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Spirit of Rowan: Principal Nicole Buckner ignites passion at Koontz Elementary

Nicole Buckner did not arrive in North Carolina until she went to college.

She was born in Atlanta and grew up in Conyers, Georgia. She landed in North Carolina to play lacrosse and study at St. Andrews University.

“I loved it,” Buckner said. “It is a very small, quaint private school.”

Buckner, 31, graduated with an elementary education degree and later earned an administration add-on from Queens University of Charlotte.

When she finished her undergraduate degree, she went on to become a third-grade teacher in Laurinburg and student-taught briefly before moving back to Conyers to teach there for a couple years.

In 2015, Buckner got her first district-level job with another system. In 2016, she got her first true administrative job with Rowan-Salisbury Schools, shortly after her daughter was born. She was made principal at Koontz Elementary School in 2019.

She decided to get into education because she loved making an impact on and advocating for kids is her passion.

She did not have an education background growing up. Her parents are both engineers, but she gained a passion for service through Girl Scouts. She loved working with children as a camp counselor and working with them on community projects.

When she started college, she was interested in working with older kids, but working with elementary-age kids as an undergraduate gave her an appreciation for molding kids in that age group.

She became a teacher who worked to train others, even students who were finishing undergraduate degrees.

“My favorite thing is impacting people and serving them,” Buckner said.

She feels service that benefits children is her calling and is watching Koontz become a passionate place.

“It’s a whole community of this growth and passion and love of learning,” Buckner said. “That’s what motivates me every day.”

The hope is students are coming to school to learn more than information and that they are also learning interpersonal skills, how to cope with emotions, build relationships and experience a nurturing and safe place.

The school always wants to lay a groundwork for students to peak their interests so they can start thinking about what they want to do with their lives. Buckner said students are motivated to learn when they see connections between what they are learning, their passions and real life.

“In elementary school they’re not really sure what they want to be when they grow up,” Buckner said. “But our hope is we can find a passion or ignite a fire in them.”

Working with new teachers led her to administration, and now Koontz is becoming a lab school to develop new teachers.

The school has a new position for the lab, which is being funded through a major federal grant RSS was awarded to accelerate its renewal programs. Buckner said taking on the lab school model is more thrilling than intimidating.

“I think it’s a game changer,” Buckner said, adding the program could change the level of readiness of first-year teachers by getting soon-to-be-minted educators in the school full time before they have their own classrooms.

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