Story by J. A. Scott
Former University of Mississippi middle linebacker Jonathan Cornell has gone from breaking through offensive linemen to teaching Meridian High School students about African American literature and public speaking during his first year in the Mississippi Teacher Corps.
The February UM education student of the month, Cornell grew up as the youngest of six children in Azusa, California. He graduated from Bishop Amat High School in 2006 with a football scholarship to Ole Miss. He graduated in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in political science.
“He’s become an outstanding teacher in a short time,” said Aaron Johnson acting Teacher Corps program manager who nominated Cornell. “I think it’s because he’s extremely positive and wants to share his experiences. He came from a challenging background in California, then became a successful football player, then he became a teacher in a critical needs school. He reaches out to his students and teaches in an almost coaching fashion.”
During his undergraduate years, the athlete-turned-teacher said he became intellectually inspired by several UM faculty members including political science professor Susan Allen—one of multiple teachers, he remembers, who inspired him to think deeper and even apply the mindset of a linebacker to his studies.
“I knew we were reaching him when he started drawing parallels between theories of international conflict and football,” said Allen. “I have no doubt that his students in Meridian are starting to make connections between the things they learn in Mr. Cornell’s class and their everyday lives.”
During one of Allen’s political science classes, Cornell remembers submitting drafts of a research paper while the professor continually asked him to reevaluate his work with questions such as “Why do you think this?” and “Why do you propose that?”
At first, he became frustrated. But today, he appreciates the “why” questions and tries to bring the same challenge to his students. He also applies his football experience to his new career.
“I remember Coach O used to always tell us ‘be a pro’,” he said. “I didn’t fully understand that until I joined the Teacher Corps. As a teacher you have to be a pro every day with all that you do.”
The Teacher Corps offers non-education college graduates teacher training and job placement for two years in critical-needs schools across North and Central Mississippi as well as the chance to earn a master’s degree in education free of charge during weekend classes and summer classes at the UM School of Education, the state’s largest producer of teacher and educational leadership candidates.
A rigorous summer training program, hosted by Teacher Corps staff and faculty at Holly Springs High School with summer school students from surrounding North Mississippi school districts, is a trial by fire for new recruits.
The process is heavily based on learning by doing combined with a mentor system between Teacher Corps veterans and current members. Not unlike athletes, teachers are asked to review their performance on video and address strengths and weaknesses as classroom leaders.
“You’re thrown out there and you either sink or swim,” said Cornell. “The majority of us end up swimming but there are a few who end up sinking. That strengthens you.”
Cornell hopes to continue his teaching career after he graduates from the program in May 2014.