Maureen Nickels named UNK College of Education Distinguished Educator of the Year

KEARNEY – Maureen (Gaffney) Nickels of Grand Island has been selected as the 2023 UNK College of Education Distinguished Educator of the Year.

She will be honored at the 43rd annual Distinguished Alumni Awards luncheon, scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Sept. 29 in the Nebraskan Student Union Ponderosa Room. Tickets are $25 per person ($30 starting Sept. 18), $15 for children ages 12 and younger, and can be purchased until Sept. 21 at or by calling the UNK Alumni Association at 308-698-5271. Nickels will also be recognized at the One Room, One Teacher Induction Ceremony, scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Sept. 29 in the College of Education Atrium.

Maureen Nickels
Maureen Nickels

Now retired, Nickels dedicated her 43-year career to the education of children in Nebraska.

She spent her first 26 years after college as an elementary teacher for Grand Island Public Schools. Her classroom efforts were recognized with multiple awards, including the United Nations “Kids Saving the Earth” award, President’s Environmental Youth Award (Region 7) and Wings over the Platte Award, along with honors from the Cooper Foundation and Peter Kiewit Foundation. She was also a finalist for the Christa McAuliffe Courage and Excellence in Education Award in 1987.

In 2000, Nickels left the classroom and joined the Nebraska State Education Association as an organizational specialist and retired-staff liaison. During her time at NSEA, she developed and facilitated the Intergenerational Mentoring Program, which placed retired teachers as mentors for college students training to become classroom teachers. She retired in 2017.

Nickels served two terms on the Nebraska State Board of Education, serving as president in 2020 and 2021, and was a member of the National Association of State Boards of Education from 2015-22. In 2022, she was honored as the NASBE Distinguished Service Award recipient.

Currently, Nickels serves on the Heartland Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) Board of Directors and she’s an officer for the Platte Valley Retired Education Association, advocate for the Grand Island Literacy Council and community volunteer for Nebraska AARP. She also served on the UNK Alumni Association Board of Directors.

“Maureen Nickels’ dedication to ensuring a quality education for children across the state of Nebraska is abundantly clear,” said Mark Reid, dean of the UNK College of Education. “She is a very deserving recipient of this award.”

An Anselmo native and Anselmo-Merna Public Schools graduate, Nickels earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in elementary education with a special education minor from Kearney State College in 1974. She also received her Master of Arts in Education from Kearney State College in 1978.