Rodney Robinson was a young high school teacher when he learned a lesson of sorts from his principal.
After a year teaching civics and economics at a Richmond middle school, Robinson was transferred to George Wythe High School in the city’s South Side. The second-year teacher and football coach had asked for more security at football games. He said the request was ignored, and that led to a distant relationship with the principal.
When Robinson’s teaching license was up for renewal, the principal was already hiring for a new social studies teacher.
"He told me he didn’t think it would work out for me," Robinson remembers. "It was the best thing to happen to me. It lit a fire that I was going to prove him wrong."
Now in his 20th year of teaching, Robinson in 2019 was named National Teacher of the Year by the Council of Chief State School Officers. He was cited for bringing passion to his classroom inside Richmond’s juvenile detention center, where he gives each incarcerated student an individualized education.
“They have the power to change their lives, and he helps show them that,” said Robinson's principal, Ta’Neshia Ford.
"America is a country of second, third and fourth chances," Robinson added. "Teenagers often make mistakes, and it's important that we teach them how to learn from mistakes."
That philosophy started developing when Robinson himself was a teenager.
On his 15th birthday, he was ready to follow in the footsteps of his older brothers, who had all gone to a local King William County teen club. His mother, Sylvia, had other ideas: She told the youngest of five siblings that he couldn’t go. The rebellious Robinson defied his mother – and after a party at the club led to a fight, he confessed his whereabouts to her.
Instead of punishing him, his mother explained her initial reasoning: His brothers were ready for those surroundings at 15 – but Robinson wasn’t.
A quarter-century later in his history classroom, Robinson now gives his students what they need instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, just as his mother did in their King William home.
“They get the amount of love and attention they need,” Robinson told teachers in Petersburg in August. “Some kids need more, some kids need less.”
Robinson ultimately found a stable teaching environment at Armstrong High School in Richmond's East End, representing something he had only once growing up: a black male teacher. (He is the first black male teacher to win National Teacher of the Year since 1992, and is the third overall teacher from Virginia.)
“For somebody like him to get that recognition is great,” said Doron Battle, one of Robinson’s former students at Armstrong who was inspired by his history teacher to become a teacher himself, now at Richmond’s George Mason Elementary. “Whatever you get from him is straight from the heart.”
Starting in late 2017 and continuing into 2019, Robinson was first named Richmond's Teacher of the Year and then Virginia's. Inside the detention center's Virgie Binford Education Center gymnasium in January, Gov. Ralph Northam announced Robinson as one of four finalists for the national award, which was officially announced on April 24.
As Robinson's teaching career deepened, he grew passionate about the risks and challenges of the school-to-prison pipeline, in which discipline – such as a simple suspension in preschool or elementary school – is frequently a student's starting point on a path to incarceration. At Virgie Binford, where Robinson has taught since 2015, his students learn about the history of prison and the Virginia juvenile justice system – the system they find themselves living in – through a curriculum he developed.
“He made every lesson applicable,” said Hubert Anderson, who like Battle is a former Robinson student who became a teacher. “He’s a jewel within the community of Richmond and in education.”
His students in the detention center – whom Robinson doesn’t call “at-risk” but rather “at-potential” – need more resources, Robinson tells whoever will listen. And they need to see more black male teachers.
“I represent two groups that don’t often get much attention in education conversations: black men, and kids who are in detention centers,” Robinson said. “That’s been really empowering to have that stage and to talk about the issues that are facing those groups and all groups in education.”
In his year as an education evangelist, preaching his message and representing millions of educators in the United States, Robinson has at least four speaking engagements per week. Every Southern state and others up and down the East Coast have requested his presence at conferences and events that might focus not just on education but on policy, business or social justice.
He can’t accept all of the invitations – stretches like 14 cities in 17 days in October don’t allow much wiggle room – but he tries to pack in as much as possible.
“It’s humbling that so many people want to hear from me, but it’s tiring,” Robinson said.
The routine – fly into a city, check into the hotel, speak at an event, spend the night, fly out – gets lonely, he said, as his wife and fellow teacher, Summer, remains in town. There's also the hate mail he occasionally receives, or a threat called into Virgie Binford.
He even notes that his message – of not criminalizing poverty, of supporting restorative discipline instead of exclusionary, of making schools more integrated socioeconomically – receives some occasional boos within his audiences.
But all of it, Robinson said, reminds him to stay focused on his message of lifting up his students’ voices.
He will wrap up his tenure as National Teacher of the Year in the spring, when his successor for 2020 will be named. After 20 years in the classroom, Robinson isn’t sure what’s next.
“Although I would love to just go back in and close my door and teach my kids, I see a bigger purpose right now,” he said.
Jahana Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, now serves in Congress. Others have become principals and school administrators – including Jason Kamras, the Richmond schools chief who has advised Robinson throughout the process.
For now, Robinson is living a life he never envisioned as a teenager in King William – and as a young teacher who didn’t have the trust of his principal.
“You get into this work and it’s all about the kids, and that’s how I stay focused,” Robinson said. “I’m blessed with this opportunity because not only am I advocating for my kids, but all kids in the country and all teachers in the country.”
TEACHER'S LESSONS: ABOUT RODNEY ROBINSON
2019 National Teacher of the Year
Hometown: King William County
Family: wife Summer
Some vignettes about Rodney Robinson, the 2019 National Teacher of the Year:
In his youth, Robinson’s education didn’t stop at the end of the school day. Every day after football practice, Robinson would sit in the back of his mother’s GED class and wait to go home.
Sylvia Robinson was in sixth grade when her mother got sick, so she dropped out to care for her siblings. By the time her mother's health was restored, Sylvia was considered too old to return to school in the segregated South, her son said, denying her wish of one day becoming a classroom teacher.
Instead, she ran an in-home daycare, raising five of her own children and working 10-hour days. Still, she got her GED as her youngest son watched, absorbing the power of learning.
“My mother is my inspiration,” he said.
Robinson fulfilled his mother’s dream of becoming a teacher, but first he had to go to college.
One day after school in eighth grade in King William County, he said he wasn’t interested in higher education. His father, Elmore, responded by signing up his son for farm work. Robinson lasted less than an hour and a half before retreating home to be with his cousins, who hadn’t yet finished the movie they were watching when he left to bale hay.
College it was. Robinson attended Virginia State University for his bachelor’s degree in history and Virginia Commonwealth University for his master’s. He was grand marshal of VSU’s homecoming parade in 2019.
A ROLE MODEL
Robinson wouldn’t have gone to VSU if not for his high school’s assistant principal.
Months away from graduating in 1996, Robinson was in Spanish class when his teacher referred to him and other students of color in class as the “peanut gallery” – the worst part of the venue and the only option for black theatergoers during segregation. Upset with the teacher, Robinson flipped a desk – an action that could have led to expulsion.
Wayne Lewis, the assistant principal at King William and the school’s first black leader, met with the angry teen. Lewis told Robinson to channel that anger toward change. He handed down a punishment of a week of in-school suspension, but he helped Robinson fill out an application to VSU, Lewis’ alma mater, as well as financial aid documents – a push Robinson said he needed as a first-generation college student.
“It was the first time someone had talked to me about their college days,” Robinson said in April. “It really got me interested.”
Lewis was one of two black male educators Robinson had in his own K-12 education. The other, Calvin Sorrell, taught Robinson how to play the trombone, baritone and tuba.
“The potential was there. He just had to come out a little bit,” Sorrell said in May. “I knew he always had the ability.”
WALLS OF POWER
When Robinson started working at the Virgie Binford Education Center inside the city’s juvenile detention center, it looked like a jail. The walls were white and dull.
“It had the look of a maximum-security adult prison without the bars,” he wrote in his National Teacher of the Year application.
The walls soon came alive.
Students named and researched their heroes, creating displays of motivational quotes from the likes of Jackie Robinson, Michelle Obama and Martin Luther King Jr. to cover the walls. College pennants hang throughout the school. There’s a pictorial timeline of African American history near the exit with a sign challenging students to make positive contributions as they return to society.
“Even though [the students’] situation is bad, it’s a reminder that their minds can still wander – and when you get out, your mind can still take you places,” Robinson said.
Richmond schools Superintendent Jason Kamras uses the hallways as a model for the whole school system, encouraging other teachers to visit Virgie Binford and see Robinson’s work.
LEARNING AND LESSONS
Robinson left Armstrong High School for Virgie Binford in 2015 to better understand the school-to-prison pipeline. Students of color, whether in Richmond or elsewhere in the country, are disproportionately referred to law enforcement by educators.
Robinson wants his students to learn about the system they’re a part of. So he developed his own curriculum on the history of prison and the Virginia juvenile justice system through the Yale National Initiative.
During the three-week lesson, students look at the historical roots of the U.S. prison system, learning about the economic and social public policies that shaped the system and the segregation behind those policies. They look at data from the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice and write journal entries modeled after the first-person letters popularized by The Players’ Tribune, a sports website with essays written by athletes, with advice to give to other students so they wouldn’t be incarcerated.
Robinson shares this moment of inspiration from a student:
"One day we had a student, and he had a bad experience with school and we were just trying to change his attitude and build up his self-esteem. And when he left us, he said a quote that I will never forget. He said, 'I really liked this school. I wish I could go here – but I didn't have to be here to go here.'
"And so that's always stuck with me. That if that kid felt comfortable enough to want to come to this school, just as long as he wasn't in detention to have to come here – that really inspired me."