Sharing a name with the school you run is bound to draw a few curious looks from students and parents, and when Tami Nelson became Principal at Nelson Elementary last year, she spent a fair amount of time clearing up any confusion about the name.
No, she told her inquisitive students, she does not, in fact, own the school. Nor is she related to the Nelson family, who originally owned the land the school is located on.
She recalls the questions with a smile. For Nelson, who has been an educator and administrator in the district for 25 years, the decision to become Principal at Nelson Elementary had nothing to do with the common name.
That said, she sees something special about the unique distinction, like maybe it was meant to turn out this way.
“When you look at where I could be in this entire district, for me to come here, I felt like it was God saying, that’s where you’re going to be, and He had a plan for me,” she said.
That’s a common refrain from Nelson. Even as a child growing up in Puyallup, she knew she was meant to help others and she trusted that her direction would be made clear to her.
Her path didn’t always look like it was headed toward a career in education. Nelson loved school and was a great student, but the thought of becoming a teacher didn’t enter her mind. After graduating from high school she headed off to college to become a physical therapist.
While in school, something didn’t feel right and Nelson realized she was on the wrong track. She dropped out of her physical therapy program and headed home to regroup and figure out what she was meant to do with herself.
She met her future husband while they were both attending Green River Community College, and Nelson credits an off-the-cuff remark he made with changing her life.
In passing, Nelson’s boyfriend mentioned he had always thought he would eventually marry a teacher. She would never enter a profession just to please her boyfriend, but the comment did get Nelson thinking about the possibility of becoming an educator.
She loved children and had already been teaching Sunday School at her church, so she decided to give it a shot. She enrolled in the teaching program at Pacific Lutheran University and began the work of becoming a teacher.
After graduating she did her student teaching at Camas Prairie Elementary. It was her first taste of working in the Bethel School District, and Nelson knew it was a place she wanted to be.
She was eventually given a permanent job at Camas Prairie, where she spent 10 years teaching third, fourth, fifth and sixth grade. During that time, she also got involved in the school’s Title I program, a federally funded program that offers additional support to students struggling with reading.
She was later tasked with leading the school’s entire Title I program, which is where she first began thinking about moving into an administrative role.
“I enjoyed and loved seeing that the work I could do could impact more than just one group of students for one single year,” Nelson said of her work with Title I. “It just lights you on fire when you get a chance to see the growth across a whole school.”
Nelson loved being in the classroom and seeing the day-to-day impact she could have on individual students, but she also felt the calling to move on to something else.
As with all of her decisions, Nelson prayed about it and let her faith guide her.
“It’s placed on your heart that maybe I’m supposed to do that next,” she said of her transition to administration.
After returning to PLU to get her administration credentials, Nelson did an administrative internship at Camas Prairie before accepting a job at Bethel Junior High as the dean of students. She spent a year as the dean and then four more as an assistant principal.
She was later named principal at Spanaway Middle School, where she remained for nine years. Nelson loved working with younger children, but she said there was something fun and exciting about running a middle school.
“Every day was an adrenaline rush — every single day,” she said. “You knew you were going to hit the ground running every day. You didn’t necessarily know what you were going to be facing, and I loved that kind of rush.”
She had spent nearly 15 years working in middle schools, and while she wouldn’t say she was burned out, Nelson was ready for a new challenge. Several years ago she began thinking about returning to elementary education.
“I knew in my heart that an elementary school is truly where I wanted to be, where I thought my skill set could benefit others,” she said.
Two years ago she was offered the job at Nelson, and she said it has been an amazing ride so far.
“I had some homework to do,” she said of her return to elementary school. “But I am fortunate that I’m surrounded by amazing teachers here — and an amazing staff — and amazing elementary colleagues that quickly took me under their wings and made sure that I had everything I needed.”
Nelson couldn’t have asked for a better school to end up at, and she can’t imagine leaving for another job.
“It’s just the joy and the love that you see in the eyes of kids every day as they walk in the doors,” she said. “I greet students out at the buses, and it’s the hugs and the high fives, that joy and that love for school, it’s pretty powerful.”
When she’s not working, Nelson loves nothing more than spending time with her husband and two sons. They are a family of sports fanatics, so the Nelsons can often be found at a baseball or football game.
Nelson’s youngest son plays high school tennis and baseball, and her oldest son — who happens to be a teacher at Graham-Kapowsin High School — played sports and now is an assistant football coach at Chief Leschi.