In Loco Parentis: Interview with Dan Cordova
New teachers, it turns out, have very little personal time. Between lesson plans, waking up at the crack of dawn, and handling masses of children all day, I’ve always been surprised they don’t just go home and turn themselves off for a few hours, rebooting the next morning to do it all again.
However, it takes a special breed to teach in America’s primary and secondary educational systems, one that disempowers those who act as “substitute parents” as soon as they enter school grounds. These folks must be stalwart of heart and dedicated to a future they may never see or benefit from. I remember one of my favorite teachers, Ms. Hyland, once asking me why I wouldn’t just “take one for the team, be a true revolutionary, and teach high school.” The thought horrified me. Still does, most days. I remember telling her I would always be a revolutionary, but I’d never want to be one teaching in a high school.
Luckily for us all, the dedicated folks who teach, babysit, mentor, and care for our children are the kind of people who take all the difficulties of teaching in stride. I met online with one such individual in the middle of what was, for me, a lovely Sunday afternoon spent sewing with friends. He answered my call in the midst of lesson plans and laundry. Dan Cordova, a new technology teacher at a local Colorado Springs middle school, shared with me the reasons why he teaches. After a brief conversations ranging from tech problems to my recently changed hair color, I began one of the most intensely exploratory interviews I’ve had the pleasure to conduct.
Dan: I was more one of the pilots of the original group. Before there was Move Mountains, I was helping the main founder, Miguel. I came down with him our first time. . . . So, I was one of the first people to go down and teach poetry with him to the kids in the valley.
Lindsay: So you were really one of the first participants and one of the first teachers to go down there?
Dan: Yeah. Before I was a teacher, yes.
Lindsay: But you taught poetry.
Dan: Before I knew I was a teacher.
Lindsay: What was your experience during the week that you were down with the Move Mountain’s Project?
Dan: The first night I got there, my experience was first off, breathtaking just because of the absolute beauty that is in San Luis. I had the pleasure of arriving on the night of a really wonderful sunset. I think that’s part of the purity of San Luis, is that it’s still–you’re still able to view the sunset without having to look across a sea of city lights. So that’s the first thing that really made me fall in love with San Luis to begin with, even for the first times I’d been there. Being a small community and a small town there, the tranquility compared to a city, really [makes it] a place you want to go back to over and over again.
The first few kids I met were the boys, three of them being kids who I think were introverted towards outsiders, and then, of course, I met Sam, who is the opposite of that description. So I got to see kids who I recognized in terms of seeing the same things I see in the school I work in in Colorado Springs.
And I think that they’re kids, the same as kids who grow up in the city in terms of social realities, identity. It was really interesting to me to not feel out of place from the moment I arrived. I felt like it was an age group I was familiar with, it was a culture that I have experience with, and part of it feels like home, but that’s more personally speaking.
Lindsay: Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. As an educator, you deal with kids a lot, obviously. How do you think that experiential learning [like the curriculum in Move Mountains] can be incorporated into the traditional classroom?
Dan: I think that’s a matter of connecting the student with their surroundings and actually making them aware that just because they’re kids doesn’t mean that they don’t take a part in everyday life in terms of their community. So, I think the big disconnect between students and their education is experience. They don’t have access to the learning necessary with the structure and the subject matter that’s traditionally presented in the public educational system.
They’re fighting not to get the material, but instead, they’re fighting between choosing their identity as a social being or choosing their identity as a student. There’s a separation between the two. I think that that’s something that, thankfully, the education system hasn’t caught onto yet because they want kids to be the same because that’s measurable. Without unanimous results, you can’t justify what you’re paying for, and the problem is that the world doesn’t work because everyone’s the same. The world works because we have an ecosystem, we have an ecology to support, and we are part of an ecology.
But again, if you as a student are not taught from that perspective, what interest would you have in the environment? What interest would you have in the economy? What interest would you have in local politics or world politics if you don’t get a say in anything or you don’t get to take part in anything to begin with?
To answer your question, the main benefit of experiential learning is that a person can connect and find a social identity to their education versus having to choose one or the other.
Lindsay: That’s really interesting—the dichotomy and the fact that students have to choose their own personal identities or that they really have to be really into education. Is that really what you’re saying?
Dan: There’s that social mandate that states that you basically stick with your homies, you stick with those you identify with, those you grew up with, and you stake your identity in that. That mandate is much stronger than the mandate that you stake your interests and your abilities around your education.
Lindsay: So really, you’re talking about how kids have to choose between putting their energies into [being part of] social in-groups or putting their energy into classroom work and educational stuff.
Lindsay: And there’s no connection between the social aspects of school and the educational aspects of school—they’re very separate, yes?
Dan: Well, looking at it in a broader context, there’s no way to connect traditional institutional education to an environment where culture and community are doing everything they can to combat that institutionalization for an obvious reason. What I’m saying is that institutional education seeks to ruin culture. Before we had public education, education was very much grounded in the local culture and the local philosophy, which is why traditionally education has been such a large part of religious institutions.
Dan: So, without being able to connect someway to your local ecology, your local culture, we get lost, and it’s a desire to belong, to have a connection to who you are as an individual based on where you’re from, what you look like, what language, what lingo you use, and you can’t standardize that. And so, we have to instead create a platform for those things to wrap around, almost like creating a lattice for a vine.
Lindsay: Ahhh. Do you think that you could create a lattice that allows the cultural educations and the institutional educations to grow together?
Dan: Well, I don’t think any one person can do that, and I don’t think that any one group of people can do it. I think it’s going to take everyone from every part of the world to really find that commonality so that everyone can find a framework to build upon without having to betray or to do away with their local culture, their family.
Lindsay: Yeah, and maybe that’s something that could be taught to kids, how to grow that together in themselves, you know? Because, I think what you’re saying is that it’s a very individualistic thing. You can’t really put it into a program and say, “This is the program for teaching people how to do this.” You have to kind of be a guide to kids, to show them, maybe, how to do it, if you could help them figure that out.
Lindsay: I think that’s pretty cool, and also, it really points out a really big gap in our educational system that’s really not being addressed at all.
Dan: It’s a big gap in our political system, and in my opinion, it’s a big gap in American culture. This idea, “Assimilate others and make them fit your ideologies,” narrows your possibilities.
Lindsay: Yeah. It really does. And I think it also drives some people absolutely crazy. Totally. Some teenagers just cannot handle it. At least I know that I had a really hard time handling the social aspects because I’m an introvert, and the social aspects of school are what really messed me up and stopped me. I was trying so hard to fit in, but I was really good at all the school work, so I didn’t have to worry about that. But it took me till high school to even sort of fit in.
Lindsay: Wow. Well, through that, you actually answered my next question, so I’m going to move to the question after that. As a teacher, you really help shape kids at really formative moments in their lives. Especially in middle school, that’s really when kids get part of their identity. What would you say your experience of this process is, and why is teaching important to you?
Dan: I’ve been at my current school for the past three years, so this is my year as a teacher, so I my experience in the past was more one-on-one and more with small groups. In terms of—you know, I had a student club where I taught computers, and most of my job was fixing their laptops, and they’d come up to the help desk, and I’d fix their laptop for them.
During that time, I’d have short conversations with them. Every single experience was an opportunity for me to understand where they’re coming from and to pass on what little bit of wisdom I could and relate it to their personal experience in terms of bringing me their computer and needing it to be fixed. You know, like how this is a problem, how did it come to be a problem, that kind of thing. Like, how can I train you to take care of this laptop in a way that you’re not creating your own problems? (laughter)
Lindsay: (laughter) Yeah.
Dan: With the computer club, a lot of it was seeing their relationships and seeing how they were untied and how they were divided as individuals, but also to recognize the potential in each one of them, where they will be good as adults and where even I feel like I might need practice as an adults. Basically, understanding them as individuals, as human beings, not as simply as kids or adults, but looking at it on a spectrum.
And that’s how I try to view a lot of issues. Rather that viewing them as black and white, I try to see the spectrum, and there are some kids who are just naturally more adult than others, and what I found interesting was that the ones that were the most flexible and the most open to ideas are the ones who are a little bit less adult in a sense—for middle school, if you know what I mean?
Dan: Less self awareness, less of a desire to really make adults happy, ones who just had more life experience in terms of what they dealt with at home, they were the ones who were not usually as good of students. Interesting to me, thinking about it now. Not all of them, obviously, but there were several who–they had more of an individual identity and expression and were more confident about themselves, and they were also less open to criticism or recommendations or anything, really, that wasn’t being said by their friends.
And the ones who were more eager to get your attention and get some kind of praise from you were usually the ones who had less of that real-world experience. Some of them had more parenting, more dedicated and devoted, like their parents were more involved at home as much as possible. They were less eager to be individuals and more eager to have your attention.
It was interesting because I found that I was doing the opposite thing to both groups of students. The ones who were less individualistic and more seeking of praise—I would try to make them just happy with themselves and tell them, “Don’t think about what I think about it. How do you think you did on this?”
And with the other students, the ones who said, “I did what you wanted the best I know how, and I don’t expect it to get any better than that,” and it was like there was no room for criticism. It’s such a weird teenager thing. So that’s one of those things I’m still working on when working with students—if they don’t care, you care, so how do you give them something they care about and connect it to their learning? Make it more real to them?
If they don’t have some reason to care about their education, or to care about—more importantly, their ability to learn and what they learn and be in control of what they learn, then we’re basically raising the adults that no one wants. Not only will they feel that they have no control of their lives and the way they’re treated, but they’ll be less open to suggestions when we try to help them, and it’s much easier to help a kid when they’re still a kid–that is, when they’re becoming and adult.
Lindsay: Absolutely. So, why is teaching really important to you, though?
Dan: Because we are raising the future. We are raising the next generation of voters, the next generation of workers, the next generation of thinkers, the next generation of artists. I want those people to be good ’cause I don’t think that you can make change in the world by voting the right way once. I think that you can only make change in the world by having a hand in shaping the world to come, and I can’t exactly do anything to control future outcomes, but I can do something to influence it just enough to make the world a little bit better for the next group of people, connecting my experience to theirs.
I think that there’s a lot of things about this world that I’m not happy with and that I’d like to see changed. When people become critically minded and start asking questions that are important, I’ll help them develop their identities in connection to who they are, to their social identity, I’ll help them bridge those gaps. But most importantly, I’ll help them learn how to learn from their successes and their mistakes.
The point is, right now, we’ve got a lot of mistakes to learn from, and if we’re not turned on to learning before we even get to the polls, then all we’re going to be is puppets.
Lindsay: Exactly. That’s awesome. It’s a very dedicated and beautiful reason to be teaching. Thank you for sharing that. So, the Move Mountains Project, next year, is really going to focus more on gleaning wisdom from the Elders in the community of San Luis, their wisdom, and learning things from them. I think, in American Culture, our Elders are often marginalized, their wisdom is disregarded, and we generally tend to ignore them because American culture is very—well, I would call it very “teenagerish.” You know?
So, how do you think we as a culture can create more respect for the Elders in our community in the youth and in ourselves?
Dan: I think part of that requires us to make better elders. I think there’s a lot of people who grew up in a terrible environment, and now have an attitude that, you know, let’s be honest, there’s some things that the last generation did that we don’t want to pass on. So, I think part of it is just helping make better people, and that starts by making a better environment, a better culture, to begin with.
And then, I also think that it’s also a matter of having more cross-generational learning, and having that be something that goes on after school. One of the ways that adults are seen is sculpted by how the hierarchies are established with home, school, and life in general.
You have a few leading many, which means [kids] are exposed to a few adults who have to control many. [The adults] have to have this attitude, this demeanor, that makes them a lot less personable and casts them in a role that puts boundaries between them. I think that our perception of adults is always as “the boss,” the people telling us what to do, when it doesn’t have to be that way.
If you could see adults being adults without it having to be a shameful thing, i.e. drinking, smoking, whatever, if you can see adults being good adults, not being rowdy, not being off the walls crazy—adults actually modeling real behavior, modeling positive behavior, and not the fantasy that we see in rap videos, or bad rap videos. It’s about creating a better culture, creating better models for them to connect with, and not feeling ashamed of ourselves as adult society.
Shame should not enter the context of the classroom, but it does because our culture not only permits but actively encourages it.
Dan and I continued to talk for some time, exploring what holds teachers back in the educational system, how American culture devalues the teacher, and how teachers often find it hard to share themselves fully with their students due to barriers we build over a lifetime accruing experience in a hurtful culture. For instance, he brought up that one way to create better elders is to create spaces in which they can share with kids, show them that adults aren’t just the ones in charge but exist as actual real people in their lives. How we show that to students, however, remains to be seen, though one of the best ways may be to allow for real, authentic dialogue between youth and the Elders in their communities.
Dan’s insight throughout our discussion creates a powerful context for understanding educators, their frustrations, and the reasons why, year after year, more teachers join the ranks to create space for social transformation.
¡Viva la Revolución!