Dan Reichard’s fifth-grade class settles into its morning routine: math problems, a song, the recital of the class creed.
“What do we strive to become each and every day?” asks Reichard, 28, a teacher at Kate Waller Barrett Elementary School in Stafford, Va. “One family,” the students yell back.
“And we are also?”
“And we are?”
“And, finally, we are?”
Reichard passes out drums made from plastic garbage bins. The children dance as they sing one of the class songs — a remix of Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” that Reichard wrote.
“I know that my kids love music, so I play music a lot, all throughout the day,” he said.
Now in his sixth year of teaching, Reichard has been named The Washington Post’s 2018 Teacher of the Year, chosen from 20 finalists from the District, Maryland and Virginia. His approach to teaching is simple: Build meaningful relationships with every student.
“I have conversations with the kids beyond academics,” he said.
He knows which student had soccer practice last night and who is having problems at home. Reichard even visits his students’ homes to get to know their families.
“A lot of our kids come from really tough backgrounds,” Reichard said. Sixty percent of students at Kate Waller Barrett qualify for free or reduced lunch. “I am willing to do whatever it takes to make certain that my kids feel that they are seen, heard and loved every single day.”
The students are definitely heard — Reichard’s classroom is the loudest in the building.
As students file into the classroom, Reichard stands outside, blasting pop music and greeting every kid with a personalized handshake.
“It would be better if you were wearing a Steelers shirt,” he says jokingly to a student in a New England Patriots sweatshirt. Reichard is from Knox, Pa., a small town midway between Pittsburgh and Erie.
While Reichard tries to make each day fun for his students, he acknowledges his time in elementary school wasn’t easy.
“My experiences were not good,” he said. “I was a really bad reader and I also had to take speech classes, speech therapy, so I was always pulled out of class. I just remember feeling really defeated.”
By the time he was in seventh grade, the speech classes were over but Reichard admits he was shy. It wasn’t until his choir teacher, Francis Nesta, forced him that he overcame his fear.
“He got me involved in the musicals that we did at school and one day he, in practice . . . had me stand up on a chair and say in front of the whole group — I can’t even remember what I said — I just screamed this word.”
“Everyone was cheering me on,” he said. “That teacher really invested so much in me and got to know me for six years.”
There’s a variation of this approach in Reichard’s classroom called “Three Minutes of Fame.” He randomly selects a student to stand in front of the class while everyone else showers the student with compliments.
“It gets kids to step out of their comfort zones,” he said. “Just like my chorus teacher did for me.”
The theater influence is clear in Reichard’s classroom. Aside from the singing and dancing, there’s what Reichard calls “transformation days.”
When the students studied rocks and minerals in October, Reichard transformed the classroom into a scene from “Jurassic World.” He draped the students’ desks with black tablecloths and decorated them with gray tubing so they resembled Jeeps. He played dinosaur sounds over the classroom’s speaker system.
“If [my students] see how much I put into my job, and how much I put into what I love, I hope that they can do that with something that they love down the road,” Reichard said.
“He’s a really good teacher,” said Brady Kibala, one of Reichard’s students. He said the “Jurassic World” day was one of his favorite classes.
Some of the students are wearing a T-shirt they all helped design. The bright blue shirts read “Rock Star Family” and have his students’ names printed on the bottom — all 27 of them.
“Rock star” is one of the names Reichard has for his students. When he slips up and calls them “kids,” one student swiftly corrects him. “The kids?” she asked.
“Sorry, the scholars,” Reichard responds.
Reichard encourages his students to speak up in this way. He said he treats them like “mini-adults.”
“I tell my kids that I am the luckiest person alive because I get to do what I love every single day,” he said. “I don’t know what it is, but there’s just something that tells me I have to work as hard as I possibly can for my kids every single day because they deserve only the best.”