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Wheeler named state's counselor of the year

Colleagues congratulate Rick Wheeler (center). Left to right are Amy Mares, school psychologist, Charlie Black, counselor, and Ellen Rademacher, counselor. Black and Rademacher introduced Wheeler at the awards dinner at Maddens Resort during the Minnesota School Counselors Association (MSCA) Spring Conference. (Photo submitted)

When Charlie Black and Ellen Rademacher wrote a letter nominating Rick Wheeler for the counselor of the year award, they described him as a "silly, little, fun-loving guy who seems to know everyone." They said he always has a smile on his face and that people are drawn to him.

But there is so much more to the man who has been part of the middle school for 25 years.

Black and Rademacher also described him as "wickedly smart," and they said he is someone with a deep understanding of the adolescent mind, and, equally important, the mind of the parents of adolescent.

Last week, Wheeler was selected the Minnesota Middle/Junior High School Counselor of the Year.

"The silly part you have to include," said Rademacher. "That's why he so appealing and so approachable to the kids.

But there is so much more.

"He's been my mentor," said Rademacher. "He's so smart, so intelligent, wise and understanding of middle school kids."

According to the counselors and Principal Mark Zuzek, the recognition could not have happened to a better person.

"School counselors have a difficult and important job to do when everything is going well and smooth," said Zuzek. "They are an essential part of creating and maintaining a positive culture and climate in the school as a whole. When things go wrong emotionally, academically, socially, or personally for a student, they play a leadership role in getting the child what the need to succeed and thrive.

"Mr. Wheeler being recognized as the MSCA Middle Level Counselor of the Year illustrates appropriate recognition for what he has done and continues to do for kids at Hastings Middle School. He balances an enthusiastic and welcoming spirit with a professional and empathetic manner."

Zuzek said Wheeler has served the school for 25 years, adapting to the ever-changing needs of kids and the community along the way.

"He cares deeply about the children in his care... and they know it," he said.

Wheeler said he followed his own advice in becoming a counselor choosing a career.

"Find something you can do, find something you love, and can make money," he said. "Early in college, I want to a camp which was for kids with diabetes, and I loved working with the kids."

That first led him into teaching - "that was the pathway back then," he said. "You had to teach three years before being considered for grad schools."

So he taught fourth and fifth grades, then went to graduate school for his master's degree.

The death of his father at an early age also impacted him.

"It was about never taking anything for granted," said Wheeler. "I owed it to my mom, that sense of responsibility."

Wheeler was an elementary counselor for eight years in New Hampshire, then he and his wife came to the Midwest.

As he was looking for employment, the first call in 1989 was from then Hastings Junior High School Principal Lenny Schwartz.

"I talked to people at River Falls and they said, 'take it,'" he said.

He accepted the job and is still here 25 years later.

As for the recognition, he acknowledged it is wonderful. But, it has been a tough year for Hastings schools with the death of young students.

"I view this as testament to (the people) all around me," he said. "We are not alone."

Counselors do four things that are often unnoticed and always underappreciated, according to Zuzek.

"Counselors provide students with the time and space to unload their emotional baggage so that their hearts and minds are ready for learning. Without this key activity, teachers are unable to get kids to emotionally stressed kids to focus on their learning.

"They use educational testing data to get kids in the right classes and interventions for their individual needs. Without this task, kids will either flounder in struggle, or go unchallenged in school. They sometimes understand the child as a learner as well as the child's parents do.

"They are frequently relying on the professional credibility and trust that they have established with their teaching peers when they serve as an advocate for challenging students who need their assistance.

"They provide the emotional safety that is a prerequisite to having children tell adults important information. Kids will only report abuse, dangerous situations, bullying, harassment, neglect, or wrong-doing if they know that there is an adult that will care and that the adult will do something about it."

Black has been a counselor for eight years at the middle school. A Hastings native, he recalled that Wheeler was his counselor when he attended school. In addition to colleagues, they are now good friends.

"He is constantly entertaining - there is never a dull moment," said Black. "He's fun-loving, kind-hearted. But he knows how to get down to business with the students, which is so important with the middle school."

"He's compassionate and understanding," said Black. "He knows the importance of family, friends and working hard."

In addition to being so well-respected and liked at Hastings, Wheeler is well-known through the profession.

"He has tons of connections around the state," said Black. "He is so well-known."

Black said Wheeler is very family-oriented, being a devoted son, husband and father to two daughters.

He is also a very active man, having participated in 25 marathons, and 25 Birkebeiner Nordic ski races.

The two have attended concerts, gone fishing together, and to other events.

"To think when I came here eight years ago, one of my best friends would a 60-year-old," said Black.

Wheeler is a big part of the community, Rademacher said.

"He is a committed and valued member of the community," she said. "He goes beyond the school day to build those relationships. He's amazing"

Zuzek agreed.

"Rick Wheeler is a good friend, a wise and talented counselor, a fabulous employee and a trusted colleague," he said."We are fortunate to have him working at Hastings Middle School and I am honored to know him and am proud of him."