New English teacher brings experiences from sailing academy

August 29, 2020 — by Selina Chen and Tiffany Wang

On the azure Caribbean waves, English teacher Marcos Cortez toiled on a two-masted sailing ship. He was there not only as part of the crew, however, but also as a humanities teacher for the Tall Ship Education Academy — one of the four schools Cortez has taught at in his 19-year career.

This fall, Cortez joins SHS as an English 10, English 10 MAP and English 11 Honors teacher. In the past couple of years he taught at Los Gatos High School, where his wife Kristen Austin is also an English teacher. Although he said he looks forward to teaching all of the classes, he is especially excited about the Media Arts Program because it teaches English through multimedia-based projects.

“I want to immerse students in as much of a realistic experience as possible, in which they have to work together and be creative,” Cortez said.

This immersive and project-based method of teaching, Cortez said, is inspired by his time on the sea, where he taught groups of 15-20 high school girls during 2006-2008 in a program designed to promote diversity in a traditionally male-dominated field. On the ship, the students took classes with a nautical focus and learned to navigate through hands-on experiences. He believes it to be one of the most effective and engaging ways to teach.

Cortez said that he likes to incorporate storytelling into his teaching because he finds the ability to derive meaning from stories to be an invaluable skill. Through his classes, Cortez said that he hopes students will build authentic connections between themselves and the world.

He also said he emphasizes writing when he is teaching. 

“Humans communicate through telling stories,” Cortez said, “and the main way to do so is by writing.”

Cortez not only sees writing as a creative outlet, he also sees it as a practical outlet for his students, saying that being able to write well will make it easier for them to get well-paying jobs.

Cortez also emphasizes writing because he said it allows students to look beyond the scope of their own opinion. He aims to achieve this goal by pushing students to improve their writing skills through reading and researching, especially seeking out opinions other than their own.

“Too often, we only listen to opinions that are similar to our own,” he said. “We try to figure out what’s wrong with the opinions that are not lined up with ours. I think that leads to an unhealthy bias.”

To dispel these biases, Cortez stresses the dangers of defining a group by a single story and encourages students to listen to both sides of narratives. Cortez said his empathetic personality is shaped by his experience as a first-generation U.S. citizen. He is proud of this identity because it made him understand the struggle of being someplace new and the sacrifices that people make to better their lives and the lives of their families.

This perspective was especially relevant when he taught for nine years at a school in San Rafael where a sizable percentage of the student population was considered non-citizens.

“It would infuriate me when people would refer to them as such,” he said. “I don't care if you're a citizen or not. If you're a student in my class, you're a human, and you're here to learn.”

Cortez wanted to level the playing field for students like these who don’t have as much access to resources. The reason he became a teacher, he said, is that he sees education as the great equalizer in society. Cortez believes that through education, students can have the greatest chance to live the type and quality of life they choose to.

“I always knew I was going to be a teacher,” he said, “because I felt a strong pull to make a difference in my communities, and I thought education would be a good avenue to do so.”


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