Dr. Cordell Celebrates Teaching at FWCD for 20 years


Rhea Alexander

John Cordell teaching an enginnering class.

Rhea Alexander, Reporter

At this year’s Founders Day, Dr. John Cordell celebrated his 20th year teaching at Fort Worth Country Day. Cordell teaches physics and is a sponsor of the Solar Car Club. He began his teaching career in New York and taught at the New York Board of Education for four years; he later transferred to Fort Worth Country Day in 2003, replacing his own father, Andy Cordell, as an Upper School physics teacher. 

Cordell’s original dream was to be a train engineer but, during college at Texas A&M University, he changed his mind frequently. 

“I went to college as an aerospace engineer and I really liked the classes initially. I went all the way with that until I was a junior but then I had sort of a crisis,” Cordell said.

At the time of his crisis, Cordell had been accepted into upper level classes, which required you to maintain a certain GPA. The more popular the engineering major, the higher the GPA requirement was to get into their upper level classes.

“I was doing really well in my classes, but I hated it and, I don’t know, I just hated school, but I was spending so much time at a computer,” Cordell said.

Cordell strongly disliked his major of aerospace engineering because he had to spend so much time in front of a computer, so one day he walked out. 

“I had just gotten a very good test grade back in a civil engineering class, and I was so sick of it. I walked out of the class immediately, and I thought, I want to camp for the rest of my life,” Cordell said.

After leaving class and thinking about other possible choices, he settled on zoology, because he wanted to be outside. He changed his major and dropped his current classes. He signed up for the zoology classes and started attending the zoological clubs, but he began to question his career path again. 

“I thought, well, I don’t know if I care enough about the zoological stuff. I mean, I like camping, but I would really like to help people. I really wanted to help people,” Cordell said.

Unsure of which major he wanted to choose, he switched to physics for the rest of his junior year. 

“I was physics for a year until my senior year and then I said, how am I going to help people with physics? So I switched to psychology,” Cordell said.

When Cordell switched to psychology, he had not yet taken a single psychology class. He took his first class and in the second semester of his senior year, it became his major.

He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology. 

“My first job was at the Lena Pope Home [in Fort Worth],” Cordell said.

The Lena Pope Home was an organization that worked with recovery and youth who had been through the Texas Juvenile Detention system. The kids came from all over Texas and the Lena Pope home was their second chance. Cordell worked with male adolescents who were chemically addicted. 

“I worked in that house and it was very little pay and it was crazy. For very little pay and lots of hours per week, you ended up, like, having kids threaten you,” Cordell said.

He had a specific threatening encounter with a teenage boy during the summer he spent at the Lena Pope home. 

“One of the kids took a beef with me for summer. I can’t even remember why, but one of the other kids called me over and he said Randy took one of the knives from the kitchen and he’s planning on knifing you and running away tonight, and I hadn’t seen Randy in awhile and so we went looking for Randy. Randy decided to follow through with the second part of his plan, but thankfully, he didn’t knife me which was the first part of his plan. He just threw the knife in the bushes and he just took off,” Cordell said. 

After awhile working for the Lena Pope Home, he again questioned his career and job. 

“It was a very hard job; it was very emotionally draining, and there wasn’t much pay. My plan at that time was I was going to work that for a while and get a Master’s in social work. And then I thought, ‘Well, I don’t know if I can do this.’ I hadn’t known what I wanted to do for a while,” Cordell said.

After being laid off from the Lena Pope home due to a massive change in the institution and at a loss for what he wanted to pursue in his adult life, Cordell called one of his friends from college. 

“I had this friend, Chris, who I’d taken acting classes with at A&M. We had always said like, hey, when we graduate, let’s go to New York. I was at loose ends, so I called this friend up, and I said, ‘Let’s go to New York. I don’t know what I want to do right now.’ So I sold my car and got a one-way plane ticket to New York,” Cordell said.

When he and his friend finally made it to New York, Cordell took a job waiting tables and auditioning for roles as an actor. He got into a car wreck and questioned his career of being an actor.

“My face got pretty messed up and I thought, ‘Maybe I don’t want to do anything that relies on my looks or anything like that,’” Cordell said.

Cordell started taking classes at the City University, and one of the professors offered him a scholarship program: if he taught in the New York City Public School system and he could get a stipend, he’d get paid as a New York City public school teacher and get all his coursework for free. 

“I applied for that scholarship, and I got that scholarship. I began teaching in the New York City public schools, and I really liked it.”

After beginning his journey as a physics teacher in New York, Cordell had some issues adjusting to the different culture of the students.  

“At first it was really hard because I was like a young guy from suburban Fort Worth and I had to get these city kids to respect me. I had kind of a tough time relating, but then I was there for four years and I actually started really liking it. I liked the kids and the classes and I guess I started empathizing and relating to them, and that’s how I got into education,” Cordell said.

Cordell had a four-year commitment in New York, and his wife wanted to move closer to home to gain support because they had two kids at the time, and his wife was pregnant with their third. He began looking for jobs and attending conventions that private schools hold to look for teachers. 

“My dad, who was teaching here, said, ‘Hey, John, you know, I’m going to retire this year. Why don’t you apply for this position?’ I said, ‘No way. I’m not going to do that. That would be too weird,’” Cordell said.

Cordell was not a student at FWCD, but he did not want to be too close to home. He still wanted to live in a different place, but he applied for the position as FWCD’s physics teacher anyway. 

“Well, I put in my application and got accepted,” Cordell said.

He was offered a position in New Orleans, but felt that Fort Worth was going to be a better place to raise his family. 

“I had misgivings. But I was thinking, I think it’s the best for my family. For teaching. So that’s how I ended up here,” Cordell said.

When he first started teaching at FWCD, he had to adjust again to the different teaching environment. 

“I had probably grown accustomed to the other way I had taught inner city kids and the class sizes were a lot smaller,” Cordell said.

Cordell has taught physics, math, and general science. 

“It’s been 20 years, so there are a bunch [of memories] that flash in my mind if I start thinking back or just certain interactions and in my head they’re kind of isolated from everything else,” Cordell said. 

“As a teacher, my favorite part is getting to know each of the kids. I like their sense of humor. I like interacting with the kids and I like trying to get students excited about what I’m supposed to teach. I like for a student to be engaged and want to learn but not the hyper emphasis on grades and the stressing about grades. I don’t care about any of that,” Cordell said.