Teacher Dan Reichard locked eyes with his principal as the governor of Virginia spoke to the lively crowd at Kate Waller Barrett Elementary School.
That’s when he knew—every student and teacher had gathered in the gym Wednesday afternoon for more than just a celebration of the new school year.
“I can read her mind,” Reichard said of Barrett Principal Kim Austin.
And several minutes into his speech, Gov. Ralph Northam revealed that someone from the Stafford County school had been named a teacher of the year. “Is that exciting or what?” Northam told nearly 800 students seated on the gym floor.
He rattled off several hints of who that teacher might be.
First, the winner is a man, Northam said. The students chattered loudly.
That man is a fifth-grade teacher, the governor added as the chatter turned into screams of excitement.
Each subsequent hint brought out more cheers.
“He teaches in Room 21.”
“He has a special handshake with his students.”
“He calls his students rock stars.”
“The teacher of the year is Mr. Dan Reichard!” Northam exclaimed.
Reichard, 28, who is actually one of eight regional teachers of the year, walked to the stage as students bellowed the North Stafford school’s signature chant: “Awesome, awesome, totally!”
An emotional Reichard thanked Principal Kim Austin, who offered him a job interview in an 8 a.m. phone call on a Sunday seven years ago. Reichard lived in Pittsburgh at the time, but said he knew the school was special.
“This is not possible without every single staff member at this building because we are one team,” Reichard said. He paused to collect himself.
“He did it!” someone shouted, and the students cheered some more.
“I just want all of you guys to know, Room 21 and everyone else, that you can do anything,” Reichard continued. “It doesn’t matter where you live or what the color of your skin is or how much money you have—you can do anything.”
Reichard, who was also The Washington Post’s 2018 Teacher of the Year, will compete with the other regional teachers of the year for the statewide honor. That winner will be eligible for national teacher of the year.
After the event, Reichard’s students talked over one another as they eagerly described their teacher to a reporter.
“He’s passionate!” said Shireen Barekzai, 10.
“He always tries to make us great every day,” said Nana Siaw, 10, wearing a wristband with the words “Reichard’s Rock Stars.”
“He really loves us,” said Kaleb Marrero Gonzalez, 9.
Each of Reichard’s 25 students develops a unique handshake with their teacher. Once they master those handshakes, the youngsters can unlock tackle boxes with the keys Reichard assigned them during an open house. Inside those boxes are class T-shirts that the students can decorate as they please.
“It symbolizes every single one of them is incredibly important to our class family,” Reichard said.
The Reichard classroom experience does not end there.
The students will also memorize a class song inspired by Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” Reichard wrote the song, which includes the line: “I’ve got this feeling inside this room, we are one family, we help each other through.”
Austin, the principal, said Reichard leads what she calls the school’s “house of passion.”
“He’s one of a kind, and I’ve been in the business a long time,” she said. “He’s just one that believes in a magical environment and is intentional about creating it.”
The first couple months of every school year, Reichard visits the homes of all of his students and their parents to get to know them better.
He hosts the “Grammarys,” where he literally rolls out a red carpet and presents writing trophies to his students. Everyone dresses up for the event, and students even deliver acceptance speeches for their writing “albums of the year.” (Students can put their writing entries into old record covers provided by Reichard.)
Reichard is also known for what Austin dubbed “room transformations.” One day, Room 21 will be a regular classroom. The next, it will be a “Jurassic World” with desks decorated to look like Jeeps. He incorporates those themes into his lessons.
Reichard concluded his own acceptance speech by telling his colleagues and students that he’s wanted to be a teacher since he was in third grade.
“I get to live my dream every day, so thank you.”