– Dennis Nelson, UrbanPromise Alum
I remember his first day of kindergarten…
My old VHS video camera, perched on my shoulder like a 20-pound sack of potatoes, captured the joy of our first class of five-year-olds charging through the front door. I wanted to capture this historic moment.
It was 1997. Our new elementary school, CamdenForward, opened its doors to 28 pre-k and kindergarten students.
Like any start-up, UrbanPromise’s CamdenForward School began as a dream. Twenty-five years ago the city of Camden offered parents few educational options—besides underperforming public schools.
Parents wanted more for their children: small classes, Christian values, high academic standards, safety and minimal tuition. UrbanPromise believed this was a unique moment to create a new kind of school—a school creating a new generation of Camden leaders steeped in faith, compassion, and academic excellence.
Leading his class that morning was a bubbly, happy, curious boy named Dennis Nelson. Over the years our teachers and staff poured time and attention into Dennis, participating in each of his academic and developmental milestones: elementary school graduation, high school, first job, college, and dean of students at our high school.
Recently, 29-year-old Dennis Nelson was recognized as the KIPP New Jersey 2021 TEAMspy Award winner for his contribution of improving the quality of education in the city of Camden. Dennis teaches 7th grade mathematics at the KIPP school in Lanning Square.
Please read the remarkable interview below with Dennis about his journey to become one of Camden’s top teachers.
Dennis K. Nelson III: Growing Up in Camden Made Me The Motivated, Resilient, Caring Educator I Am Today
By TONY GALLOTTO
TAPintoCamden: Your Neighborhood News Online
Published November 5, 2021 at 9:46 AM
This story is another in a series of profiles of Camden students turned educators. This series is sponsored by the Camden Education Fund.
Meet Dennis K. Nelson III, an 8th-grade math teacher at KIPP Lanning Square Middle School.
This 29-year-old Camden native started teaching last July in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. He is not new to education, but Nelson did not start out in a classroom.
After he earned a liberal arts degree from Rowan University in 2014, with concentrations in sociology and dance, Nelson’s first job was as an administrator at UrbanPromise Academy on North 36th Street. It was where he attended high school after he graduated from its K-8th grade Camden Forward School.
After a few years, Nelson, now a Collingswood resident, became Assistant Dean of Students at KIPP Lanning Square Middle and later did two years as a Behavior Specialist before moving into a classroom.
Recently, Nelson became one of KIPP New Jersey’s 2021 TEAMspy Award winners, receiving the Improvement Award for his school. That award recognizes KIPP educators who create and share academic practices and ideas that help improve the quality of education at KIPP.
Here, in his own words, Dennis Nelson discusses his path into the classroom.
Q. What or who most inspired you to become a teacher? How and why?
I cannot credit my interest in teaching to just one person. There were many. Working at UrbanPromise, I developed a love for mentorship and urban education. I had great relationships with my students. They always said I’d make a great teacher, if I decided to do so. While working as a high school administrator, I would sometimes substitute teach when teachers were absent.
Fast forward to KIPP: One day, a math teacher needed to step out of her classroom for a while. I stepped in. I remember thinking, “this will be the only class that doesn’t receive math instruction today.” So I picked up where she left off and I started to teach. By the end of the period, several students asked me why wasn’t I a teacher. They thanked me for “making math make sense.” From then on, I was unable to shake the feeling that I wanted to be a teacher. I guess this is all because of my students.
Q. Describe your career path?
I began working at UrbanPromise at age 14, as a Street Leader (similar to camp counselor) in their summer programs. I worked for UrbanPromise throughout high school, eventually becoming a Team Leader when I was 16, then a Field Supervisor after becoming a freshman at Rowan.
Throughout college, I worked several seasonal jobs at Walmart, Macy’s, and even maintenance at Cherry Hill towers. After graduating from Rowan in 2014, I got a job at UrbanPromise Academy as an assistant to the principal. It was administrative work, but I also taught a developmental skills class. UrbanPromise always felt like home. I was comfortable at that job.
While working at UrbanPromise, I got a second job as a residential counselor at a juvenile detention center. I enjoyed the job, because of the relationships I built with the boys. But, I couldn’t help them as much as I wanted, so worked there for only a few months.
I continued to work at the UrbanPromise high school, but it began feeling stagnant. By chance, I came across an email from KIPP that was several months old, sent after I submitted a job application. I urgently emailed back to KIPP, hoping I still had a chance. And as you can see, I did.
Q. How did growing up in Camden affect your teaching or help you connect with students?
My city. My kids. My responsibility. Growing up in Camden made me the motivated, resilient, caring educator that I am today. I naturally want to see others do well. Because of my diverse experiences at UrbanPromise and in college, I feel that I can connect with anyone.
Growing up here has sharpened my lens. I see the endless potential in our city and youth. For a long time, I wondered, “why this, why that, and what if.” As an educator of Camden youth, I must help them answer those questions about life and our society, but I must also equip my students with a “What Now?” philosophy. Being a good educator here, starts and continues with strong relationships.
Q. What are you proud of as a teacher? Favorite teaching success story?
I am really proud of beginning my teaching career during the pandemic. What I assumed would be the hardest thing in the world, actually turned out to be pretty good. If I could change one thing, I would increase student-engagement. Being at home took a toll on students.
If I had to choose a favorite success story, it would have to be the hangouts I had with my students on Zoom. We became so close that we sometimes wanted to hang out after class just to talk about life and watch shows on Netflix. Developing virtual relationships was new to me, but somehow it worked out equally well as in-person.
Q. What are lessons have you learned by being a teacher?
No student will understand everything the first time.
Sometimes you, as the teacher, have to change your approach.
Be willing to adapt.
Teach the whole child, not just the math student.
Students need more than a safe space, they need a space where they can thrive in.
Be the teacher they deserve.
It’s okay. And if it isn’t; there’s time.
Q.What are teachers’ strongest qualities? How do these qualities lead to success?
A teacher’s strongest qualities are their ability to connect with students and to maximize student potential.
We often look at a strict teacher as the teacher who is doing the best job teaching because they appear to have well-managed classrooms. But, students should feel valued in their classrooms. They must know that their responsibility is not to stay quiet and complete assignments, but to engage in lessons, collaborate, and to ask thought-provoking questions. Classes should still be engaging and fun. Teachers must connect with students genuinely to understand their needs. This will show students that they are cared for, and that their teachers can be trusted. When students trust their educators and feel cared for, they will learn a lot more. This will change their outlook on education, hopefully nurturing a greater hunger for success, whatever that may look like for them.
Q. What advice would you give to someone considering a teaching career?
I would advise them to be absolutely certain this is the career for them. Teaching is very rewarding, but it can also be very challenging. Some of those challenges – like walking into a classroom in the middle of a pandemic – can be unexpected, even surprising. Always be flexible. Always keep learning. And always put your students first.