Man Leaves Painful Childhood and Gang Life Behind, Becomes Missouri’s Teacher of the Year

BY Louise Chambers TIMEDecember 17, 2020 PRINT

A former gang member who left his troubled childhood behind with the help of his educators has been named Missouri’s 2021 Teacher of the Year.

Darrion Cockrell has taught physical education at Crestwood Elementary in St. Louis since 2014. The father of one refers to his job as “the best job in the world,” in stark contrast to his traumatic start in life.

“I have had the unique opportunity to live life on both ends of the spectrum,” he explained in his acceptance speech in October.

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Darrion Cockrell, Missouri’s 2021 Teacher of the Year. (Courtesy of MO Dept’ of Elementary and Secondary Education)

Cockrell, who is known by his students as “Mr. DC,” was born to a mother with a substance abuse problem who had two children out of a total of six by the age of 16. His father was murdered when he was 4 years old, and Cockrell was ferried in and out of the foster care system after turning 6.

He hated school, believing he was “born to fail,” and became a six-deuce-87 Kitchen Crip gang member at the tender age of 10.

Desperate for a way out, Cockrell turned to his middle school faculty for support. “I had a lot of struggles and a lot of hurdles, and if not for those educators, I would not be here today,” he reflected.

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Crestwood Elementary School in St. Louis, Mo. (Screenshot/Google Maps)

Unbeknown to Cockrell, members of the faculty lobbied court on his behalf, getting him removed from his dangerous neighborhood and placed in a boys’ home. In seventh grade, Cockrell was formally adopted by his football coach and his wife.

His self-worth, perspective, and prospects improved radically. Cockrell even followed in his adoptive father’s footsteps when choosing a career.

During the virtual Teacher of the Year presentation, addressing other educators, Cockrell said: “All it takes is one person.

“Why not let it be you who makes that positive impact in the lives of our students?”

Margie Vandeven, the state’s commissioner of education, praised Cockrell on CNN for “[guiding] his students towards long-term physical and mental wellness,” adding, “The connections he has established will impact Crestwood children for years to come.”

“His story shows every kid that anything is possible,” Crestwood Assistant Principal Kit Norton told KMOV4.

With myriad life lessons behind him, Cockrell teaches more than physical fitness. He “builds healthy hearts,” imparting the confidence, compassion, and drive to help his own students overcome the obstacles that life will throw at them.

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Louise Chambers is a writer, born and raised in London, England. She covers inspiring news and human interest stories.
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