By Heather Mullinix
Kim Nelson was always teaching in one form or another, taking on Sunday school classes at her church, training employees, working with all ages on nutrition education and raising two children. Eight years ago, she entered the classroom at Pleasant Hill Elementary School, bringing her enthusiasm and outside the box teaching to fifth grade students.
"Honestly, I was six years in before I felt I was getting the hand of what I needed to do for the students," Nelson said. "I'm always tweaking lessons, and I've never taught the same any single time. Each group of students is different and you have to consider what their needs are."
Nelson is the Cumberland County Teacher of the Year for grades 5 through 8.
Nelson worked for four years with the Cumberland County University of Tennessee Extension Service in the TNCEP program, working with pre-kindergarten students to senior citizens.
"I did cooking lessons and nutrition education for all ages," she said. "It was a good stepping stone."
Becoming a teacher was an opportunity for her to help students enjoy school and to make the most of the opportunities they had there.
"I didn't really enjoy school until college," Nelson said.
As a left-handed student, her early teachers spent months attempting to make her use her right hand for classwork. It made school tedious and unenjoyable.
"It made everything worse," she said.
Finally, her parents spoke with the school and she was allowed to be left handed, but she suffered bad marks if her writing didn't slant the way a right-handed person's would.
"I was always a person who was excited and wanted to do things, and that was the first time I was faced with something I couldn't do," she said. "That disappointed me. And I don't think I was a strong student. Maybe I was, but I wasn't feeling that way.
"I always wanted to be a teacher so that I could help kids like myself — the ones that come in feeling negative about themselves and not thinking they can do things — and give them that new direction where they can realize 'I can be a good reader,' or 'I'm pretty good at math. I've just got to keep practicing.' And help them to enjoy school."
Nelson teaches all subjects for the fifth grade. There's been discussion of departmentalizing classes but she's reluctant to choose a favorite subject. She enjoys teaching math, science, social studies, language arts and reading and blending lessons to reinforce other subjects.
"I like teaching math and I still like doing different projects with whatever subject it is," she said. "I'm not a person that memorizes well, so anything hands on helps me remember and I feel like that would help the kids. The more hands on projects I can do, the better."
Recently, her students read the novel War Horse and completed a variety of projects.
"They find unique things you wouldn't have thought they would have picked out of the book," she said.
Following the novel Hoot, students were treated to a visit by Mark Houston with Cumberland Mountain State Park and the owl McKenzie, as well as a couple of corn snakes.
Now, students are working on Civil War quilts and including secret messages.
"I'm looking forward to what they come up with for that," she said.
Respect is a big part of Nelson's classroom rules — respect for yourself, respect for her and respect for other teachers. She tells students their job is to be a student and their report card is their paycheck.
"No job is perfect. There's things that we have to do, but every chance we can, we're going to do something different and fun. The more they stay focused, the more we can do that's extra," she said.
That's one of the real-life lessons she teaches throughout the year, along with manners and getting along with others.
"That's the way the world is going to be," she said. "You don't get to decide who you work with. We're stuck with each other for the year, and that's part of the learning process."
She's also made time for her students to enjoy High Tea, with students taking on the decorations, menu, invitations and entertainment for the event.
"I could not believe how well it worked out," she said. "The multi-purpose room looked beautiful."
The class performed in the school talent show, as well, performing a dance choreographed by Nelson's daughter, Sara Nelson, a dance student at the University of Florida.
Students are also preparing for their trip to Biz Town in Clinton, TN, where they will run the town for the day. They've been working on the skills they'll need, such as balancing a checkbook, remembering to take deposits to the bank and scheduling appointments.
She works with students to make sure they're ready to tackle the academic standards of the fifth grade, such as making sure students can add, subtract, multiply and divide before moving on to working with fractions.
"It's got to be in their head so they can show their work and know how they are getting their answers," she said.
Those extra projects also help the kids to think outside the box and make connections from their textbooks to real life applications, aiding understanding and content mastery.
That's important with the shift to common core academic standards, which requires students to explain their work and how they reached an answer. Nelson's done that for many years, asking students to explain to her how to do problems.
She's impressed with her students this year, all of whom are driven to succeed and complete their assignments and projects. Many are finding their way to the A and A/B honor roll for the first time in her class, as well.
"That's huge for them," she said. "And they earn those grades. I don't give them anything. They try. They really try."