Darrion Cockrell being selected as 2021 Missouri Teacher of the Year by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is a recognition of a teaching specialty that is not always taken seriously: He is a physical education teacher at Crestwood Elementary in Lindbergh Schools.
“We are extremely underestimated,” Cockrell said. “The PE teacher clichés are we all wear little shirts with a whistle around our necks and yell at kids like they are in military training – or we are lazy and overweight and throw balls at the kids and tell them to ‘go play.’ We are definitely not those clichés.”
One of the catchphrases in education today is to “teach the whole child.” Physical education teachers educate a critical aspect of children: their bodies. The job is all about getting children moving and teaching them about the health benefits of physical activity.
“It’s important that kids be athletic and fit,” Cockrell said. “The child obesity rate is out of the roof. The only way we can impact that in schools is by PE teachers making kids get active and stay active and have fun. A lot of kids don’t like PE; they don’t like activity. You have to make it fun and familiar, almost like where they don’t even know they are being active. Then you educate them about what’s going on with their body.”
One creative way he does this – at least when teaching children who are physically present and not socially distanced – is by making up games like Toilet Tag, a variant of the age-old game of Tag.
“Toilet tag, silly as it sounds, teaches hygiene and health benefits,” Cockrell said. “Running around tagging people is good exercise for your heart. It elevates your heart rate. Then we talk about why their heart is pumping and why that’s important to you. It also teaches the importance of washing your hands after using the toilet.”
Toilet habits is very basic education, but he teaches small children. Graduation for his students happens at 5th grade. But his connection with students often extends beyond that.
Cockrell, who is known at school as “Mr. D.C.,” remembered one student he had frequently disciplined for behavior issues, poor sportsmanship, and bullying. The situation was serious enough that he reached out to the boy’s parents. He was surprised when he heard from those parents after the boy went on to middle school.
“Something had happened at middle school where some kids were bullying another kid, and he went to his mom and said, ‘These are my friends, but I care about this other kid who is getting bullied.’ His mom told him to reach out to a teacher, and he said, ‘Is there any way you can reach out to Mr. D.C.?’” Cockrell said.
“So, his mom reached out to me, and I couldn’t believe it, because we did not have the greatest relationship. But he realized that my disciplining him showed how much I cared about him, 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.”
That sensitivity to connect with the whole child, starting with physical activity, was what got Cockrell recommended for the award.
“Building trusting, respectful relationships with students and families has been one of Mr. DC’s top priorities throughout his five years of teaching at Crestwood Elementary School,” a Lindbergh Schools spokesperson said of Cockrell. “He also works tirelessly to promote a healthy community by motivating, inspiring and pushing his coworkers and students every day.”
His coworkers and the larger community participated in his Crest-Fit training program. Crest-Fit – the name mashes up “CrossFit” and “Crestwood Elementary” – is a health and fitness program that started with his students, progressed to a weekly after-school workout activity for teachers, and culminated with parental involvement. One workout, styled after The Whip dance, spread to other schools throughout the community and has more than 3,600 views on the district’s YouTube channel.
Pushing further into the community, Cockrell started the Dads’ Club Open Gym, a weekly event for local fathers to play basketball in the evening. He is also an active member of Crestwood’s diversity committee and the Lindbergh district’s strategic planning team.
“He has this ability to bring a smile to your face and connect with people,” Lindbergh Superintendent Tony Lake said when Cockrell was announced as district Teacher of the Year, sending him to the regional competition, “and he does amazing things in that building and with his kids.”
Cockrell will serve as Missouri’s representative in the National Teacher of the Year program. He will be honored during a virtual recognition event on Thursday, October 15, along with the other six finalists, semifinalists and regional teachers of the year.