The little things make the biggest difference

The IMPACT radio show is into its second month on KAOS 91.1. Started as a means of sharing stories of people who are making a difference in the community, it has successfully resulted in a number of great conversations, including one that happened on March 8th with Doug Nicholls, Superintendent of the Fort McMurray Public School District.

Doug is into his third year in Fort McMurray, along with his wife Roberta. Born and raised in Edmonton, he spent 20 years in the classroom and has moved from place to place in administrative positions. That opportunity to experience different communities and provinces has been invaluable.

“We never would have had the life experiences we’ve had without some movement,” he shared. “We rank Fort McMurray right up there in terms of the places we’ve lived and worked.”

In a very short period of time, Doug has demonstrated his passion for students and community. He is often seen at public events and with students. There is a reason.

“My best days on the job are when I’m in the schools,” he said. “I love teaching.”

“In your view, what makes a fantastic teacher?” I asked.

“You’ve got to love kids,” he said. “And you have to be prepared for the ups and downs of the profession. Years vary. Classes vary. You need to be a leader in the classroom. Kids count on it.”

Doug is a product of parents who worked hard and had a strong set of values. His dad was in the meat packing business while his mom ran a seniors care centre. He was also greatly influenced by a number of leaders through his career. Two former bosses stand out.

Bob Maskell was a former principal who went on to become an MLA.

“He did little things that became very very powerful over time,” he said. “He could take a bad situation and turn it into something positive and instructive.”

Another mentor was John Bole, superintendent in the Leduc School District.

“John used to say that he never worked a day in his life,” said Nicholls. “He came with passion every day, relationships were critical, and he was very involved outside the school district. To this day, he is coaching track and field at high levels.”

The value of being connected in the schools and in the community is very important to Doug Nicholls and his approach to leadership.

“Involvement in the community is very important to me, personally and professionally,” he said. “It definitely is a big part of the role.”

In addition to sitting on the board of the Wood Buffalo Multicultural Association, Doug has been helping out with the CCAA National Basketball Championships at Keyano College. He has always loved sports, is an avid golfer, and an ardent fan of the game of golf – he and his wife often travel to major tournaments to observe the pros. Something you may not know about Doug is that is was a “minor assistant pro” back when he was in his early twenties.

When asked about the “little” things that make a big difference in his leadership style, Doug shared a couple of different things. He likes to spread passion. He values good relationships. He also encourages teachers to find good mentors and to never stop learning.

“The world is changing so quickly and we have a responsibility to stay abreast of it as much as we can.”

As he reflects on a long career in education, Doug Nicholls is most proud of being able to help grow the capacity of others: teachers, support staff, administrators, and students.

“That’s where I see the major role of leadership,” he said. “It is to build capacity in others and learn from others.”

Doug exudes positive energy and enthusiasm about his organization and our community. He is a leader who has a philosophy about getting involved and giving back.

“We can all make a difference in the community in some way,” he said. “I’m glad to be part of a community that is so exciting and vibrant.”

You can listen to the complete IMPACT interview with Doug Nicholls by clicking here.


Author: Russell Thomas

​Russell is a marketing and communications professional who has spent 20 years in Wood Buffalo working with the OK Radio Group, Keyano College, Arts Council Wood Buffalo, and now with The United Way of Fort McMurray. A regular blogger, Russell's writing can be seen online ( and in multiple publications. His paintings can be seen in homes and businesses throughout the community. Married to Heather and "Papa" to Dylan and Ben, Russell is a passionate spokesperson for United Way.