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From Afghanistan to the classroom: New Butler principal shows there are many ways to serve

Oct 31, 2017 11:47AM ● Published by Jana Klopsch

Butler Elementary Principal Jeff Nalwalker and his view of the mountains. (Joshua Wood/City Journals)

Gallery: New Principal [2 Images] Click any image to expand.

By Joshua Wood | joshw@mycityjournals.com

Military deployment might not come to mind as a prerequisite for leading an elementary school, but new Butler Elementary principal Jeff Nalwalker is not your typical educator. His unique background and years of public sector experience show the range of ways a person can serve the community.

Nalwalker served as a field artillery officer in the Army National Guard after high school and was deployed to Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. He retired from the National Guard eight years ago, but has retained some of the traits he learned in the military.

“There are elements of discipline that carry over from the military to school,” Nalwalker said after giving a firm handshake. “The difference is that kids need to have fun and feel loved.”

Nalwalker’s lifetime of service has transitioned from military duty to an impressive background in education. He taught second and fourth grade in Murray for 17 years before he began his career in school administration as an assistant principal for a year at Copperview Elementary. Prior to moving to Butler Elementary, Nalwalker spent seven years as the principal of Midvalley Elementary.

Now as he looks out the window of his office in the new Butler Elementary School at the stunning Wasatch Mountains, Nalwalker explains what is most rewarding about his position.

“It’s all about individual kids and their success,” he said. “I focus on supporting teachers and building relationships with the kids.”

Nalwalker said he specifically enjoys helping kids who have struggled and then seeing them succeed.

“As a kid, I was a principal’s worst nightmare,” he admitted. “That’s why I relate to kids who struggle. I believe in discipline with dignity and enjoy seeing kids succeed.”

With Butler Elementary School’s French dual-immersion program, Nalwalker gets to see kids overcome early struggles on a regular basis. During his first week at Butler, he entered a first-grade class of the dual-immersion program. A child in the room was in tears. When asked what was wrong, she said she didn’t understand anything and was clearly frustrated.

Nalwalker had an idea.

“I took her to one of the fifth-grade French classrooms,” he said. “She sat in the back and was amazed to see the older children speaking and understanding French. I then asked the class who in the room was scared or frustrated when they started the program in first grade. Everyone in the room raised their hand.”

Nalwalker then asked what got them through that frustrating time.

“Our friends,” they all said. “Working together” was another answer. That experience helped the first-grader see that others had gotten through the same thing and that all of her friends were now going through it with her as well.

With his empathy for children and desire to see them succeed, it seems like Nalwalker was born to be an educator. When asked if he had always wanted to go into education, he said, “No. At first I wanted to be a dentist. One day, though, a friend invited me to sign up for an intro to education class, and that was that.”

Butler Elementary offers a new chapter in Nalwalker’s long history of public work and service.

“I feel honored to be in this community with the staff and families. I look forward to working with them for years. My door is always open.” 

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