Ex-gang member who had bad childhood transforms life to win teacher of the year

A former gang member who endured a tough childhood has transformed his life and been awarded a prestigious teacher of the year gong.

Darrion Cockrell, 34, has been named Missouri Teacher of the Year 2021 in recognition of his innovative and dedicated work as a PE teacher at Crestwood Elementary School in Crestwood, Missouri.

He is the first man to win the award since 2015, and says he hopes it will underline how PE ‘is just as important as social studies and science and math’ in helping students learn how to care for themselves.

And now Cockrell has shared the huge adversity he had to overcome to transform his life, after being born to a father who was later murdered, and a mother who battled drug addiction.

Explaining his decision to join a gang as a teenager, Cockrell said: ‘We were just already in (the gang) 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.’

Cockrell was cared for by his grandma, only for her to lose custody of him, and social workers to instead place him in a care home. He came close to being transferred to a boarding school for troubled boys.

But Cockrell said his school principal and counselor went to court on his behalf, and that his teacher subsequently picked him up and drove him to school every day.

He said of that teacher: ‘She pretty much was my mom for six months.’ Their faith in Cockrell soon paid off, as he began to show serious talent on the football field.

That saw the teenager’s football coach and his wife ask Cockrell to move in with them as he began his teens, with the youngster remaining with them until he finished college.

Cockrell told Good Morning America: ‘When I moved in with them, they just completely changed my life.

‘They provided me with so many opportunities and resources.’ Cockrell went on to study at the Univeristy of Missouri-St Louis, and says he became increasingly determined to make a fulfilling life for himself.

He explained: ‘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.’

Cockrell, a married father of one, bagged his job at Crestwood Elementary two years after graduating college, and has been there for the past six years.

His innovative program also offers workouts for teachers, students’ families, and a Dad’s Club Open Gym to allow local fathers to play basketball together.

Cockrell received another award earlier this spring, the National Box Tops for Education Twilight Award, which was presented to him by Chance the Rapper.

He says his tough start in life helps him empathize with what his own students may now be going through.

Cockrell said: ‘I can relate to almost anything that they could be going through.

‘If you think about a trauma that could have happened to a kid, it probably happened to me.’

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