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How the National Teacher of the Year offers history lessons plus ‘love and care and comfort’

Rodney Robinson, 2019 National Teacher of the Year.
Rodney Robinson, 2019 National Teacher of the Year.
Courtesy of CCSSO

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

This year, two teachers boycotted the annual White House ceremony celebrating the nation’s top teachers. But Rodney Robinson, the national teacher of the year, wasn’t one of them. Doing so, he said, would have been a missed opportunity.

“I’m willing to spread my message for anyone who’s willing to hear it and to those that aren’t willing to hear,” he told Chalkbeat.

Robinson teaches social studies in a juvenile detention center in Richmond, Virginia, and his message is that the kids he teaches could use even more support. When he spoke to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, he says he urged her to maintain Title II funding, which largely goes to teacher training. (The Trump administration has proposed cutting Title II grants for teacher development, though such efforts have previously been ignored by Congress.)

Robinson, who is black, would also like to see more effort to increase teacher diversity — something that could both help students of color and spur more of them to become teachers themselves.

Chalkbeat spoke with Robinson about how he connects with students and about his biggest misconception going into teaching — that he could just focus on content. “It took me about a year to really get that you can have these great lessons, but if the kids don’t feel that you care about them or if they don’t feel comfortable, none of that really matters,” he said.

And that’s especially critical for some of the students he’s worked with who have been through foster care. “I am their parent, I am their uncle, because they’ve become wards of the state and I represent the state,” he said. “I’m just going to give them as much love and care and comfort as they need.”

The interview has been condensed for length and clarity.

Chalkbeat: Congratulations on becoming the teacher of the year! What has been your favorite part or the best part of your experience, and what has been the toughest or most challenging part so far?

Rodney Robinson: The toughest and most challenging part is time management — balancing obligations versus time to just gather your thoughts. The best part has been giving my kids a voice. I was able to give that voice to tons of politicians in Washington on both sides of the aisle. I think my messages resonated with them. I got to speak with the Democratic caucus and advocate for what we need in our schools. I’ve also had a chance to have a 15-minute conversation with Betsy DeVos on what our school needs. And I had a chance to talk to one of her deputies — we had some good conversations.

What was your experience like with Secretary DeVos? What did you say to her and what was her reaction?

We talked about how we could improve conditions in juvenile justice schools. I know the Trump administration is doing some pretty good things with the adult system. We just looked at how we could make the same things that were available to adults available for juveniles and discussed maybe how to get around some detention center rules and regulations. She was very receptive.

Can you talk a little more about some of the specifics that you’re asking policymakers to do to improve the conditions for your kids in the school that you teach in and other types of schools like it?

Specifically in Virginia, I talked to Sen. [Mark] Warner and Sen. [Tim] Kaine about how we can best change detention centers’ rules to make education more accessible. For example, we talked about how we could get around some of the safety rules to allow the kids to take some career and technical ed classes.

On the federal level, I talked to the Democratic caucus. And after my pitch, Nita Lowey of the Labor, Health, and Human Services Committee asked them to reconvene so that they could add additional funding to wraparound services in the proposed budget. I talked to them about the need for more wraparound services, such as mental health, and more after-school programs, Title I funding. When I left they actually had a meeting to address adding more funds. This was really exciting — the highlight of my week — because it’s democracy in action. I advocated and they listened.

Was there a specific moment in your life when you decided to become a teacher?

It was just watching my mother take her GED classes when I was in high school. She was actually taking night classes, and I had to wait for a ride home from football practice. Watching her enjoy herself, have fun, and just seeing a different person in that classroom — that let me know that learning can change you into a different person. I wanted to feel that feeling in other people.

How do you get to know your students?

When they leave school they go back to their pod — they’re housed in rooms in different pods. So in the afternoon we go over, we play games, we talk. If they need tutoring, I tutor. It’s a really relaxing environment, and you really get to know kids in that type of environment because you’re in their element. You’re not the teacher in the front of the class; you’re just a colleague or big brother hanging out with them. So when they come to class the next day, that relationship has been built, so it’s an easier ask for them to do things that they are uncomfortable with.

Can you tell me about a favorite lesson of yours to teach and where the idea from for that lesson came from?

I can give you two. My first one is my unit, “Understanding the system: A history of prisons and juvenile justice system in Virginia.” That was a curriculum unit [designed] so that my kids could really understand the situations they were in and how that has come about — how the prison system, how the juvenile justice system has come about — so that they can make better-informed decisions about their current predicament.

My other favorite lesson is about World War II, because my grandfather was a World War II and Korean War vet. Growing up, I always got to play with his medals, but he died when I was really young. Teaching World War II and just immersing my kids into it is really my favorite thing because it’s my connection to my grandpa. I really like to dig into the deep personal stories of the soldiers and tell those to the kids so that they can relate more.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your classroom?

Clearly whatever issues in the community, whether it be gangs or violence, ultimately has an effect in my classroom because it upsets the dynamics. They are comfortable with each other and they get to know each other, but all it takes is something on the street or something outside to happen, and that comfort level is tested. Old rivalries come up and things that you have absolutely no control over come up. But the key is just get to know them and have them come talk to you about anything before it spills over.

Can you tell me about a memorable time when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach as a teacher?

In the prison system, we have a lot of kids in foster care. Those kids, I find, need the most love because they’ve never had a lot of love in their lives. Those are the ones that I find I have the biggest connection with because there, I am their parent, I am their uncle, because they’ve become wards of the state and I represent the state. I’m just going to give them as much love and care and comfort as they need.

We had one kid last year who was in the foster care system. When his sentence was over, he didn’t want to leave. He actually wanted to stay because we have created such a caring environment for him and he felt so loved that he wanted to stay. That was kind of heartbreaking, but it was also a testament to the job and the atmosphere we have created in our school.

What part of your job is most difficult?

I would definitely say detention rules and regulations because in detention, education is third — safety is first and legal, second. So a lot of things that you would like to do educationally conflict with their protocols. For example, I had a kid, 14 years old, who told me one day he hadn’t had a hug since his mom died when he was eight. I wanted to hug him, but detention rules said no contact allowed with children. That was probably one of the hardest moments of my career.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

When I first started teaching, I was so focused on content that I didn’t understand that it’s also about their social-emotional growth and connection. It took me about a year to really get that you can have these great lessons, but if the kids don’t feel that you care about them or if they don’t feel comfortable, none of that really matters.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

It’s something simple: It’s that there’s nothing hard about teaching kids who are perceived to be difficult — you just gotta love them, no matter what they do, just keep loving on them and keep loving on them and eventually they’ll come around. But even if they don’t come around, they will always remember that you loved on them and you cared for them.

What is a misconception that the public or people reading this might have about the kids that you work with in the juvenile justice system?

People say they’re just bad kids, or they’re criminals. But the reality is they’re just teenagers — life circumstances have forced them to commit crimes. Most of them are crimes of survival such as robbery to eat or carrying a gun to protect themselves. And so they’re not bad. When they’re with us, we get to see that teenage side. My kids like TV teen stuff like Teen Wolf, Hanna, and all these different shows and books that just any suburban teenager would pick up and read.

You’ve talked about in prior interviews about the lack of diversity in the teaching profession and the fact that very few public school teachers are black men. What should a policymaker do to increase teacher diversity?

There’s definitely a greater investment that could be made in historically black colleges and universities and colleges that tend to serve Hispanic students, cultural colleges. That’s where your pipeline comes from.

Another thing they could do is increase Title II funding so that we can have more culturally relevant teaching in our schools — so that we can train the teachers we have to create better experiences for students.

One reason there aren’t a lot of teachers of color is because students of color tend to have bad experiences in the school. A lot of times, they don’t see education as a viable option because it’s the scene of some sort of trauma and some sort of negative vibe. It starts with creating better experiences for students of color who are in the classroom today.

The Trump administration has proposed cutting Title II funding. Is that something you talked about to Secretary DeVos at all?

Specifically, Title I and Title II funding. Because those are the two that affect students of color the most, because unfortunately in America students of color tend to come from disadvantaged backgrounds. And definitely Title II — we need some more training on culturally responsive teaching to help our students of color. I think those are really two key issues.

Did she give any reaction specifically on Title II?

She gave the typical political answer, like, we’re going to look at all options.

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