be organized. Be punctual. Be an effective communicator. But, above all, be a human first. Always be a human first. And recognize that others are humans first, too. As Ellen DeGeneres says, "Be kind to one another." Success will come, but it will not matter if you lose people along the way.

Above all, though, remember where you came from, whether it was a place or a position. My mom taught me that, too. Do not let success go to your head. Understand that it is not all about you; it never was, and it never will be. Appreciate the custodians. Thank the administrative assistants. Value the paraprofessionals. Cherish the nutritional services workers. In my vocation, they are the most important people, aside from the students. One of the best jobs that I ever had was that of a substitute teacher assistant. That is where I come from. And in that position, I came to understand the big picture: We are all in this together. Titles do not matter; what matters, what matters more than anything else, is how you treat people. As Maya Angelou said, "...people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." Make them feel appreciated.

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