If I were making a movie about Dan Argueta, I’d probably call it: “From Corner Office to Classroom.” I like alliteration, and it’s also a pretty good summary of Dan’s career.
When he started off as a college student at National Louis University back in the ‘80s, Dan was an education major. He left school, with one semester remaining, for a job with Motorola to support his wife, who was at that time studying to become a nurse. (By the way: She became an education major instead and has been a first and second grade teacher for years.)
He figured he’d be with the multinational mobile communications company for just a handful of years. It turned out to be 18.
While there, Dan kept learning. He earned a business degree, then an MBA, and added a few certifications. He was managing contracts for Motorola and making six figures. Bonuses. Stock options.
Yet, all that wasn’t enough. Something was missing. Something that didn’t come with a price tag.
“I told my boss I wanted to teach,” Dan says, smiling broadly. “He thought I had a better offer from another company and offered me more money. I said, ‘You think this is about the money. Actually, this is about following my heart. Teaching is my calling.”
During the Motorola years, Dan was in a terrible car accident that left him with a spinal cord injury requiring surgery and months of therapy. That gave him the final push he needed to leave the company and teach. “There are moments in life that make you realize what matters and what doesn’t.”
He left Motorola, went back to college, and finally earned his education degree. “I don’t make anywhere close to what I was making at Motorola,” Dan says. Then a grin starts to appear, and in a split second, that big smile returns. “But I’m 10 times happier.”
He lost function in his right leg and considerable strength and mobility in both arms. In fact, doctors told him it was doubtful he’d walk again. “I had to relearn how to walk, relearn how to use my hands,” he says. “But I had physical therapy, and I was blessed. Spinal cord injuries are tricky. I was right on the line and it could have gone either way.”
There are still days when he walks with a limp. But the fact that he can walk steered him into wellness and physical education. And today, that’s what he teaches at Stevenson Elementary School in Elk Grove, Ill., about 25 miles outside of Chicago. In addition, he teaches adaptive physical education classes at Judson University. He loves to share with his students his mother’s wisdom: Everybody has a hardship. Whatever yours is, try to turn it into a positive.
Dan is one of those constantly optimistic, upbeat types. So it stands to reason that he’d be a teacher – and an activist, too. He’s a member of the Shaumburg Education Association and serves as his school’s building rep.
The transition from education theory to the classroom can be tough, he says, and having two young children at the time helped him. Still, he remembers his questions during those early days. That’s why he reaches out to new educators, something that all NEA members are being challenged to do in the upcoming school year.
Dan participates in the Illinois Education Association’s Emerging Minority & Ethnic Leadership Training program and is an officer with the NEA Hispanic Caucus as well. He is also active in the movement to keep undocumented students and their families together.
“I was born here, but I could have easily been born in Guatemala where my parents were from. I know that if you are here legally, you serve as a hub for family members who aren’t,” he says. “I knew people who would sometimes get calls warning them not to go to work because Immigration was there. I understand the pain of these students. And I wanted to do something.”
Through Gladys Marquez, an educator of English language learners who chairs the NEA Hispanic Caucus, he learned about the clinics NEA activists are running with other groups to educate families on the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans) immigration programs. This fall, he’ll hold clinics and connect students and families to pro bono lawyers who can help them through the process.
“Gladys told me that when you first offer a clinic, you may only get one or two families. But you can change the world for one person at a time. Those people will go back to their communities, and maybe you’ll have triple the number for the next clinic.”
It is especially important for educators to get involved in immigration rights. “We want all our students to achieve their potential. But if they feel like they’ll never be able to get a driver’s license or they can’t get a good job or go to college, then they are already at risk to be in the school to prison pipeline,” he says.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision blocking President Obama’s actions to expand immigration programs is discouraging, but does not dissuade him. “As educators, our job is to create opportunities for students. That has not changed.”
Soon, he hopes his own two children will join him in his passion for public service. His son Anthony is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire studying health care administration, and his daughter Jacqueline is a high school senior who wants to be a special ed teacher. “It warms my heart to know my kids want to give back,” Dan says.
None of us should be surprised. Their father’s life lesson is all about service. It is all about following warm and caring hearts.