When Matt Nelson was hired as principal of Grant Elementary in mid-October, friends told him he might have skipped a step or two. That's because Nelson, 32, has 10 years of teaching experience but only applied for the administration program in 2010 at the University of Utah.
"It is so competitive, school administration," Nelson said. "I feel lucky, but I feel well prepared for this challenge."
Nelson, who has a master's of education in administration and supervision, took over the post left vacant by Russell Klein, who resigned earlier in the school year for personal reasons.
Although he transitioned to a new role, Nelson remains in the Murray Schools District, where he started in 2000 as a paraeducator at Parkside Elementary, the same place he taught at until just last year.
"Intern assistant principal at Thomas Jefferson Junior High, that's what I was doing when this position opened up," Nelson said. "It gave me that confidence to come into this."
He has close ties to education.
"I have a lot of people in my family that are teachers," Nelson said. "As I went to school, I knew I wanted to teach."
As a youth, he worked with people with disabilities, which he found challenging but fun and rewarding. That helped propel him toward assisted education.
"Teaching, it's all hands-on day in and day out, working with kids, doing intervention," he said. "It was satisfying being a teacher, and I was able to see a lot of progress being made for kids."
Nelson said he wanted to be equipped as a teacher to give the best possible instructions to students, whether it was through reading or working with kids with autism.
"My approach was I need to have the best training, give myself the most training I could," he said.
As a principal, he relishes in the opportunities to work with teachers and parents.
"My top goal is to build relationship with everyone in the school, get to know what their roles are, figure out what it is the teachers need and how to support them," Nelson said.
He said often teachers develop perceptions that when parents don't participate in school, it means they don't care about their children's education.
"We're trying not to let teachers develop those, although it's frustrating to feel like parents don't support what's going on at the school," Nelson said. "My job is try to build those relationships with the parents, help them get what they need to engage at the school."
Danelle Nessen, a kindergarten teacher at Grant, said Nelson is just what the school needs.
"He brings a really strong curriculum knowledge as well as excellent interpersonal skills," she said. "Already in faculty meetings, I've seen him listen to concerns and try to address them in ways that will meet everyone's needs."
Nelson said he didn't know what to expect when he got into administration. A friend of his wife's was in the program at the U. and recommended it.
"My wife suggested that, as all great ideas usually come through her," he said. "It was, 'I'll give this a shot and see what the program was like,' but as I got into the program I was pleasantly surprised by it."
The administration program got him thinking about organizational changes within the school structure that would best benefit students.
"We want to create schools that are solutions," he said. "It's not a cookie-cutter situation."
As an administrator, he plans to create a school environment where kids could have the same opportunities regardless of their backgrounds. One big concern he has is the achievement or opportunity gap.
"Kids don't come to school the same; they're all unique," Nelson said. "We need to look at each individual kid and their achievement data, use available resources to make sure kids are making progress, that they don't get ignored or pushed away."
One solution he has to offer is for everyone to work together to solve problems.
"Everybody here cares about kids and want to see them grow, but things are set up within institutions that don't always address this," Nelson said. "We need to figure out where those inequities are and confront them."
Liz Taylor, physical-education specialist at Grant Elementary, was a fellow teacher at Parkside. When she found out Nelson was the new principal, she couldn't hold back her enthusiasm.
"I was so excited. I was bouncing up and down the halls," she said. "In fact, I ran down the hall to one of the other teachers that we worked with at Parkside together to make sure it was our Mr. Nelson."
Taylor described Nelson as upbeat and positive and someone who goes with the flow.
"I've always admired how calm under pressure he is, how he can cope with changing situations," she said.
Furthermore, she said Nelson is an engaging person who always has a smile on his face.
"He makes you feel like you're being listened to and tries to help everyone as much as he can," Taylor said.
Nelson's wife, Cat, also taught assisted education in the Murray Schools District before taking up a job teaching at the U. in the College of Education. In his free time, Nelson said he enjoys doing seasonal activities with his family such as skiing. He is a big Real Salt Lake fan and is a father of two young children.
Matt Nelson's résumé
M.Ed. in administration and supervision (educational leadership)
Bachelor of Science in special education from the University of Utah
10 years of experience as assisted education instructor at Parkside Elementary
2010-11 Murray District Teacher of the Year