During grocery shopping trips growing up, Rodney Robinson calculated the cost of the family’s items at the direction of his mother as they roamed the store. After high school football practices, Robinson sat in the back of class as his mother took courses for her GED.
“That really showed me the power of learning,” said Robinson, a social studies teacher in a juvenile detention center in Richmond.
Robinson, 40, started teaching to honor his mother, Sylvia, who he said struggled to receive an education as a child facing segregation and poverty in rural Virginia. On Wednesday, Robinson was named 2019 National Teacher of the Year — one of the most prestigious honors in the teaching profession.
At the Virgie Binford Education Center inside the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center, many of Robinson’s lessons deal with “overcoming long odds to succeed,” he wrote in his Teacher of the Year application.
One lesson takes students through the history of prison and Virginia’s juvenile justice system. It allows students to “step outside of themselves,” Robinson wrote, and examine the system and circumstances that led to their incarceration.
“My students’ life experiences have led to bad choices, which have caused their incarceration. Most are in survival mode 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Robinson wrote. “The students do not have the vision to understand the juvenile justice system because they are too busy trying to survive the system.”
By the time his students graduate high school, Robinson makes sure they’re registered to vote. Those who have lost voting rights because of felony convictions learn to get those rights restored. His students have advocated for school funding and better treatment for juveniles in Virginia’s prison system.
Robinson chose to teach young people in the juvenile justice system because he wanted to better understand the school-to-prison pipeline, which refers to disciplinary practices, including suspension, expulsion or police involvement, that steer students out of schools and into the criminal justice system.
He wants an end to out-of-school suspensions and more programs for social and emotional learning, lessons that teach students to channel their anger or aggression positively. And he wants students to see themselves in their teachers.
“The best way to do that is to have people who look like them and think like them and value their opinion,” said Robinson, who wants to see more teachers of color, especially men of color, in classrooms.
Research shows teachers of color, compared with their white colleagues, have higher expectations for students of color and are more likely to improve their educational experience.
Seven percent of U.S. public school teachers are black, 9 percent are Hispanic, and 2 percent are Asian, according to 2015-2016 data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
The National Teacher of the Year program is run by the Council of Chief State School Officers, an organization of public officials who lead education departments throughout the country.
Robinson’s triumph was announced Wednesday on “CBS This Morning.” He won over three other finalists for the national honor, including the District’s Teacher of the Year, Kelly Harper. Harper, a third-grade educator at Amidon-Bowen Elementary School in Southwest Washington, said she entered the teaching profession to reach children before they become entangled in the justice system.
The two other finalists were Donna Gradel — the Oklahoma Teacher of the Year, who teaches her high school science students how they can improve the environment — and Danielle Riha, the Alaska Teacher of the Year, who connects her curriculum with indigenous cultures.
The 2018 National Teacher of the Year was Mandy Manning of Washington state. She met President Trump at a May 2 ceremony at the White House and brought letters from her immigrant and refugee students and gave them to the president.
Robinson has taught for 19 years, 11 of which were spent as a history teacher at Armstrong High School in Richmond’s East End, where 95 percent of students are black and 87 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.
That’s where Doron Battle, as an 11th-grader, first encountered Robinson, or “Big Rob,” in a Virginia and U.S. history class. It is easy to become absorbed in negative behavior at Armstrong or simply go through the motions, Battle recalled.
Not in Robinson’s class.
“He taught with his heart. You could tell that he wasn’t coming in there just to pick up some check,” said Battle, 30, who graduated high school in 2006. “He is genuine. He’s pure like sugar cane.”
Years later, Battle turned to Robinson for advice about making a career move into teaching. He’s now a special-education teacher for kindergarten and first-grade students in Richmond.