Former Ole Miss Linebacker Goes Pro in Something Other Than Sports
BY HAWLEY MARTIN
Deck: Jonathan Cornell, former Ole Miss linebacker, is using his work ethic from his experience as a successful athlete to shape the minds of high school students in Meridian, Miss., as a member of the Mississippi Teacher Corps.
Jonathan Cornell possesses an impressive resume as a former Ole Miss football player, earning four letters, serving as a team captain during his senior season, and playing instrumental roles in both back-to-back Cotton Bowl victories in 2009 and 2010.
But now that he has graduated from the university, Cornell is leaving an impact by teaching at Meridian High School.
Cornell graduated in the spring of 2011, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science.
Currently he is in his first year of a graduate program through the Teachers Corps and will receive a masters degree in curriculum and instruction at the completion of his two years.
Cornell said that the program is very demanding and rigorous, offering a description of the experience as one of “baptism by fire.”
Member students of the Corps teach at a school in an impoverished area and are enrolled in education classes for the program two Saturdays out of the month at the Oxford campus of Ole Miss.
Cornell said that he first heard about the program in 2009, but that his relationship with his Ole Miss football coaches Ed Orgeron and Tyrone Nix spiked his interest.
His coaches brought to his attention the need for relatable and smart teachers, improved education standards, and the importance of secondary education.
Through their conversations he learned that many athletically qualified high school student athletes were not selected to collegiate teams because of their poor academic performance.
“I remember having good conversations with Coach Orgeron and Coach Nix about recruiting, ” Cornell said. “Coach O is a big time recruiter, and then as my relationship matured with Coach Nix, I kind of got deeper into (the issue), and one of the reasons why a lot of Mississippian athletes weren’t recruited was because (the recruiters at Ole Miss) felt, and a lot of schools felt, like Mississippi athletes wouldn’t be able to become (academically) eligible.”
Cornell stated that his experience playing football is responsible in large part for his easy transition and success as he began teaching.
“I don’t want to say (teaching) is the same (as playing football), because it’s not, but the principles are still the same,” he said.
Cornell compared his role as a linebacker to his role as a teacher. Cornell explained that his actions and decisions on the football field had a direct affect on the responses and actions of the members the defensive team.
Similarly, he stated that his actions in the classroom directly affect the knowledge of his students.
Because his actions as a teacher directly affect his students’ futures, he said, “The biggest difference is that the stakes are higher in teaching,”
In connecting with his students, Cornell said that “having a deep well to draw from” with regards to his past experiences has helped him relate to his students.
He said that growing up with five sisters has allowed him to relate to the girls in his classes, and he joked, “the guys automatically think I’m cool because I played football and did relatively well.”
In addition, Cornell grew up in Azusa, Calif., and he said that this geographic nuance has afforded him with an abundance of cultural experiences that have made him more relatable to his students.
Cornell has sought guidance from a variety of individuals in his journey through the Teachers Corp program, but he said the academic influence he received from Susan Allen, one of his political science professors; the mentoring from his coach, Tyrone Nix; and the collaboration with his classmates have helped him the most in his progression through the graduate program.
“My teaching style is very similar to Coach Nix’s coaching style – intense pressure, upbeat, (the) let’s keep going, let’s go, know your stuff (attitude),” Cornell said.
Cornell said that working with students at Meridian High School has been a rewarding experience.
“The first thing that popped to mind is having the actual athletes in class,” Cornell said. “I have the credibility to actually tell them, ‘Yeah, what you’re doing is exceptional, but you still need to do your best, even with the things that you think aren’t that important.’”
Cornell also enjoys watching his students mature in knowledge.
“Just having children connect the dots in some kind of different way is pretty cool,” he said.
“The day a girl from my class came up to me and said ‘Hey, you know, your class really helped me with my history class, and I was able to give (my class) a whole explanation of why it was that this (historical event) happened.”
While Cornell said that teaching is rewarding, he also noted that the job comes with challenges.
“You get so engaged with your students that by the end of the day you’re just drained,” Cornell explained. “You don’t have any more energy.”
In comparing the fatigue and strain to playing football, he said, “You’re not engaging and assessing and doing all these mental gymnastics that you have to go through in order to be a teacher.”
Cornell stated conclusively about the challenges of teaching, “giving it (my) all everyday, (my) best everyday, consistently,” is the ultimate goal that he has achieved, and continues to push himself to achieve, in his quest to improve the learning environment at Meridian High School.