Animal House! IRSD Teacher of the Year has passion for education, critters

Q & A Cordrey with luke her dog

Jennifer Cordrey with her trusty canine companion Luke, who frequently visits her agri-science classroom at Indian River High School.

DAGSBORO – Jennifer Cordrey is Indian River School District 2015-16 Teacher of the Year.

Her agri-science instruction room at Indian River High School is literally an “animal house.”

Critters with fur and a few with fins are pampered, spoiled and cared for by students and teacher as live-in classroom “guinea pigs” in animal science/pre-vet medicine components of agri-science instruction.

Baloo, a gray rabbit, hops freely about.

Q & A Cordrey with Jo Jo ferret

Jennifer Cordrey cuddles Jo-Jo the ferret, one of the many animals that call her classroom home.

Other animal house inhabitants: Jo-Jo the ferret; Aurora the chinchilla; Sundrop, Moe and Crush the geckos; guinea pigs, Chomper and Mr. B; mini dwarf hamsters Thing 1, Thing 2 and Thing 3; and Max the hedgehog.

Luke the dog, a “rescue” who is part of the Cordrey family that lives just down the road in Dagsboro, is a frequent classroom visitor.

“Luke is my dog. I just bring him in from time to time. I use him to demonstrate …,” said Ms. Cordrey. “He always gets a treat and he gets head scratches. The kids love him.”

A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School in Berlin, Md. and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Ms. Cordrey resides in Dagsboro with husband Kevin Cordrey – Indian River’s other agri-science instructor. She has an 11-year-old son Ben, who attends Lord Baltimore Elementary, and 5-year-old kindergartener Rex, and 16-year-old step-daughter Abigail Lathbury, a sophomore at Indian River High School.

Last April. Ms. Cordrey, 39, was chosen as the district’s overall teacher honoree. On Tuesday, Oct. 20, she’ll represent the Indian River district at the Delaware Department of Education’s annual Teacher of the Year event at Dover Downs.

Talk about the decision to change your career major from veterinary medicine to agri-science education.

“Initially I majored in pre-vet medicine. But then I met a professor – his name is Dr. George Shorter, a very nice man who came up to me randomly one day and started talking to me about changing my major to ag education. I had no clue where this is coming from; thinking the man is crazy, not because I didn’t want to get into education but it wasn’t on my radar because I really wanted to be a vet.”

“But he said that he had been watching how I interacted with my peers and how I helped lead discussions and lead lab sections. He thought that I had the skills required to be a teacher. That got the wheels turning. I had a few more meetings with him. It didn’t take too much to convince me. I just decided, ‘Hey, I love animals and I want to be a vet, but I can do it and educate, too.’ So I changed my major and the rest is history. And I do not regret it.”

“My husband Kevin Cordrey is the other half of the ag department. Technically, he is my supervisor; he is the head of the department. He works just down the hall. I met him here. We’ve been married 12 years, going on 13.”

“I never grew up on a farm. My mother did. And it’s not that I wouldn’t have loved it; I love manual labor. I love doing hands-on and getting-dirty kind of stuff. I didn’t even get in ag classes in high school because it was the vo-tech.”

Your IRSD teaching career actually began at Sussex Central?

“This is my 16th year teaching. I started in 2000 at Sussex Central; I was considered a long-term substitute. I kept my foot in the door by doing summer school. Then I got a phone call one day from Mr. Mark Steele, who was the (IRHS) principal at the time. He needed a teacher that was certified in both special education and ag. He needed dual certification. I had both. So I accepted the position. And within five minutes they came and offered me the job at Sussex Central but I had already accepted IR’s. I had to say I was lucky, because if you think about it I might not have met Kevin. There was a reason; fate came into play there.”

Not only animal science/pre-vet medicine, you teach horticulture, landscaping, turf management?

“I love it. And it also breaks up the day. We’re not stuck in the classroom all of the time. We get to go outside and do stuff outdoors. The kids love it. They love to go outside. I mean why wouldn’t you? We don’t have recess anymore in high school unless you have gym. The kids did all the landscaping around here … little projects.”

“Kevin teaches level 1 in animal science, I teach level 2, he teaches level 3 and I teach level 4.”

Is there a trick to your instructional approach?

“I don’t know that it is a trick. I think a lot of it is a personality trait. I am not the type of person who can sit here and have you just write notes and give a test and expect them to know how to do it. I can’t do that. I still can’t do that at 40 years old. You have to show me and then I have do it myself before I can grasp the concept.”

“That is the way I learned. And I always ask my students like the first couple days of school: ‘How many of you retain information more efficiently if you physically do it yourself?’ Every one of them, their hands are up.”

“I think that is one of the benefits of teaching agri-science. Yeah, I’ll do notes and we’ll do worksheets and I’ll explain to you how to do stuff and then I’ll demonstrate. But it doesn’t stop there. You are going to do it – with my guidance of course.”

Students, past and present, help in instruction?

“I have a lot of kids in here that come from a farming background or an ag background. So they have a lot it of already, that knowledge. I use it to my advantage, to help me with other students that may not be grasping the concept fast enough. And a lot of times it’s my other students, or even past FFA members I’ve had or past ag students. They’ll come in and get involved.”

It sounds like this isn’t the typical education routine.

“I get the opportunity to meet a lot of my students on a different level, than just a regular classroom teacher, from being the FFA advisor. We get to do a lot of activities after school that are fun, like pumpkin carving. We go bowling. We have a movie night in here, right in my room. We watch movies; we have hot dog machines and popcorn. Or we’ll go ice skating. So I get to know them other than just being their ag teacher.”

“It’s ‘Oh, Miss Cordrey. She knows how to ice skate.’ Or it’s, ‘Miss Cordrey, she studies Tai Kwon do. She is almost a black belt. Don’t make her mad!’ I hear that quite a bit too. Being in a pathway you are with the kids two, three or four years in a row. So you really get to know them.”

“There are days I come in and I am exhausted. But for the most part I am very upbeat; energetic. I still tell the kids when I grow up I don’t know what I want to be because I don’t think I’ve grown up yet.”

As an animal lover, you don’t stray away from strays?

“Any stray animal around the school winds up in my classroom. One year we had dogs walk in at the old (high) school. Somebody brought puppies in and dropped them off – before you had to have everything locked down – and they were two beautiful yellow labs. He just turned around and walked out. I think he figured that they would get adopted. Where did the dogs wind up? … in my classroom. They did both get adopted. So it worked out for the puppies.”

“The kids every Monday take care of the cleanup; the cages, and fresh bottles of water every day. They make sure that they are acting healthy. They report back to me; if something is going on they let me know. Most of the time the animals are not in their cages, especially in my animal science classes, just so long as they don’t become a distraction. They get a lot of exercise. They are all spoiled.”

Teacher of the Year: Thus far, what has it been like?

“The first couple of weeks it was really neat getting congratulated. I don’t like being in the spotlight. I’m not that type; I want to stay back. I’d rather see my students there, not me. But it was still really humbling how many people emailed … or texted messages. It was definitely an honor. And then I had the summer to start working on the portfolio. It was a ‘ginormous’ … humongous. Seven different sections you had to write based on your impressions, what your beliefs are and things like that. The district asked that I speak to the new teachers on new teacher day. I did a 20-minute presentation there. I had a lot of fun doing that. It was really neat. And some of them were former students so I felt really old. I had to talk on opening day when we all came back.”

Looking ahead to the state event in Dover?

“I would I be shell-shocked. I don’t like talking about myself. If it comes my way I’ll take it. And I will do the best I can and try to represent every teacher in our state as thoroughly as possible.”

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

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