PEPPERELL– Michael Tikonoff’s office at Nissitissit Middle School is filled with mementos he’s collected over 36 years as an educator, but most of his favorite memories from Pepperell are the sort of things you can’t see or touch.
Looking back on his 16 years as a middle-school principal in Pepperell, Tikonoff put a premium on the trust parents have given him, saying that allowed the school to establish important core values and a culture of recognizing student achievement. He said that’s what he’ll miss most upon retiring this summer.
“I do feel satisfied and that I’ve accomplished something professionally that I can be proud of,” he said. “But I think that feeling the kids give me, when you’ve truly connected or helped to inspire and motivate them. … That will be what I’ll miss the most.”
Tikonoff said he loves the North Middlesex School District but said it’s simply time to move on. At this point, his post-retirement options remain open, but he plans to continue working with young people, either through coaching, volunteering, or in some other professional capacity.
Tikonoff did not list specifics when asked about his favorite memories in Pepperell. Instead, he expressed great pride in the school’s C.L.I.C.K. award program, which recognizes students for showing courage, leadership, integrity, curiosity and kindness. Nominations for the award are given by teachers and there’s typically 80 to 90 recipients at the quarterly award assembly, said Tikonoff. Tikonoff started the programs in 1996. Today, he said the entire student body gets excited about it and it’s an important part of their educational mission.
“The structure of the school is such that we recognize kids and complement them … around these core values,” he said. “At Nissitissit, it’s really about creating lots of opportunities for the kids to display talents.”
Tikonoff said that approach is key for dealing with middle school students, who are at a unique time in life that’s marked by the brain’s second largest growth spurt. In that time, students can develop all sorts of social and reasoning skills, provide they have a safe and nurturing environment, he said.
Taking another tack, Tikonoff noted all lockers in the school have been without padlocks for the past eight years, another aspect of the culture they’ve established.
“We want to teach kids to assume the vast majority of their peers have integrity and they won’t steal, and the vast majority have lived up to that over the last eight years,” he said. “I believe if you raise the standard, adolescent kids will rise to that expectation. If you have an expectation of honesty they’ll rise to it.”
Another prominent element of Tikonoff’s office is sports memorabilia, and it happens that athletics played a significant role in bringing him to Pepperell. His daughter’s middle school basketball team was instrumental there, having made the state tournament in a year when the games were hosted by Varnum Brook. Tikonoff, who was a principal in Wilmington at the time, made his first trip to Pepperell that weekend. Things were set in motion soon after, when he read in the paper that the school was looking for principal.
“I said to my wife, ‘This is the place we just went to; that was a nice little town,'” he said. “I put in the application and the rest was history.”
That was not the only time good fortune played a role in bringing Tikonoff to Pepperell. Another turning point took place several months before he was born in 1952, when his parents won a Salvation Army lottery that allowed them to emigrate from Europe to the United States.
The move was crucial for Tikonoff’s father, who had been a captain in the Russian army during World War I, but was afterwards considered a “White Russian” and an enemy of the Soviet regime, even though he lived abroad. His World War II experience included conscription into the German army after France was overrun and losing his first wife during the allied bombing of Dresden. After the war, he married a younger German woman — Michael’s mother — and decided to relocate from Europe, when Stalin’s agents began disposing of perceived threats to the party, both at home and abroad.
The couple immigrated to Boston and then across the Charles River to Cambridge, where Tikonoff grew up. It was during those formative years he decided to become an educator, because it would offer the opportunity to both coach and work with young people. Shortly after graduating college in 1974, his former basketball coach said they need someone to teach fourth grade in Cambridge. He taught there for the next 12 years. He also coached basketball and baseball for many years, until moving from the classroom to administration in 1986.
Tikonoff said that promotion allowed him to do more for the students and the schools, adding he saw an immense opportunity when he first considered coming to Varnum Brook. He said communication with parents was a key factor. On of his first actions after entering the district was to establish a weekly newsletter. He also credited administrators and teachers for working very hard and believing the middle-school model, adding he’s confident the school’s culture will be maintained through his replacement, Diane Gleason, who has been his assistant principal for seven years.
Tikonoff admitted some reservations about leaving at a time when the district is facing severe budget challenges. However, he was OK with the next generation of administrators tackling that challenge.
“I love this district,” he said. “I’ve stayed here for 16 years because I love this district, , but it’s time for me to move on and look at other things I’d like to try.
“I’ve had a lot of people tell me I’m too young to leave, or that they have another child coming through and I should stick around. … It makes you stop and think. … I’ve always tried to put the school the kids first, but retirement is a personal decision, and I’ve made it.”