Ralph Cordova, Ph.D.
2nd Year as Del Sol Principal
28 Years as Teacher
This is Dr. Cordova’s second year serving Rio students as principal of Rio Del Sol Elementary School. Before working in Rio he served K-University students and teachers at the University of Missouri St. Louis as a tenured professor in the College of Education.
Dr. Cordova earned a Bachelor’s degree in German Literature & Language at the University of California Riverside in 1992. He earned his teaching credential in 1993 at the University of California Santa Barbara and taught for 14 years at La Patera School in the Goleta Union School District in grades, K, 2, 3 and 4. He completed his Master’s and PhD at the University of California Santa Barbara. Córdova is a trained educational ethnographer with numerous peer reviewed publications.
Dr. Cordova found a unique pathway to school site leadership. His work as both school site leader and educational researcher is connected to seeing and hearing the authentic voices and lives of learners and teachers. Ralph connects theory and practice on his new administrative journey to years of experience supporting teachers and educators in seeing learning and schooling from a natural perspective. Ralph is a natural maker, creator and learner. This desire to learn and create each day is an essential practice in this very dynamic work.
We asked Dr. Cordova the following three questions and his responses follow each;
- What do you think matters most to children when they attend school?
Children enter the world curious to connect to all around them. What matters most for children in school is to engage them as curious meaning-makers of the worlds which they inhabit. All children possess rich experiences and diverse knowledges. The adults to whom parents entrust their children are stewards or learning guides of the children, and it’s essential that the adults, too, practice curiosity on a daily basis as they are powerful models. What matters most for children is that schools become places for children to make new knowledges and not solely consume existing information for the sake of efficiency. Therefore, if done right, schools can become liberating ecosystems for children and the adults who serve them.
- How has your leadership changed over time and experience?
Years ago I participated in a national study on leadership conducted by the National Writing Project. I was interviewed as I had been nominated by colleagues as a leader. I was taken aback as I didn’t see myself as a leader. But as I looked back at the arc of my professional experience, I think I eschewed the label of ‘leader’ because I associated that word with a compliance-ensurer that was what I witnessed as a teacher of my principals, deans, etc., as being.
It wasn’t, really, until I co-founded the Cultural Landscapes Collaboratory (or CoLab) and a National Writing Project site, that I began to reshape how I understood leadership by living leadership in a way that did right by the people I served. Sure, leadership is about compliance and legalities to ensure all children are protected and learn, but that’s only a small part of it.
Leadership means not having to know everything, but the willingness to let yourself grow and evolve by being curious about what could be instead of what has always been done. Being a leader means growing co-leaders around you, who too can liberate themselves, in order to be fully present so that their educating practices are about assisting children to liberate their intellectual and socio-emotional gifts.
Growing up teaching, first as an elementary classroom teacher, then a university professor, and now a principal, I can see that what matters most to me in this leadership role is to support teachers, students and families to co-lead. This part requires all to be ok in the vulnerable space of not knowing. It also means that the answers are there to reveal themselves when we embark together on this ‘lets see what happens’ journey.
I say all this because opening up a new school, with a transdisciplinary focus, from scratch is hard work. It requires all of us to show up fully present and push back at traditional educational structures whose inertia is 100+ years in the making. And what an amazing journey to be part of something new, that I believe will change the lives for good for all our students.
- What has working in schools meant to you in terms of your own development as a person, husband, and citizen?
I’m super lucky that every day I am invited to see the world through the eyes of children. Their curiosities, openness, and fierce courage allows me to be the learner that I was never allowed to be when I was a youngster in school. Kids are my greatest teachers. The work of a school is a complex ecosystem; something that takes commitment to understand, and courage to reshape. In the 28 years I’ve been at this schooling, the work has shaped me to be more demanding and expectant in all aspects of my life.
My husband will testify that I can be ‘bossy’ (what I call direct :) at home. I have also learned to let go of the fantasy that I can get everything done in a day. It’s. Just. Not. Reality. I enjoy 10 mile walks with Clifford Terrier Esquire & JRT, our Jack Russell Terrier. Humor, laughter matters. I love my mom and step-dad’s long visits at our house. Cooking, laughing and sometimes, crying, make for a balance between work and home. Anyone doing this job can tell you that our home life often suffers from the demands placed on us as school leaders. I just center myself by attending to the breath, and embrace the journey I’m on, and do good by others.
I’m pretty clear that the river of learning, our children, are still pretty upstream from the downstream work of their later lives. I know what we offer them now will shape the kids of citizens they will become and inform how they will participate in their future worlds. Thus, as the grown-ups, we might do a great deed by allowing ourselves to be children again, and invite the students in our care to rise as leaders and be our teachers. It’s pretty hard to build the new using the language of the old, therefore, this business of school really at its core is an opportunity to get to the basics of ‘humaning’. It’s terrific work and by far the best job I’ve ever had. I’ve grown more in 2 years at the work than I can say I have in the last 20 years. It requires a different kind of knowing and being. It’s pretty awesome.