Rodney Robinson had to keep a secret.
He learned last month that he was one of four finalists for the honor of the country’s best teacher, a title only two Virginia teachers have ever had and none in the past 20 years. The 40-year-old told his wife, Summer, but kept it hidden from everyone else.
People would come up to him in the grocery store and wish him good luck. He had to resist the temptation of telling them. His colleagues at the school inside Richmond’s juvenile detention center where he teaches social studies would check in every day to see if he had heard anything. He hadn’t — or so he told them.
That all changed Wednesday.
Gov. Ralph Northam appeared in the Virgie Binford Education Center’s gymnasium to speak at a summit aimed at increasing the presence of men of color in the classroom. He ended his remarks with a surprise for most in attendance — Robinson had advanced from Virginia Teacher of the Year to finalist for National Teacher of the Year.
“I’m just happy it’s all out and I can share this moment with everybody,” he said after Northam delivered the news.
He added in an interview: “It was hard to keep it a secret, especially with all the love from the community.”
Everybody, in this case, included local and state officials, the president of his college alma mater, his colleagues and students.
“He’s dedicated his life to helping others, and here at the Virgie Binford Center, where children really need a second chance, he’s really committed to that,” Northam said. “It’s a real honor for him, an honor for the school here where he teaches, and certainly something that we’re proud of in Virginia.”
Robinson was the first Richmond Public Schools teacher to be named the state’s best since 2011 and only the fourth from the area to earn the title. That announcement came in October.
Superintendent Jason Kamras said if Robinson were to win the national award, it would be “game-changing” for the district.
“He loves teaching, he loves his kids, he loves Richmond and everything he does is about love, and that is what makes a truly great teacher,” he said.
In September, Robinson was named the region’s best, an honor he was able to share with his students, who were in attendance in the center’s gymnasium for both the September announcement and Wednesday’s.
“They inspire me to fight for them every day,” Robinson said.
As a black male teacher, Robinson is part of a group that represents only 2 percent of public school teachers in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Virginia is one of six states that does not mandate data collection on teacher race and ethnicity.
The announcement came at the end of a summit on the issue of teacher diversity, specifically men of color in the classroom. As his platform has grown with each new honor, Robinson has increased his calls to have more black male teachers.
The King William County native graduated from Virginia State University before becoming a civics and economics teacher at Lucille M. Brown Middle School. After a year there, Robinson spent two years as a world geography and U.S. history teacher at George Wythe High School.
In 2003, Robinson moved to Armstrong High School, where he taught government, history and geography. He now teaches social studies at Virgie Binford, coming to the school in 2015 to try to better understand the school-to-prison pipeline.
“He is the epitome of a great teacher who inspires our young people to learn, to dream and to reach for the stars,” said Richmond School Board Chairwoman Dawn Page.
No RPS teacher has ever won the National Teacher of the Year award, which is announced in the spring, but Kamras, the district’s schools chief, won it in 2005 when he taught in Washington, D.C.
Robinson will compete against another D.C. teacher, Kelly Harper, and two others from Oklahoma and Nebraska for the honor.
The winner will spend the year traveling the U.S. as an education ambassador.