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He went from being a gang member to Missouri's 2020 Teacher of the Year

Physical education teacher Darrion Cockrell had a tough childhood when he was growing up, so he hopes to encourage children who may be going through difficulties as he once did.

He went from being a gang member to Missouri's 2020 Teacher of the Year
Image Source: LindberghFlyers / Twitter

Darrion Cockrell, 34, is the physical education teacher at Lindbergh Schools’ Crestwood Elementary in Crestwood, Missouri. Recently, he was named the state's Teacher of the Year, a highly prestigious accolade only given to 51 other people. However, he says it was no easy journey getting here. In fact, he had to overcome several obstacles just to become a teacher in the first place. He went from not having food to eat and joining a gang at a young age to completely turning his life around. In an interview with Good Morning America, he shared what his difficult but rewarding journey has been like.



"I still can't believe it," he said of his win. "Just having a job is something I'm so appreciative of, because growing up, people didn't have jobs. That's why when people see me, I'm always happy and laughing and smiling because I get a paycheck every two weeks and not only do I get to get a paycheck, but I get to get it by doing something that I actually, truly love." He is so appreciative because of the challenges he faced during his childhood. Cockrell was raised by his grandmother as well as a series of rotating foster parents. His birth father a drug dealer, was murdered, and his mother battled drug addiction.



While he deeply enjoyed his own physical education classes in school, his life at home was starkly different. At a young age, he had joined a gang. Cockrell explained. "We were just already in it because of our family. I didn't care about books. I had to go home and figure out what I was eating. I had to figure out if my lights were going to be on." When his grandmother lost custody of him and his siblings another time, he was almost transferred to a boarding school for troubled youth from a local foster center for boys. That is when his teachers stepped in.



"My counselor and principal and a few teachers actually went to court and fought for me to stay," he stated. "My middle school teacher picked me up every day [at the foster center] and drove me to school. She pretty much was my mom for six months." When he was home in St. Louis, Cockrell developed his skills and shone on the football field. This proved immensely transformational for him. From seventh grade onwards, he was taken in by his football coach and his wife. He lived in his coach's home through college. The 34-year-old said, "When I moved in with them, they just completely changed my life. They provided me with so many opportunities and resources."



From there, Cockrell went on to play football for two years in college before earning a degree from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He affirmed, "I was just tired of just not having anything, tired of not having that support, not having that love and I was tired of seeing people ... dying and being robbed and killed and on drugs. I didn't want that to be a part of my life. I was going to do anything and everything I could possible to make sure that I at least changed the trajectory of my life and then have the impact to do that for other people." Now, he is married and has a 3-year-old child himself. He is in his sixth year of teaching physical education to students in kindergarten through fifth grade at Crestwood Elementary, where he landed his first full-time teaching job.



At his school, he is known as Mr. DC to his students and fellow educators. Cockrell has even taken his approach to physical education outside the classroom through his Crest-Fit training program. The program provides after-school workouts for teachers and students' families. He also launched the Dads' Club Open Gym, a weekly event for local dads to play basketball. "PE is just as important as social studies and science and math," he stated. "As long as you understand those building blocks of fitness and health and taking care of yourself, then you can do anything you want in the world."


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