LAURENS - Nancy Kunickis always knew she wanted to be a teacher.
But what she may not have known was that her love and enthusiasm for the profession she entered 31 years ago would land her among the ranks of Iowa's best educators.
After reviewing seven letters of nomination from parents, former students and community members, the Iowa State Education Association named Kunickis, a middle school language arts teacher at Laurens-Marathon, the recipient of the 11th annual Excellence in Education Award.
"I feel so honored," said Kunickis. "I was just shocked to learn that I had won this award. It's nice to know the work I have done as a teacher has touched so many lives."
Kunickis, a Laurens native, began her teaching career in the Rolfe Community School District in 1978. After six years in Rolfe, she returned to Laurens where she has taught fourth grade, resource and currently middle school.
"At first I thought I just wanted to teach elementary," said Kunickis. "But I truly enjoy teaching in the middle school. They're a unique group of kids."
Co-workers and parents of former students praised Kunickis in their letters of nomination for her willingness to go above and beyond as a teacher.
"She always places high priority on students' success," said Julie Meyer, a co-worker of Kunickis, in her nomination. "She often will take extra time with students who are struggling. She checks assignment books, writes notes to parents and meets with parents in order to provide the accommodations students need in order to be successful. She is a perfect example of the caring professional that puts kids first every day and every year."
Kunickis and her husband, Ken Kunickis, also coach the speech and drama teams at Laurens-Marathon High School. The Kunickis' took over the program eight years ago when it was declining in participation and administrators were considering cutting the program altogether. With Kunickis' efforts, the speech program has gone from nearly nonexistent to being an all-state choral reading champion.
Nancy Kunickis often takes historic events such as the Vietnam War and the current war in Iraq and turns real life accounts of the conflicts into choral readings for the speech team. One such reading, called "58,000 names, which was about the Vietnam War, received straight division "I" ratings at state. The team also performed the selection in Washington, D.C. This year, Kunickis created a piece called "The Saddest Acre," for the speech team to perform. It is based on the story of five mothers, whose sons are buried in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery. One of those mothers, Beth Belle, whom Kunickis has never met in person, also submitted a nomination for the award.
"I have never had the privilege to meet the woman I am writing to you about," Belle said in her nomination. "But she has touched my heart deeply."
Kunickis credits much of her success as an educator to the influence of her stepfather, Harvey Burnham, who was a teacher, and the late Dan Braunschweig, who died of cancer in 2007 while serving as superintendent of Laurens-Marathon Schools.
"When I think of people who inspire, I think of Dan," she said. "He was an inspiration to all of us to put kids first. He was there to encourage and praise and played a part in helping me to become a better teacher and person."
Kunickis will be recognized along with the four runners-up for the award at a banquet at the Iowa Hall of Pride in Des Moines on Oct. 20.
"I've worked with a lot of good educators," she said. "I wish we all could have won this award; my husband, co-workers and the town. Education takes a lot of people working together for the good of the kids."
Contact Emilie Nelson at (515) 573-2141 or firstname.lastname@example.org