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From Arizona Rock-Climber to Beloved Teacher and Bike-Fixer: James Nelson’s Path to Teaching English

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English Language Learner (ELL) teacher James Nelson grew up in rural Arizona, living a 45-minute bus ride away from school. With wild animals around him, his family “ate rattlesnakes fairly frequently because we’d find them and kill them, and then we’d eat them because it was free protein.”

While he had always loved learning, school was never easy for him. He had to go to a boarding school to repeat his freshman year. “I was really indignant to my teachers because I didn’t want to seem stupid, but I had never gotten an A in my life until I got to graduate school. I worked really hard and got B’s and C’s, while my friends barely worked and got all A’s,” he said.

Even though he’s now an English teacher, Nelson struggled with English back in high school and was more interested in learning Spanish, physics, and drama. 

“I had a lot of awesome teachers who never gave up on me even though I wasn’t the best student by any means. I didn’t like them at the time, but later on, I realized that they were actually trying to help,” he said.”

Nelson enjoyed spending time outdoors and took up hobbies like climbing and biking. He said, “My friend asked me if I wanted to go climbing with him, even though I had no idea how to do it. So we went to an old abandoned cabin and climbed the chimney, and we had the best time.” He and his friend also learned how to fix mountain bikes, going door to door asking people if they could fix their bikes. 

After graduating from high school, Nelson moved to Spain to work in construction. “Working in construction gave me a lot of motivation to go to college because it sucked. It’s hard work. I wasn’t the guy swinging the hammer; I was the guy who was carrying Sheetrock panels for eight hours every day.”

After nine months, he moved to Los Angeles and attended UCLA for eight years. During his time there, Nelson explored a multitude of different disciplines, including drama, geology, computer science, history, and early Christian history and theology. In his eighth year, “UCLA said, ‘Either graduate or we are going to kick you out,’” he said. Having accumulated most of the required classes, he decided to major in and graduate with an English degree. 

UCLA made Nelson want to return to “somewhere in the middle of nowhere.” After graduating, he became a guide in the mountains of Lake Tahoe. “I got very involved in climbing, backcountry skiing, rock climbing, kayaking, and other outdoor activities. I thought that’s what I wanted to do, but realized it was my passion rather than my job.”

During his time as a guide, he learned that what he really loved was the education aspect. “It wasn’t helping someone get to the top of the mountain that I loved, it was watching them learn how to do it. I also learned that that’s what my teachers were doing for me the entire time I was in school.”

Inspired, he moved back to LA to attend graduate school at Pepperdine University for his master’s in education and teaching credential. He got his first full-time teaching job at South City High School. Nelson taught at several high schools before coming to M-A, where he has remained for the past ten years. Prior to M-A, he helped start a small charter high school called Everest Public High School. He has taught mainly English and Spanish classes.

Now, Nelson teaches English for Spanish speaking students. Beyond teaching, he is also the creator of M-A on the Move, a program meant to reduce car traffic and encourage more students to ride their bikes. It offers free students free refurbished bikes as a means of transportation. 

“One day, a student I didn’t really get along with was fixing his bike and I asked him if he wanted help. I got my tools and started to fix it and as I worked on it, he stopped me and said ‘How do you fix that?’ I showed him, and he left without even saying thank you. But, the following day in class, he wasn’t anywhere near as rude and later asked if I could fix his friend’s bike. As time went on, I began to find him less frustrating, and realized that working on bikes can be fun. One of our vice principals saw me working on bikes and asked if I wanted to start a program. That’s how M-A on the Move was born,” he said.

Looking back on his life experiences, the most important message Nelson wants to give is to never give up. “The most important skill anyone’s ever going to learn is how to get back up again. The problem with a lot of students is that they’re terrified of failing even one time. Don’t fear falling down, you’re going to. That’s how you learn.”

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