In 1952, the first National Teacher of the Year award was presented by President Harry Truman of Missouri to bring recognition to the importance of teachers as nurturers of the American Dream. The program is put on each year by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), a nonpartisan nonprofit organization of public officials who head departments of elementary and secondary education.
Since the national program’s inception, Missouri has had two teachers capture the honor. The last time the state had a National Teacher of the Year was nearly 41 years ago – in 1980 when Beverly Bimes of Hazelwood High School East, St. Louis was given the title. The first Missouri teacher to capture the award was Mary Schwarz of Bristol Elementary in Kansas City in 1957. She shared the honor with Eugene Bizzell, a high school English teacher from Texas.
Missouri 2021 Teacher of the Year Darrion Cockrell could become the state’s third educator to earn America’s most prestigious teacher recognition award. Cockrell, known to many as “Mr. D.C.”, has been a P.E. teacher for the past six years at Crestwood Elementary School in St. Louis County. His inspiring story about beating the odds on the streets of St. Louis has hit the national media circuit over the past few weeks.
Cockrell began his journey in and out of the foster care system shortly after his sixth birthday. He joined a gang when he was ten years old. Violence, drugs, gangs and tragedy were the way of life for Cockrell.
His guidance counselor, Maureen Huneke, fought to get him on the right track by becoming his legal guardian and working to get him into a home for troubled boys. He hit it off with his middle school football coach, Dennis Kaeser. Kaeser and his wife, Sherry, ended up adopting Cockrell at 14 years old.
They gave him the opportunity to turn him life around and that’s exactly what Cockrell did. He went on to excel in high school sports and landed a football scholarship to play at Milliken University in Illinois. Cockrell finished his schooling at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Today, he gets students, teachers and parents “CrestFit” through working the mind and body and having fun. The culture Cockrell has created within the Crestwood community has put him in the spotlight as he competes with teachers from all 50 states, Washington, D.C., the Department of Defense Education Activity, and four U.S. territories.
Carolyn Phenicie, press secretary for the CCSSO, tells Missourinet a national committee representing major national education organizations reviews applications submitted by the teachers. Four finalists are selected and complete in-person interviews with selection committee members.
“Generally, the selection committee is looking for teachers who are not only experts in teaching and learning, but who work collaboratively with other educators and make connections between their classroom and community. The National Teacher of the Year should be a leader in and out of the classroom, and able to express him or herself in an engaging and articulate way,” she says. “All state teachers of the year meet these qualifications; the selection committee is then looking at exceptional examples of these qualities.”
California has produced the most National Teachers of the Year, with seven. Not far behind is Washington with five, Connecticut and Minnesota with four each, and Maryland, North Carolina, Oregon, and Virginia with three apiece.
The National Teacher of the Year has been recognized annually at the White House. Phenicie says in recent years, the entire state Teacher of the Year cohort has been included in that ceremony as part of a broader Washington Week event to meet federal leaders. How the ceremony is going to be handled during the pandemic is unknown. The 2020 ceremony was postponed and Phenicie hopes to get it rescheduled.
During his or her year of recognition, the winner is released from classroom duties to travel as a spokesperson and ambassador of education, shining a light on the vital role of teachers. The National Teacher of the Year usually does around 150 events during his or her year of service; many of those have transitioned to virtual events this year, says Phenicie.
The four finalists will be chosen early next year. The winner will be announced in the spring.
Earlier story: (AUDIO) An inspiring story about Missouri’s Teacher of the Year https://www.missourinet.com/2020/10/15/audio-an-inspiring-story-about-missouris-teacher-of-the-year/
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