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This teacher's seriously positive vibes are inspiring his students inside & outside of the classroom

TJ Nelson Cypress Lake High School Teacher.jpg
Tara Calligan
In his classroom, T.J. Nelson uses affirmations and a quote of the week to encourage self-reflection. "I want kids to understand that there's somebody that cares about them. And even if you feel like nobody cares about you, there actually is people around you, that care about you. Continue to be yourself. Don't allow the world to deter you from being yourself," said Nelson.

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.

TJ Nelson in the classroom.jpg
Tara Calligan
T.J. Nelson asks each student to read their affirmation out loud to start off the class. " It just, it gives them, you know, positive energy feeling," said Nelson.

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.”

TJ Nelson's classroom bulletin board.jpg
Tara Calligan
A bulletin board filled with photos of past teams he's coached and students he has taught over the years hangs on the wall next to T.J. Nelson's desk. Nelson says he first wanted to become an athletics coach, but decided to get his teaching certification because he wanted to make an even larger impact on his student's lives.

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.”

Kyra The Gifted Rose Back cover.jpg
T.J. Nelson published "Kyra The Gifted Rose" in December 2022. Available on Amazon, the book is summarized: "Kyra is an amazing little girl. She brings life to everyone's day, she brings energy to any room. Reminded by her mother that she is a confident and beautiful young lady, Kyra brings this amazing aura to Mr. TeeJer's class along with a meaningful gift!"

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.”

Inspiring Ivory book cover.jpg
"Inspiring Ivory" was published in June, 2022. Available on Amazon, it is summarized: "Mr. TeeJer is a passionate teacher of pre-teen students! He is always concerned for their well-being, especially Ivory who struggles with having happy days. Mr. TeeJer does whatever it takes to make Ivory feel safe and happy in classroom 727. While pursuing Ivory's happiness, Mr. TeeJer recognizes the positive influence Ivory and the rest of his students have him!"

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.”

Book signing flyer.jpg
A "Classroom Chronicles" book signing event will be held at the Hunter Park in the Pine Manor community on June 17, 2023.

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