Ex-gang member now Teacher of the Year in Missouri

Cynthia Silva

To be named Teacher of the Year is an honor itself. For Darrion Cockrell, it’s a remarkable accomplishment, considering his turbulent early life.

Now, as Missouri’s Teacher of the Year, he wants his story to inspire others.

Cockrell said his mother was in and out of his life because of drug addiction, and his father was killed selling drugs when Cockrell was 4. A St. Louis native, Cockrell was placed in foster care by the state at 6, and he bounced around to different homes for about a year. His grandmother eventually gained custody of him and his six other siblings.

“When my grandmother was working trying to do the best she could to raise us, my siblings and I were out in the streets with our friends and in gangs,” Cockrell, 34, told NBC News. “Even though I was going to school, I couldn’t really focus. It’s hard to worry about homework when I’ve got to worry about putting food on our table. We had to live paycheck-to-paycheck, and when you’re living like that, your mind isn’t thinking about the future — you’re thinking about the present and maybe the next day."

Cockrell met a counselor at Parkway Central Middle School who started a basketball team to help at-risk students stay out of trouble and encourage them to keep their grades up. Over time, as she picked him up for games and learned about his living situation, she realized that for Cockrell to be successful and fully use his potential, he needed to live in a safe environment. The state, however, decided Cockrell and his older brother were better off being placed at Tarkio Academy, a former Missouri school for juvenile delinquents, hours away.

Instead, his counselor successfully lobbied the court to become Cockrell's guardian. Though his older brother was sent away, Cockrell was able to live in a boy’s home near the school, allowing him to keep his positive support system.

Cockrell’s interest in sports grew in seventh grade, and so did his new relationship with football coach Dennis Kaeser, who drove him to practice that year. As time passed, he developed a bond with his coach’s family, and Kaeser decided to foster him. Cockrell lived with them throughout high school and considered them as his new family.

Darrion Cockrell with Dennis Kaeser, his middle school football coach, and Kaeser's wife. The couple eventually became his foster parents. (Courtesy Darrion Cockrell)
Darrion Cockrell with Dennis Kaeser, his middle school football coach, and Kaeser's wife. The couple eventually became his foster parents. (Courtesy Darrion Cockrell)

Paying it forward

With all the support he received from the educators in his life, Cockrell said he wanted to pay it forward as a teacher.

Though he would graduate from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where he developed a love for teaching fitness, learning wasn't a skill that came naturally for him. He struggled academically throughout his life because of dyslexia and other learning disabilities. But, even given those hurdles, he says it didn't stop him from becoming an elementary school physical education teacher.

His students at Crestwood Elementary in St. Louis call him “Mr. DC,” and it’s here where he teaches them about the importance of nutrition and health, whether that’s bringing his passion for fitness to his classes or popping into other classes to remind his students to stay active, especially during the pandemic.

In an effort to foster connections, Cockrell has created activities where parents and teachers can work out together after school.

“I knew that doing that would allow teachers to build better relationships with these parents,” he said. “I just wanted to create something like my football coach created for me. We’re all working together toward a common goal. There’s no one person greater than a team or greater than each other. We’re all working together for something bigger than all of us, and that’s the success of these kids. It’s the success of this community.”

Charity Schluter, his school’s principal, described Cockrell as “genuine, passionate, dedicated, humble, incredibly positive," adding that he "excels at developing trusting, respectful and caring relationships with all students."

"He has an insatiable desire to empower his students to believe that they can persevere in the face of adversity and that learning can be fun!” Schluter said.

Cockrell is grateful for the attention the award has given him but says that, as an educator, he isn’t going above and beyond his call of duty — only doing what is needed for the success of his kids. In sharing his story, he hopes it can positively affect others.

“Your past, although it’s important, it doesn’t determine your future,” he said. "You can make mistakes and things can happen in your life, but you can push through those."

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