Teacher Known for Making Math Cool, Bringing Ties to Prom for His Students Can't Wait to Teach In-Person Again
"My job is to interact with kids," says Alonzo Nelson, Jr., who teaches high school math in Belleville, Illinois. "I miss the human element of it"
After almost a year-and-a-half teaching classes via Zoom from the spare bedroom of his house, Alonzo Nelson, Jr. is eager with anticipation for a return in mid-August to in-person classes again at Belleville West High School in Belleville, Illinois. "I'm so excited to get back in the classroom," he says.
The popular math teacher and track coach known as "Uncle Nelson" will once again lead yoga classes in the classroom to reduce pre-test anxiety, and have "bow tie Tuesdays" with students, wearing bowties he supplies: "Just one of those things," he says, "where I want the kids to see that you can look cool and dress nice."
Nelson looks forward, also, to the moments in the classroom where he can tell his teaching is sinking in.
"I miss the human element of it," says Nelson, 36. "My job is to interact with kids. I love seeing my students' faces. And I love to see the lightbulb go off in their eyes when they 'get it.'''
Nelson, who has taught everything from algebra to advanced placement calculus, grew up with two close role models of passionately involved teachers: His parents are both educators in his hometown of nearby East St. Louis, Illinois -- his mother was his seventh grade math teacher, his dad his Algebra II and calculus teacher in high school.
"Whenever I was sick I didn't stay home. I went to work with my parents and hung out in the teacher's lounge all day," he says. "Education has been indoctrinated in me. And I love math. It's definitely genetic because my grandmother is 82 and still does taxes for people."
While in middle school, Nelson discovered two other loves -- the track and field event of hurdles, and a teen he raced against, Dawn Harper. She would go on to compete in two Olympics for hurdling (winning gold in 2008 Olympics and silver in 2012), and become his wife in 2013. The couple now have a daughter, Harper Nelson, 2.
Nelson's own successful hurdling career in college led to a move to California following his 2006 graduation "to chase my dreams of running track" and making the Olympic hurdles team. His day job was substitute teaching.
Six years later, with his Olympic goal unmet, Nelson "hung up my spikes" and turned to teaching math at alma mater East St. Louis Senior High School in 2012, followed by finishing his master's in teaching. As he told We Are Teachers in a blog post, "Statistically, there's less than 1 percent of us: Black, male, math teachers ... I especially want young Black boys to see that teaching is cool, math is cool."
Nelson achieved that impact almost immedately. "I love Mr. Nelson," says former student Montez Holton, 21, who had him in 2014 and 2015 for various math classes and as a track coach at East St. Louis. "We call him Uncle Nelson because he sees us as family. He came in with a smile on his face and no matter what he was going through, he always made sure that he could help out."
Nelson, who began teaching at Belleville West in 2016, dove into making connections with the students by creating Friday discussions on topics ranging from bereavement to love to dealing with conflict. He's also started a group, "Next Generation," for students of color in honors or advanced placement classes to provide support "so they realize they are not alone."
He also invites students to participate in his life outside the classroom -- which has included training wife Dawn Harper-Nelson, who made it to the Olympic trials this year (but didn't make the team) and their weekends with Harper.
"I let [the students] be a part of my life," says Nelson, who has a Mr. Do The Math YouTube channel and The Real Nelsons Facebook page about his family. "And because of that, students feel comfortable sharing. I teach them in a way as if I'm looking out for them, like little brothers or sisters."
One Christmas, he and Dawn "adopted" three families in East St. Louis and bought them Christmas gifts. Another time the couple gave out food to the community. A co-founder of yoga studio The Collective STL, Nelson has streamed classes during the pandemic for his young charges on Instagram, at @thecollectivestl.
A favorite quote, by Fredrick Douglass -- "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men" -- is "the basis of my motivation for teaching," Nelson says, "trying to build strong children intellectually and socially."
This includes being a role model — from being the rare Black male math teacher to bringing ties for his students to wear to prom and graduation and helping the kids tie them — says Nelson, who calls himself a "counter-stereotype for all kids."
"When I was teaching in East St. Louis, where the population was 99% black, it was a motivator," he says. "But now at Belleville West, where I have 50% black students and 50% white students and everything in between, I can debunk a lot of things and paint a different picture of what it means to be Black."
He can't wait to bring those lessons back to the kids in person. "Teaching hasn't been the same," he says. "I am very excited to feel their energy in the classroom again."