Alonzo Nelson is a math teacher, yogi, husband, and dad. At least that’s how he’s defined himself on his Instagram page. But these highlights barely scratch the surface of this St. Louis area educator who first got into teaching while living in L.A. and training for the Olympics.
These days, Nelson spends his days teaching high school math, helping run a yoga studio (which he co-founded), hanging out with his 2-year-old daughter, and training his Olympic gold medalist wife for the next summer games. We caught up with Alonzo after school one day to learn more about how he uses yoga in the classroom, as well as his fascinating past, present, and future.
What landed you in math?
The short answer is that both of my parents were math teachers. My dad took his first teaching job when I was born. My mom finished her degree after I was born and started teaching high school math when I was in third grade. Growing up, I had my mom as a teacher for pre-algebra and my dad for algebra 2 and calculus.
Did you know you wanted to go into education?
Actually, my mom told me not to go into education because it’s hard—emotionally. I went to school on a track scholarship and majored in chemistry. Then I was training for the Olympics in L.A. and started substitute teaching out there in my spare time. When I came back home to the St. Louis area, I kept substituting. It was infectious. I loved the process and the kids and all the people involved. So I got my certification to be a teacher—I’m now in my 9th year.
Statistically, there’s less than 1 percent of us—Black, male, math teachers. This motivates me to be in class and with students every day. I want to change the experience of math for all students and help them see the positives of it. And I especially want young Black boys to see that teaching is cool, math is cool, and they can replicate it. There’s so much value in kids being able to relate, and that’s a big motivator to me.
How do you connect with your students?
I’m present. I let them into my life. One of the deterrents for kids going into education is that teachers often seem miserable, or they hate their jobs, or they are poor. I present myself to my students in a positive way. I like my job, and they see that. I also just show them the human side of me. For instance, I bring ties for prom and show the guys how to tie them. Slowly, perceptions start to change about what a teacher is or what a Black teacher is. I like that I get to answer questions and change stereotypes.
Were you always athletic growing up, and does it run in the family?
My dad was an All-American basketball player in college. When I was younger, he was an assistant basketball coach, and my mom was cheerleading coach. That made me a gym rat, always tagging along with them. As I got older, I played football and basketball and ran track. That’s how I met my wife—in 8th grade—running track.
You’ve known your wife since 8th grade? Tell us that story.
It was the 8th grade hurdle race, and since there were no other girls that ran hurdles, they just put her in with the boys’ race. I’m the only one that beat her—she didn’t like that much—and from then on out, we were close.
How did you get into yoga then?
My mom introduced me to yoga, and I just took to it. Around this time, I started taking track more seriously, and I thought that yoga was a lot like stretching, only better. So I started doing it regularly in high school, college, and still today. As an athlete, I’ve never had a serious injury, and I really attribute that to my yoga practice.
How did yoga make it into your school?
I got my yoga certification in 2017 and ended up opening a yoga studio with other educators. But even before that, I would do yoga with students. I often help coach the track athletes, and I do yoga with them. Even the football coach at the high school has brought me in to do yoga before football games. I’ve also taught classes at school, which have been open to both teachers and students.
So how do you use yoga with students?
It makes it in my classroom in many ways. For instance, I openly talk to my students about using breathing and meditation to help with things like anxiety. Before we take a test, I often have my students take a minute so we can do some breathing together. It works really well. (See another example of yoga working well at schools in this article.)
On your social media, you call yourself Mr. Do the Math. What’s that about?
Mr. Do the Math came about my second or third year of teaching. I had this epiphany to record myself in class so kids could watch it after. It would help them later on with their homework. I don’t know how I came up with the moniker, honestly, but Mr. Do the Math lets everyone know they can do math. Many people will say they don’t like math—and it’s not that they’re bad at it—it’s just that they had a bad experience or didn’t have a great teacher. This is my way of showing all students that it’s possible.
Can we go back to your famous wife for a second? What’s that like?
It’s an honor to be her husband. Every time she’s stepped out on the track as Dawn Harper-Nelson, I’m so proud. One of the great things about being a teacher is that I’m able to be with her in summer. Usually, on the last day of school, I’m on a plane, flying to where she is in the European circuit. Right now, though, I’m actually her coach for the next Olympic games.
With all that’s gone on in the past year with COVID, politics, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and everything else, how do you stay positive—both for yourself and for students?
Being present for myself, my family, and for my students has been my biggest form of resistance. Sometimes when I see what’s going on, I desperately want to go and speak out or protest, but I’ve learned my biggest form of activism is being present in the classroom. I have to be careful not to overindulge in the media because it’s traumatic, both consciously and unconsciously. So I make sure that I’m present and allowing my students to talk about it. I’m a soundboard for my kids to express their frustrations and what they see. Because what we see in the real world is happening in the classroom. I see it every day—kids being treated wrongly because of race or social status. Everyone wants to know how to change the achievement gap, but we have to do something to change the environment.
Do you have ideas?
I’m there for my students, and other teachers can be there for their students as well. Here at my school, I’ve helped start a group for Black honors kids. They meet twice a month and talk about things going on in society and the frustrations they have in class and school. Teachers are there to support them, but the kids lead the discussions. Also, in my class, every week, we do restorative justice talks. We don’t do math. We just take time to check in, connect, and talk about all sorts of topics. As teachers, we have an opportunity. We can’t solve all the problems, but we can let students know that we are listening and that we care.