From camping to coaching: new teacher Mary Ellen Avery strives to ‘make fitness fun’


Mary Ellen Avery smiles on the summit of East Temple Peak in Wyoming in the summer of 2015. “I have worn that sparkle shirt on every single trip that I worked for NOLS,” Avery wrote in an email. “I think it helps remind me to stay happy and have fun out there.” Image courtesy of Avery.

Many Archer students know Mary Ellen Avery as a coach or teacher in the fitness department, but few may know that prior to arriving at Archer, Avery instructed courses at the National Outdoor Leadership School [NOLS].

Though she left her warm winter layers behind, Avery made sure to bring her “positivity” with her from the outdoor world to the Archer community.

Early Life and Education

Avery was born in New York City, but moved to Southern California when she was eight months old. She went on to attend Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach.

“I played water polo [in high school and college], but besides playing water polo — I was kind of awkward. I was athletic, but I wasn’t a traditional ‘jock’,” Avery said. “[Water polo] was what got me through high school. I think it’s important to find a group to connect with, and that was my connection.”

After attending California State University, Long Beach, Avery worked at Emerald Cove Outdoor Science Institute for six years. Over the summer, she assisted with Girl Scout troops and led rafting trips.

“Through [Emerald Cove], I eventually connected with NOLS, started working for them and loved that as well,” Avery said.

NOLS Career

According to NOLS’ website, “the mission of the National Outdoor Leadership School is to be the leading source and teacher of wilderness skills and leadership that serve people and the environment.”

Avery poses atop Pingora Dome in the Cirque of the Towers, Wyoming. NOLS is based in Lander, Wyoming. Photo courtesy of Avery.

As a course leader, Avery instructed many expeditions, where she taught rock climbing and backpacking. The longest course she ever led was 90 days.

“My favorite courses [to teach] were Arrow Week courses,” Avery said. “I always liked Archer girls; they were just really fun.”

“[I loved] living most of my days outside in nature away from computers and TV and all that bombardment we get here in the city,” Avery said. My other favorite part [of working for NOLS] was how close [I] could get with the people that I was out there with.”

Avery conducted graduate research at Texas State University on how female leadership is affected in outdoor settings — a concept she strongly supports.

“The relationships that are built, all the mentorship that can happen and the breaking through gender stereotypes that occurs [in the wilderness] is awesome,” Avery said. “Working with Arrow Week students in an all female group showed me all that in practice.”

Click the audio clip on the right to hear Avery recount her favorite story from a NOLS course.

On NOLS courses, Avery worked to frame each day in a positive way and teach her students that “every moment is a learning moment.”

“Hard times [are] actually when we learn the most,” Avery said. “In those moments we can grow the most and accomplish the most things.”

According to Avery, the optimism and tolerance for adversity that she embraced at NOLS has “absolutely” carried into her professional life at Archer.

Path to Archer

Avery currently works as fitness coach and ninth grade adviser at Archer.

“All female learning environments are really powerful places,” Avery said. “So when the opportunity came up to work in one permanently, while I was sad to leave the outdoor world, I was excited.”

All female learning environments are really powerful places.”

— Mary Ellen Avery

Avery noted that it had been an “easy transition” from NOLS to Archer because there are “a lot of things that overlap” in their respective missions.

“Coach Avery brings a lot of enthusiasm and positive energy every single day to all of her classes and all of her students,” Middle School Athletic Director and Fitness and Wellness Department Chair Kristen Benjamin said. “She’s organized, she works hard and she is a great team player. She is a great addition to the fitness team.”

Benjamin added that Avery’s experience with challenging situations, collaboration and planning that she learned with NOLS has affected the way Avery teaches.

“It’s clear that [Avery] cares about [her students], wants to get to know them and really just wants the best for them,” Benjamin said.

Stephanie Ferri, fitness teacher and Director of Outdoor Education, called Avery “a joy” to work with.

Photo by Anna Brodsky
Avery works with eighth-grade students in their fitness class. Avery grew up in Los Angeles.

“Myself and the whole fitness department love fitness. We naturally think it’s fun, but many students don’t naturally picture being fit and working out as fun,” Avery said. “A goal that I have is framing fitness in a way where it can be fun, and should be something that’s valuable and positive.”

Avery expressed hope that her background with NOLS would allow her to offer a unique perspective on Arrow Week, especially to students dreading the experience.

“I’m excited to cultivate excitement about Arrow Week. I think especially if you have never gone before or you have had a bad experience on a past one, it can be hard to get excited about [those] coming up,” she said. “I hope I can be a person who fuels excitement and maybe quells some fears.”

Avery conveyed both her gratitude for Archer’s “fun” atmosphere and her appreciation of the student body as a whole.

“All the students here seem motivated and excited and they just work hard,” she said. “They are excited to do positive things for each other, and being a part of that community feels awesome.”