The past month and a half has been a “whirlwind” for Rodney Robinson.
The Richmond Public Schools teaching veteran was named National Teacher of the Year on April 24, an announcement that catapulted him from juvenile detention center teacher to a voice for education across the country.
“My life has kind of changed a bit lately,” Robinson joked.
He’s still teaching in his classroom at the Virgie Binford Education Center, which is housed within Richmond’s juvenile detention center, but the heightened platform has packed his schedule with media interviews and speeches across the state. His national speaking engagements start later this month once school is out.
On Wednesday, he brought his message to, as Richmond Times-Dispatch President and Publisher Thomas A. Silvestri called it, “the home team.” A mix of Richmond-area teachers, parents and other community members heard Robinson detail his story from King William County teenager to National Teacher of the Year and his advocacy for more black male teachers at The Times-Dispatch’s 77th Public Square.
It was a home run.
The dozens of people in attendance gave Robinson two standing ovations — one after his initial speech that combined his experience of being named National Teacher of the Year, a history lesson on African American education and his own story; and the other after Robinson fielded questions from the group.
“He’s remarkable,” said Fronie McCombs, the dean of students at Henrico County’s John Rolfe Middle School.
Said Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center resident specialist Demetrius Muhammed: “He’s spot on.”
Muhammed is in agreement that students need more teachers of color. Black male teachers remain underrepresented nationally, with just 2 percent of U.S. teachers being black men, while half of students are nonwhite, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Virginia is one of six states that do not mandate collection of teacher diversity data.
“Our students need these male role models who look like them,” Robinson said. “That is a problem and we need to address it.”
Robinson is the first black male teacher to win National Teacher of the Year since Michigan’s Thomas Fleming in 1992. He’s the first Virginia winner since 1998 and the first in Richmond’s history.
The 40-year-old told stories of his own education and how black male educators influenced him. He had just one teacher who looked like him — Calvin Sorrell, his band teacher — and was saved from expulsion by a black male assistant principal after Robinson flipped a desk over when his Spanish teacher made a racially insensitive comment.
Instead, he got in-school suspension and help from the assistant principal in applying to Virginia State University, which jump-started his own teaching career.
“He took a moment that could have ended my life … and turned it into a life-changing moment,” Robinson said.
More mature now than he was as a senior at King William High School, Robinson said his year away from Richmond, in environments that may not be receptive to his message, may necessitate similar action.
“Sometimes you’ve got to kick the table over to get your point across,” he said. “There will be times this year where I’m going to kick some tables over.”
Since the announcement, Robinson has met with President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Members of Congress have also heard his message.
Now it’s time for him to take it beyond Washington and Virginia and to the rest of the country as an education evangelist. He’s committed himself to being a voice for his incarcerated students and other black male teachers, advocating for them in speeches across the country.
But first, he had to bring the message home.