Former gang member turns life around, now Missouri teacher of the year

Darrion Cockrell grew up living with relatives and in foster care centers. His teachers, he said, gave him hope and a chance to thrive.

Darrion Cockrell, who wasn’t much of a student, has been named Missouri’s 2020 Teacher of the Year. 

The former gang member, 34, who now teaches physical education at Crestwood Elementary in the greater St. Louis area, told Good Morning America he didn’t care much about school as a child because of his difficult upbringing. 

Darrion Cockrell, the St. Louis-raised Missouri Teacher of the Year, grew up living with relatives and sometimes in foster care centers. It was his teachers, he said, who gave him real hope and a chance to thrive.

The St. Louis-raised Cockrell grew up living with relatives and sometimes in foster care centers. However, he said, it was his teachers who gave him real hope and a chance to thrive. 

“My counselor and principal and a few teachers actually went to court and fought for me to stay,” he told GMA about a time when he was close to being transferred to a boarding school for troubled youth after his grandmother lost custody of him and his siblings. 

“My middle-school teacher picked me up every day [at the foster center] and drove me to school,” he said. “She pretty much was my mom for six months.”

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Cockrell ultimately became a P.E. teacher after being influenced by his middle-school football coach, who, with his wife, took him into their home, where he stayed from seventh grade until graduating high school. He went on to graduate from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. 

Tony Lake, superintendent of the Lindbergh School District containing Crestwood Elementary School, contended that Cockrell “has this ability to bring a smile to your face and connect with people. And he does amazing things in that building and with his kids.” 

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One incident that earned him his commendation was his direct contact with a boy who, with friends, was bullying a classmate.

“He realized that my disciplining him showed how much I cared about him,” Cockrell said, “so he trusted me to help guide him and his friends. I was glad he showed empathy. That’s one of the words we use a lot: ‘empathy.’ So, I reached out to his principal, and his mom was extremely excited and happy that I was able to help and intervene.”

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Cockrell, the first man to win the state’s Teacher of the Year accolade since 2015, is especially proud he earned it stressing physical education.

He told Good Morning America he was helping kids understand that with “fitness and health and taking care of yourself, then you can do anything you want in the world.” 

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