Stonington’s teacher of the year for 2018 says he puts ‘kids before content’

Stonington’s teacher of the year for 2018 says he puts ‘kids before content’


STONINGTON — Cameron Dreher was an eighth-grader at Pawcatuck Middle School when she got her first real taste of politics.

That year, Barack Obama was elected to a second term as president with his victory over Mitt Romney, and Dreher was introduced to what ultimately turned into a passion, thanks to her social studies teacher, Dan Agins.

“Mr. Agins made time outside of school to get our entire class interested in politics,” said Dreher, who graduated with Stonington High School’s Class of 2017 on Friday. “He started online discussions on nights where debates were aired. I would sit there on my iPad at my house and talk with the rest of my class about different debate strategies, ideas, and ask questions when we did not understand policies.

“Mr. Agins moderated these discussions and on any given night; over three-quarters of the entire eighth-grade class would be engaged online, discussing political debates. I decided to take AP Government in high school. Now, I am likely going to minor in political science in college.”

Dreher nominated Agins as Stonington’s 2018 Teacher of the Year for “being the teacher that every student wishes they had,” and the district obliged. The 38-year-old, who just finished his 13th year at Pawcatuck Middle, was honored earlier this month.

“It was a mix between not being deserving and being grateful,” Agins said. “I’ve dedicated my entire life to this district and Pawcatuck Middle School, and this is the community I want to be a part of.”

Agins, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade social studies, is a graduate of Westerly High School, but, as he said last week, “I’m 100 percent a Bear.”

DJ turned teacher

Several students from Stonington High stopped by Agins’ classroom to congratulate him when the Teacher of the Year announcement was made — many of his former students pop into his room from time to time during the school year.

Agins, after all, is not only a favorite teacher, but he’s the go-to deejay for the Stonington schools’ dance scene, including the prom.

“In high school, I saw a movie called ‘Juice,’ and the main character is a deejay,” Agins said. “I said, ‘I want to do that.’ I like the way you can manipulate the music and make it your own. I really loved the crowd reaction and fed off of that energy. It parallels teaching in a way that I feed off the energy of the kids.”

When he deejayed before getting into teaching, he went by the name DJ NoName. Now, students said his monikers are famous around Stonington.

“He’s DJ Dan and some refer to him as ‘Airball Agins,’” Dreher said, “because he is notorious for shooting at least one air ball a year in the Student-Staff basketball game. Really, how many students can say that their eigth-grade social studies teacher is also the DJ for their senior prom?”

Agins earned his bachelor’s degree from Keene State College in New Hampshire and a master’s degree from the University of Connecticut. He engages his students with technology, projects and teaching approaches that help students relate to the “uncertainties” in American history so they can deal with the country’s current condition.

“He likes to incorporate technology into his teaching,” eighth-grader Desiree Zaharie said. “We did one project where we used Instagram and Twitter to explain the Civil War. It helps you understand it better.”

Added eighth-grader Kyle Marino: “He pushes our limits to get us out of our comfort zone. He really always wants us to be involved in the conversation and is interested in our thoughts.”

It’s a philosophy Agins lives by.

“Kids before content,” Agins said. “I don’t say I teach history. I say I teach kids about history. Not every kid who leaves my class is going to be a historian or interested in political science. I love teaching middle school kids because you see the ups and downs of this age group. There are moments of brilliance and then there are moments that aren’t so brilliant.

“You have to treat them like people. This is the real world. Admire them as humans and they’ll relate to that. If you’re real with them, they’re more willing to be real with you.”

Longtime favorite

One of the final assignments Dreher completed during her senior year was a Senior Scrapbook, in which students are asked to create a list of influential people in their lives.

“Dan Agins most definitely made that list,” she said. “I wrote, ‘Dan Agins: my all-time favorite teacher (8th grade social studies) who always believed in me, pushed me to make sure I knew what I was capable of doing, and made me believe in the concept of a tight-knit community.’”

Dreher later found out that Agins, who lives in Pawcatuck with his wife and two kids, has been consistently named in Senior Scrapbooks throughout the years because of the impact he’s made and the most important value he teaches students: No one is better than anyone else.

“Mr. Agins taught me so much more than the eighth-grade social studies curriculum,” Dreher said. “He taught me and all of his other students to be better people. He genuinely loved and cared for each student he ever taught. If you go into his classroom, he has a class picture from every single year he has been a teacher at Pawcatuck Middle School on his wall. If you point to any face at all, he will be able to tell you that student’s name. That is how genuine his love for each of his students is.”

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