This teacher's seriously positive vibes are inspiring his students inside & outside of the classroom
It’s Monday morning at Cypress Lake High School. The 5th period bell is about to ring, and T.J. Nelson, known to most as Mr. Nelson, Coach Nelson, Coach, and myriad other monikers, is greeting and talking to students before class.
The desks in his classroom are set up in a semicircle, and speakers pushing out a Bob Marley tune sets the environment on low key chill.
Motivational posters with phrases like, “the road to success is always under construction” and images of iconic figures, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali, are taped to the white, brick walls.
Class begins with the usual roll call, but after that the focus shifts in an unexpected way. Instead of diving straight into coursework, Mr. Nelson hands each student a torn strip of notebook paper. He’s handwritten an affirmation on each one.
Nelson started at Cypress Lake High School as a paraprofessional and athletics coach in 2016 and became certified to teach in 2020. He says he’s been using affirmations as a teaching tool his entire career.
“The mind is a powerful thing, and your thought process on yourself is a very powerful thing," said Nelson. "So if you're reading something that says, ‘I am good, I'm going to do good.’ And, ‘I'm going to do good because I'm unique. The world needs me,’ you start to believe it.”
The class Nelson teaches is called Learning Strategies, part of exceptional student education, or ESE. Students in this class need extra support in school, and this course is designed to help them focus, stay organized and complete classwork.
Studies explored by the Washington Post show that self-affirmations can buffer stress and improve education and health outcomes. Nelson feels that starting the week off with affirmations helps pave the way for successful days ahead and builds trust within his class.
“A lot of kids don't have, you know, a perfect situation at home," said Nelson. "So I know they need some encouragement and whatnot to get the week started, because once you hear good stuff constantly over and over again, it'll help you to open up like, it's just, it's human nature.”
"You’re all in school for a reason. Every last one of you is capable of doing amazing things, especially with your brain.”T.J. Nelson to speaking to his 5th period class about the affirmation, "I am smart."
Ninth-grader Juozapas Budinas is the first to raise his hand and volunteer to talk about Mr. Nelson’s class. His affirmation today is, “I accept my flaws.”
“I like affirmations because you can really know what you truly are," said Budinas. "And you can describe yourself with that affirmation.”
Nelson shares his positive messages and encourages self-expression outside the classroom on social media and with his self-published children’s book series, “Classroom Chronicles.” It features two stories so far: “Inspiring Ivory” and “Kyra The Gifted Rose.”
“Inspiring Ivory” is about a teacher named Mr. Teejer, modeled after Nelson himself, who stops at nothing to make his students smile, especially down and out Ivory. And recently published “Kyra The Gifted Rose” is based on Nelson’s newborn daughter Kyra Rose.
On the back cover is a personalized message to Kyra Rose from her father and a note to other young girls throughout the globe: “Respect and love yourself over anything else. You are special, you matter, and you are loved.”
The illustrations in each book are inclusive and represent kids of all backgrounds and races. Nelson explains that was intentional.
“There's kids that come from a similar upbringing as me," said Nelson. "There's kids that have family members that even look like me, that are in prison, or dead, you know, or out in the streets doing bad things. I want them to know that guys that look like me can also do positive things like this here.”
Collin Miller is finishing his senior year at Cypress. He says he looks forward to Mr. Nelson’s class because it’s a calm space for him to complete coursework and encourages self-reflection.
“It's helped me think of ideas and think about what I want to do in the future, more than I would have before,” said Miller.
Miller also appreciates that his teacher has aspirations outside of the classroom.
“It's kind of inspiring, because he's, you know, he's a teacher, but he is reaching out to do bigger and better things.”
What inspires Nelson to be a positive force inside and outside the classroom is simply…
“The students," said Nelson. "Just seeing the students' smiling faces every day. I even like the kids when they come in with a bad attitude. And just for some reason, they don't know, like, in the back of my mind, I'm laughing. Like, I'm gonna get you the moment you get in here. After a while you're gonna love me.”
Right now, Nelson is working on his first chapter book, “Gridiron Glow,” that will pay homage to the students he’s coached in the past and pay tribute to the coaches who inspired Nelson while he was in school. And he is always working to inspire and uplift his students.
“If you're having a bad day, and everybody just seems like they're throwing tomatoes at you. Why not? I just walked past coach T.J.'s class and you know, get some encouragement, which, I try to give every kid.”
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