Brian McDaniel, California Teacher of the Year, goes beyond all expectations
Office of Strategic Communication
To say that a young Brian McDaniel faced formidable challenges to success, in even the most basic sense of the word, would be an understatement. As a child growing up in Desert Hot Springs — a community with less than a good reputation, as McDaniel described it — he endured the suicide of his father, an abusive stepfather, a period of homelessness.
Yet, with the help and support of his teachers and a determination to go beyond all expectations, McDaniel overcame those challenges, graduating from high school and earning his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees.
And, in the fall of 2017, as the music teacher and director of bands and choirs at Painted Hills Middle School in Desert Hot Springs, he was selected as one of the state’s five 2018 Teachers of the Year. On top of that, he was named by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson as California’s nominee for 2018 National Teacher of the Year.
“I am just beyond shocked and surprised and in awe to represent Painted Hills as their teacher of the year,” said McDaniel, who earned his master’s in curriculum and instruction from Cal State San Bernardino in 2008. “It’s beyond my wildest dreams.”
Dreams. Expectations. Perseverance. Achievement. Those themes thread their way through McDaniel’s recounting of his personal journey.
“Brian, if you spend any amount of time with him, he speaks from the heart. He speaks of his own experiences as a child in this community, which really helps him connect with his students,” said Michael Grainger, principal of Painted Hills Middle School. When they see McDaniel, “they see a mentor. They see somebody who had the same beginning that they had in this community. He overcame that adversity by setting personal goals and objectives, and worked really, really hard to achieve.”
In a way, the music program at Painted Hills, and the one at Desert Hot Springs High before McDaniel arrived at the middle school in 2014, can be seen as a reflection of the teacher’s life. When he arrived at Painted Hills, for example, all he had to work with was an empty band room — no instruments, no music stands, no chairs. He swept the floors, built shelving, installed locks, then wrote grants and sought donations for musical instruments.
He did have students, however, eager to learn music, eager to succeed, and just as eager to get in on the ground floor. “The in-between was rough. I’d have kids coming in saying, ‘I’m here for band.’ I didn’t have chairs for them. We’re using benches,” McDaniel recalled. “And we’d do that for four or five months. I’d do clapping exercises, I’d borrow guitars, I would do a lot of show-and-tell.”
Along the way, as donations and instruments came in, the students decided to call themselves The Regiment, after the high school band program. More than a name, it was an attitude they sought and developed — one of unity aimed at achievement and success.
“The word regiment is pretty powerful,” McDaniel said. “I wanted my kids to sound like the New York Philharmonic, but move with the precision of the Marine Corps. I want them dressed in such a way that they could be on any red carpet, and that they have everything they need to be powerful. That’s what you do when you give people power, give them confidence, and people who are unloved, you just love them.”
The Regiment became driven to not just succeed, but to also raise the stature of their school, which once had the reputation of having discipline problems, McDaniel said. The idea: to go “Beyond All Expectations,” the students’ rallying cry, worn proudly on their hooded sweatshirts. One way they did that: Their first competition in band and choir, and for many, their first time to travel outside the Coachella Valley, they took first place in a music festival in San Francisco in 2016. The program had only first- and second-year music students then. They repeated again in 2017 at a music festival in Hollywood.
“Whatever you think of Desert Hot Springs, we’re going to totally change your views of that,” McDaniel said. “And the next time you see us, we’re going to be even better. We have created a system of success that just runs rampant through our school.”
Grainger, the principal, sees the improvement, too. “It’s no coincidence that our school last year had a significant bump in student achievement,” he said. “I think Brian now works with about 200 of our 800 students across the campus. He constantly conveys to kids that if you set personal goals and objectives, you can attain anything in life.”
McDaniel gives some credit to his education at CSUSB. As a young teacher just out of college, he said he was more authoritative with his students. After he enrolled in the master’s program at Cal State San Bernardino’s College of Education, he experienced his professors treating him as a professional equal. And that influenced how he related to his students while teaching at Desert Springs High.
“When I started treating my students as people, letting them know that I’m on their team, that I’m there to let them grow, to reach their dreams — because I’m living my dream — the least I can do is pass on what my teachers gave to me and give it to them,” he said. “I’m there to advocate for the kids who are voiceless, the kids who don’t have stuff. I work in a way that is a little different than other teachers. I don’t ask why, I ask how I can help.
“Cal State San Bernardino reaffirmed that love of teaching,” said McDaniel, who took classes at the CSUSB Palm Desert Campus and in San Bernardino. “They strengthened and deepened everything that I can be as an educator. In a lot of ways, I received my roots from a place that’s home.”
With the title “Teacher of the Year” attached to his name, McDaniel wants to make sure he gives back. He said he hopes to use the honor as a platform to advocate for his fellow teachers, and talks of creating a pipeline of teachers between CSUSB and the Palm Springs Unified School District, the idea of developing hometown heroes who are educators.
“The way I look at it, I invested my life, my energy, into my students,” he said. “Maybe it’s greedy, but I want a return on my investment. I want them to give back. And to be honest, it’s this perpetual motion, where it’s exponential growth — pebble that splashes in the pond, and it just ripples, ripples, ripples.”
The idea may sound lofty. But if McDaniel’s track record is any gauge, it wouldn’t be wise to bet against him.
His students certainly won’t. One of them, Itzel Posada, an eighth grader who is president of the choir, said: “One of the most import things that he’s taught me is that you can change your future, your destiny, by working hard, by being the best you can be.”
McDaniel points to his mother, who he credits with pushing him and his siblings to succeed despite the challenges they faced. After he earned his doctorate in educational justice at the University of Redlands, he encouraged her to return to school and supported her along the way, just as she had supported him. She went on to complete the nursing program at the College of the Desert.
“My Mom is my biggest hero,” McDaniel said. “Being able to give her her dream, because she gave me mine … I don’t know what else to say about that. How many kids can say, ‘Mom, I want you to go to college. I want you to be what you want to be.’ And I was put in a position that I could help her … Hearing her name when she got her degree was one of the happiest days of my life.”
And reflecting on being Teacher of the Year, he said, “Music and education, that’s who I am. And if I can use my titles, use my influence, use my knowledge, to change one person’s life, then it’s all worth it. That’s how I feel about this California Teacher of the Year. It’s not mine. It belongs to the teachers.”
Grainger said, “He’s not about ego. He’s about being Brian McDaniel, mentoring kids, changing their lives for all the right reasons. As his principal and as his friend, I’m just so proud of his accomplishments.”