Raydell Cordell III does a hallway greeting with his students before they enter his classroom at Loveland Elementary School.
By Ashia Aubrey
If you were to walk into Raydell Cordell III's classroom, you would see an array of colorful children's art and students captivated by the excitement and joy he incorporates in his teaching practices.
“That’s what we’re going to do today, Kindergarten friends, we’re going to actually use the art materials,” he says. Working with students has been his lifelong dream since he was 10 years old, and he doesn’t take for granted the position he holds as an educator in his hometown of Omaha.
“I knew that I was either going to be an actor or a teacher. I just knew those were the two areas I gravitate towards. I like connecting with people. I love telling stories," Cordell said.
Luckily, now he gets to do both. Growing up, he had a lot of performing arts exposure. He took classes at The Rose Theater, worked as a house manager at the Rose’s box office, was an intern, and participated in the theater’s education program in high school, where he worked with children interested in the arts. Later in life, those experiences were a huge bonus for him and helped him develop his teaching process.
“I started to teach acting classes my senior year, and I was able to bring in everything I learned from rehearsals, how to be able to share stories, how to be able to connect with folks, how to be able to, again, listen and respond, I was able to transfer that into my classroom,” he said.
When Cordell is not teaching acting classes at night and collaborating with artists, he helps shape the future of 600 elementary school kids as an art teacher at Loveland Elementary and Westgate Elementary in Westside Community Schools. His passion for working with children has led him on a 15-year journey with many roles with the Westside district. He’s worked as a before- and after-school teacher and assistant site director in Westside Early Childhood Centers. Cordell also held positions as a site director of the before- and after-school program at Loveland Elementary, where he implemented a theater program for students, and worked as an education assistant at the school. He was also a behavioral interventionist.
Once upon a time, he considered taking his talents to Chicago, but Westside was committed to ensuring he had what he needed to succeed as an educator in the state. As a result, Cordell said he has a lot of opportunities to excel personally and professionally, like taking advantage of the district's graduate school reimbursement program so he could receive a master's in elementary education for free. Included in Westside's 2021-2026 strategic plan are district goals focused on retaining and mentoring existing staff and growing diversity in their applicant pool so their educators can reflect the district's demographics.
“I always want to be part of a community that is supportive, but also a community that helps me grow as an individual,” he said.
In the classroom, Cordell believes the four C’s are monumental life skills for young learners—create, connect, collaborate, and communicate. He wants them to be inspired and feel welcomed. Every day, he does a hallway greeting with his students before they enter his classroom. "I will say, ‘what's up ...class?’ And then they respond, ‘what's up, Mr. Cordell?’ And then I'll ask them, ‘are you ready to create?’”
Raydell Cordell III reading to his class.
“I want everyone to feel like they're safe here in my classroom,” he said. It’s important for his students to feel valued. “If you're having a hard time at home, if you're having a hard time in your classroom, in the hallway, just know my room is always a safe space.”
He is a big advocate for supporting and bringing diversity to the forefront of his teaching and knows it’s rare to be a Black male in the classroom. About 2% of public school teachers in the U.S. are Black men, according to a study by the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Cordell credits Westside for supporting him to show up as his authentic self, as a person of color, and their efforts to promote the importance of inclusivity in the classroom.
Recently, the district started WE-SIDE Community Council—Welcoming Equity Support Inclusion and Dignity for Everyone, to ensure students, families, and staff all feel a sense of belonging. These qualities also translate into his teaching—Cordell wants all his students to feel embraced and seen. Loveland and Westgate have a significant number of children of color, where 42% of students identify as a race/ethnicity other than White at both schools according to 2020-2021 data from the Nebraska Department of Education.
“As a Black man, you know, it gives them the opportunity to learn from a different individual,” he said. “I advocate that we're all different, we're all unique, we all have different stories and experiences. So, when we're able to share that in a positive, inclusive learning environment, a lot of great things are going to happen.”
Cris Lopez Anderson, the program administrator at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, is inspired by Cordell’s educational journey. As a former school principal, she recognizes the strides Westside is taking to build a thriving workforce. She believes it’s essential for children to see examples of zealous educators like Cordell so they can know education is as valuable as any other profession.
“So, what can we do as educators to see those skills in kids as young as first grade, sixth grade, eighth grade, so that they can be thinking and seeing themselves being a teacher,” Lopez Anderson said. “How do we give that kind of importance to the teaching force that is as important as any?”
A recent survey by the National Education Association reports that 55% of educators are considering leaving the field, with teachers of color more likely to leave the profession. Cordell is aware that his job as a teacher can be complex and requires a lot of juggling. He says he is committed to the work and looks forward to continuing his career as an educator even 10 years from now. Building relationships with students and helping them reach their fullest potential keeps him energized and is something he feels fortunate to do.
“When I’m in the room walking around teaching, connecting with students by looking in their eyes, there’s a really positive surge of energy that’s throughout the room,” he said. “I can feel it, the students can feel it, and to me, it’s an affirmation, yeah, I’m exactly where I need to be, and everything I have done and every choice I have made has led to this moment right now, and it feels incredibly awesome.”
Ashia Aubrey is a Preschool Development Grant communications specialist at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska. Previously, she was the associate director of communications at an Omaha nonprofit and served as a reporter and television news anchor in Nebraska, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.
Have a question, comment, or a story idea? Reach Ashia at firstname.lastname@example.org