Robert Cordts is named 2020 History Teacher of the Year

ROBERT CORDTS, 2020 History Teacher of the Year, sports what he calls "shaggy pandemic hair" these days. The Madison High School teacher said he misses being in the classroom with his students. "They energize me and motivate me to be better," he said in a phone interview.

Today, the nation is torn by political polarization and a blame game which many believe has become a barrier to effective governance. This is not a new state of affairs for a nation more than 200 years old.

The United States has seen division before -- has even engaged in a civil war which tested whether a nation "conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" can endure. Abraham Lincoln, at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg, challenged those attending the dedication of the Soldier's National Cemetery "to be dedicated to the great task" of giving a new birth of freedom to the nation "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth."

Robert Cordts, a history teacher at Madison High School, may not have been standing in the crowd on that November day, but that has not prevented him from picking up Lincoln's standard and carrying Lincoln's battle cry into his classroom 150 years later.

"I tell my students that I cannot teach them algebra, how to weld, how to cook or how to farm, but I can teach them about the ideals upon which this nation was founded and how those ideals are found in our Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. We spend a month on those two documents," Cordts said.

"I keep a pocket version of both with me at all times as kind of a prop to remind students how important our nation's ideals are and what makes us unique as a nation," he said.

This passion communicates itself to the students he teaches.

"When a teacher truly cares, a student can tell and cares along with him," said MHS senior Ailin Montgomery.

Montgomery, in fact, has been so impressed with the way Cordts teaches that she nominated him for 2020 History Teacher of the Year, which caused the selection committee at the South Dakota State Historical Society to take note.

"It's usually a school administrator who does the nominating," said Jeff Mammenga, awards coordinator.

When Cordts assembled the supplementary information that supported the nomination, such as his philosophy of teaching and materials he's used in the classroom, he told MHS Principal Adam Shaw that if he won, he would accept on behalf of the school.

"I told Mr. Shaw when I was filling out the nomination form that I wasn't sure I was worthy of the honor," he said.

However, the selection committee did not agree. On Friday, the State Historical Society announced that Cordts was one of four individuals and two organizations to be recognized for their efforts in preserving state history. Other award winners are Michael Runge, the city archivist for the Deadwood Historic Preservation Office; Pat Roseland, who has compiled a collection of more than 500 pieces of historic art about Rapid City and the Black Hills; Steven Bucklin, a University of South Dakota professor for his article "Working on the Railroad: A History of the South Dakota Core Rail System" which was published in "South Dakota History"; Reliabank, which has been involved in historic preservation efforts in the Watertown area; and the Fall River Historical Society for members' work at preserving the history of Fall River County.

"These people and organizations represent the best of our state," Gov. Kristi Noem said in a press release. "Through their efforts, South Dakota history will be preserved for future generations."

Jay Vogt, director of the State Historical Society, spoke more specifically about why Cordts was selected to be the History Teacher of the Year.

"Robert Cordts has a passion for history and seeks to immerse his students in the subject," Vogt said via email. "As a resourceful educator, Cordts learns alongside his students with an ever-expanding knowledge of history."

The latter -- his willingness to learn alongside his students -- is one reason Montgomery chose to nominate him. She said the podium he uses when teaching is piled high with books he's reading, and he shares excerpts from these books as well as from documentaries he's watched with his students.

"He encourages us to learn alongside him and to analyze these things as he does," she said.

In addition, Cordts helps his students to develop critical thinking skills. One way he does this is by asking students to consider current events through the eyes of past leaders, which creates a new context for considering them.

"It creates stronger and more thoughtful arguments," Montgomery said.

Cordts said he uses this approach because he doesn't want students influenced by his political views. He wants them to decide for themselves what to believe.

Cordts, a 1984 graduate of MHS, has been teaching at the school for 18 years. His father, James Cordts, taught at MHS for 37 years.

"I learned a lot from him as a teacher," Cordts said.

He studied political science at South Dakota State University and earned a master's degree in history from the University of South Dakota. Prior to accepting the position in Madison, Cordts taught in Sisseton, where he learned about the Native American culture from community members.

When he moved to Madison, he asked to create a Native American Studies class. He received support from the board and administration to do this. The class has proven to be popular. This also impressed the selection committee at the State Historical Society.

"Cordts' excitement for history is said to be palpable and tangible in his every lecture and activity," the organization's press release stated. "A prime example of this is his Native American Studies course, where he familiarizes students with the rich culture and traditions of the various tribes in the state."

Cordts said history interests him because he's fascinated by what he calls "the whole human drama."

"When you look at people of the past and historical time periods, people haven't changed," he said. "They were thinking the same things that people are thinking today."

That is the lens he uses to help students to see the past -- the hopes and fears, the passions and motivations of real people.

"When we talk about history, we talk about why they made the decisions they did," Cordts said.

He also wants his students to understand the cause and effect relationships of history and the impact that a single individual can have on the course of history. He asks his students to put themselves in the shoes of decision-makers and do a cost-benefit analysis of events.

"History doesn't just happen. People make choices. That's how it all unfolds," Cordts said.

In speaking about history and his approach to teaching, Cordts is passionate and articulate. In speaking about himself as a teacher, he is hesitant. He doesn't see himself as an individual who makes a difference, but rather as a member of a team that makes a difference.

"We push each other to be better," he said.

However, at least one of his students sees him as a teacher who does make a difference.

"He cares about the kids and he cares about what he teaches," Montgomerys said. Because he cares, she believes, he helps his students to be better citizens and better leaders.

"It takes an amazing person to make that difference," she said.