Hope in dark times can come from the most unlikely places | FT. Darrion Cockrell

January 21, 2021


On a program known for centering stories, the journey of Darren Cockrell stands out as especially compelling. Transcending inauspicious beginnings to eventually become the 2021 Educator of the Year in Missouri, the St. Louis native has ample perspective on striving for success. Today, Cockrell joins Areva Martin to explore unlocked potential, promises fulfilled, and what a commitment to educating every child could mean for our future.

1:08 School of Hard Knocks

This teacher’s first few years on the streets of St. Louis were an educational experience all their own. After losing both parents by the time he was of school-age, his grandmother was left to step into the parental role for him and his five siblings. These early challenges had a shaping influence on his path in life, leading Cockrell down some unsavory roads as the family struggled to make ends meet. Briefly turning to a life of petty crime, the esteemed educator expresses gratitude at emerging from these turbulent times unscathed.

2:38 Fortunate Right Turn

Cockrell freely acknowledges that without an unexpectedly positive development at a critical time, his outcomes may have been much different. He recalls being totally immersed in street life for a time, making the same mistakes that had claimed the lives and potential of many family members. Eventually, his legal issues led him to be placed in a group home, where he had an invaluable opportunity to consider his course. He decided during his time in the facility that his likely future was not one he wanted, and made steps toward change.

5:11 Perspective and Persistence

After about a year in the group home, Cockrell joined a local football team in the hopes of developing beneficial relationships. The results went beyond his wildest expectations, as his time with the team’s coach strengthened to a familial bond. His coach eventually adopted him to live alongside his own son, delivering both a strong father figure and a close friend as a brother. Recalling how impassioned guidance of engaged adults that permanently altered his life, he dedicated himself to giving youth in his position similar second chances.

8:55 Coaching Players, Creating Men

Giving back is at the heart of Cockrell’s approach to education. In his own words, he wanted to be the same person that his counselors were for him. The camaraderie that sports provided him at a critical time inspired him to enter the coaching arena in his adult life. For the formerly troubled teen, a focus on fitness and health would allow him to interact with children who may not have been as engaged with traditional education. To a man whose life was saved by sports, coaching offers the opportunity to pay his favors forward.

12:19 Learning to Teach

A troublesome past was not the only obstacle to Cockrell’s redemption. He also had to contend with learning disabilities like dyslexia as he attempted to make up for lost time. A candidate for special needs learning before the concept had been fully developed, the teacher-to-be struggled mightily through high school and college. He credits his college professors with pushing him to succeed, in turn giving him the confidence to assist others enduring the same struggles. For Cockrell, every child left behind is an untapped resource.

16:25 Teacher of the year

Moving past childhood tragedy to join the elite ranks of educators nationwide, few appreciate the power of mindset like Missouri’s 2021 Teacher of the Year. Cockrell emphasizes the importance of self-confidence in a life well lived, as those who believe in their abilities are most able to effect lasting change. However, no man is an island, and so the educator also highlights the indispensability of the right help at the right time. In his view, this makes an approach based in empathy, service, and hope essential to enduring success.

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