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Following teacher’s lead / PE students trace Tracy Nelson’s path

Tracy Nelson's former Hillcrest Elementary School P.E. students Carson Cody, left, and Trey Tiefenthaler give Nelson an assist while playing in the Hillcrest gym Dec. 23. Now Nelson is a lecturer at South Dakota State University, where Cody, Tiefenthaler and four other former Brookings students are learning to become physical education teachers.
Tracy Nelson's former Hillcrest Elementary School P.E. students Carson Cody, left, and Trey Tiefenthaler give Nelson an assist while playing in the Hillcrest gym Dec. 23. Now Nelson is a lecturer at South Dakota State University, where Cody, Tiefenthaler and four other former Brookings students are learning to become physical education teachers.

Hard to beat a good game of dodge ball or scooter races, especially if you know it’s putting you on your career pathway.

Brookings High School graduates Carter Roach and Brooke Piearson weren’t actually thinking that when they were playing games as students at Hillcrest Elementary. But today the South Dakota State University students say the experiences they had with then-Hillcrest physical education teacher Tracy Nelson about a decade ago encouraged them to consider teaching physical education as a career option.

Nelson, in her 11th year as a lecturer in the College of Education and Human Sciences at SDSU, is starting to reap the seeds sown at Hillcrest.

The just-completed fall semester marked the beginning of a crop of students she taught as the Hillcrest P.E. teacher in 2002-05 and now is instructing as a lecturer in the physical education teacher education program. There were five of them—Ryan McMacken, a 2018 BHS graduate; Trey Tiefenthaler ’16; Carson Cody ’18; Piearson ’17; and Roach ’14—and Ryan Argust ’17, who missed out on Nelson because he attended Medary.

Don’t I know you?

It was an unexpected reunion for both students and teacher.

Roach, who transferred to SDSU in 2017 after two years at a Minnesota junior college, said, “I was really surprised when I walked in and saw her. ‘She's my instructor, oh nice.’ I also thought I had to do a little better because I was one of her original students and couldn't slack. Being from Brookings, she knew my parents.”

In Piearson’s case, Nelson not only knew her parents, she taught with her mom, Holly Seburn  at Hillcrest.

McMacken said, “I remember when she left after my first-grade year. She told us she was leaving to teach teachers. I never thought in a million years I'd see her years later as my college teacher.” In fact, when he took his seat in the intro course for physical education teacher education, he didn't recognize Nelson right away.

“She came up to me and said, ‘Do you remember me?’ and then I recognized her,” McMacken said.

‘A burst of energy’

Since then the SDSU sophomore has had Nelson for four classes and found it be a positive experience. “She is always there to pick you up. She’s a burst of energy on a gloomy day. She gets to know everybody on a personal basis and takes an interest in the individual person rather than just their studies,” McMacken said.

In fact, the rural Volga farm wife invited a student to hunt coyotes that were encroaching on her property. Not the typical interaction between faculty and student, he noted.

Roach said Nelson the college instructor is more laid back with her students than when she taught at Hillcrest, “I was a more active student. She was always calling my name or my twin brother.”

They weren’t necessarily troublemakers, just students in need of a physical outlet.

Nelson, who earned her bachelor’s degree in PE teacher education in 1998 and her master’s in educational administration in 2007, both from SDSU, said, “I had them a couple times a week for four or five years. Carter or Cody came in and you knew they loved physical activity. I thought, ‘These kids get it. They love physical activity.’”

Pierson, on the other hand, was more reserved. “It’s fun to see her find her voice now,” Nelson said.

Had ‘awesome teacher educators’

To some extent, the BHS grads said they were influenced by their past PE teachers in choosing their current career path.

Nelson can’t say that. “Coming from Viborg, we didn’t have a full-time PE teacher. I grew up loving sports and had a lot of family members that taught, but I had no intention of teaching. In college, I took a volleyball and bowling class. Patty Hacker was the instructor and said ‘I don’t have you on the roll. Oh well, you make an even number. You can stay.’ 

“So I accidently took intro to teaching bowling and volleyball. I thought, ‘I could do this if this was teaching … playing in the gym all the time.’”

Roach said, “It sounds kind of cheesy, but honestly,” Nelson was a big reason he decided to become a PE teacher. “The PE teachers I had growing up at Hillcrest, Mickelson Middle School and Brookings High School were awesome teacher educators.

In addition to Nelson, he cited Ken Tiefenthaler, Dave Kuhlman and Michelle Adamson at the middle school and Vonda Bjorklund, Patty Jorgensen and Gary Maffett at BHS.

Roach remembers Nelson for “always trying new ideas, going out of the box” for activities, such as bean bag toss tag or dodge ball with a bonus for hitting the backboard on the other end of the gym. Both students and teacher miss those days, but Nelson notes, “I still work with third-graders, they’re just taller. They still have that love for movement.”

Something else hasn’t changed: “Every day at class she (Nelson) is ready to go and ready to make us better teachers,” Roach said.