George Mason University

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Mason grad is The Washington Post's Teacher of the Year

June 11, 2018   /   by Damian Cristodero

Dan Reichard, a fifth-grade teacher at Kate Waller Barrett Elementary School in Stafford, Va., wants his students to feel as if they are part of a family. Photo provided.

Every morning, Mason alumnus Dan Reichard starts his fifth-grade class at Kate Waller Barrett Elementary School in Stafford, Va., with a secret handshake—27 of them, to be exact, one for each of his students.

Reichard said it took about two weeks to memorize the handshakes he asked his students to invent at the beginning of the school year. And the students cut Reichard little slack if he forgets even the tiniest nuance.

“Fifth-graders,” Reichard said, laughing, “are at such an awesome age.”

In Reichard’s class they also are all in for learning, in great part because of their relationships with their teacher.

“Relationships are the most important thing before significant learning outcomes are realized,” Reichard said. “Getting to know your students creates a safe space for them and a culture of one big family.”

His philosophy and results earned Reichard recognition as The Washington Post’s 2018 Teacher of the Year for the metropolitan area.

“Very humbling,” said Reichard, 28, who graduated from George Mason University in 2017 with a master’s degree in educational leadership.

“He has a passion for the profession and meeting kids where they are,” said Kate Waller Barrett principal Kimberly Austin, a fellow Mason graduate, MEd Educational Leadership ’97. “He has an unbelievable amount of energy and dedication to create a learning environment that is magical.”

Reichard, in his sixth year at Kate Waller Barrett, takes students on field trips that add to the learning experience. When his class was reading the book “Ghosts of War, Fallen in Fredericksburg,” a class trip to Fredericksburg included a kid-friendly Civil War ghost walk.

Reichard plays music in class because, well, his students love music. Students sing and play drums made from plastic garbage bins. Reichard talks to them about life and visits their homes.

“My kids want to know that they’re seen, they’re heard and they’re loved,” he said. “If they know those things, something awesome will happen in the classroom in terms of learning.”   

Reichard credits Austin with creating a school culture that encourages such interactions. Austin also encouraged Reichard to apply for Mason’s educational leadership master’s program.

Reichard said the online program was not the static experience he expected.

“There was an enormous amount of collaboration between my classmates, and the professors were incredible,” he said. “The entire experience was awesome.”

“He’s so passionate about education [that] it’s palpable,” Mason professor Anne-Marie Lohse said, “not just about students and families but the learning process, which really sets him apart.“

Reichard admits his teaching method is unconventional, but no one argues with the results.

“I earn my kids’ trust, so when I ask them to step out of their comfort zone to learn something difficult, they are willing to take a chance. And if they fail, they get back up,” Reichard said. “When you get to know your kids and they feel safe and trust you, they’ll walk over hot coals for you. That’s how that pays off.”