Calvin Sorrell was the only black male teacher Rodney Robinson had.
He taught in King William County for three dozen years and remembers Robinson as knowledgeable, caring and talented. Robinson was shy, though, lacking many teachers who looked like him.
“The potential was there; he just had to come out a little bit,” Sorrell said. “I knew he always had the ability.”
Robinson looked up to the one black male teacher he did have, who taught him how to play the trombone, baritone and tuba. He became a teacher to give students the teacher he had only once, among other reasons.
“Kids need positive role models,” Sorrell said of being a black male teacher. “It gives them someone to look up to, and he was no exception.”
It surprised him when Robinson became a teacher, but knowing Robinson now, a man driven to improve teacher diversity while getting to know his students, Sorrell was not shocked to find out last week that Robinson is the National Teacher of the Year.
These days, Robinson has people looking up to him for guidance the same way he looked to Sorrell for inspiration.
Robinson’s in his 19th year teaching and has guided multiple former students into the profession, including one, Doron Battle, who now teaches in the same neighborhood where Robinson taught him and has established a mentoring program for students at his elementary school to inspire others.
But 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 collect teacher diversity data.
As the National Teacher of the Year, Robinson is inspiring black men across the country. He has made it his mission to use the platform given to him as the country’s top teacher to advocate for a more diverse teaching workforce.
“My purpose is not only to advocate for black men, all men of color, all women of color, but all students in America to make sure our stories are heard, our cultures are valued and that we can be whatever we want to be,” Robinson said last week.
Robinson’s win is the first time a Richmond educator has earned the country’s most prestigious teaching honor and just the third time someone from Virginia has won the award.
“To see him go this far gives me hope to go on,” said Ramon Moore, who is president of the Richmond Education Association and serves as the in-school suspension coordinator at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School.
When Robinson, smiling on “CBS This Morning,” was formally recognized last Wednesday, he became the first black male teacher to win since Michigan’s Thomas Fleming in 1992, according to Education Week.
Nancy Rodriguez, the spokeswoman for the Council of Chief State School Officers, which oversees the National Teacher of the Year program, could not confirm the milestone, saying that the program did not collect demographic data over the course of its history, which started in 1952. Robinson was not made available for an interview for this story.
Having been motivated to go into teaching by Sorrell, Robinson is now doing the inspiring.
Working at the since-closed Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center in Powhatan County, Doron Battle was tired of seeing students end up in juvenile detention. He sought the counsel of Robinson, one of his high school teachers.
The 30-year-old had several black men as teachers at Armstrong High School, he said, but none connected with him the way “Big Rob” did — talking about the violence in the surrounding neighborhoods rather than avoiding it. Robinson recommended Battle get in front of the issue by becoming a teacher.
“You can have greater influence before they get in trouble,” Battle remembers Robinson telling him.
Now, Battle is in his third year teaching at George Mason Elementary School, located in the same area in which he grew up. He’s passing down the lessons of Sorrell and Robinson by motivating students — many of them black boys — making a point of getting to know them personally the same way Robinson did with him.
Black boys and black girls are more likely to attend college — and boys are less likely to eventually drop out of school — when they have a black teacher by the end of elementary school, according to a March 2017 study from the IZA Institute of Labor Economics, a nonprofit research organization.
“I also represent cultural equity so students have [teachers] who look like them, sound like them and appreciate their culture, and show them they can be whatever they want to be,” Robinson said last week to a crowd of local and state education officials at a coming-home celebration ceremony.
In the week since the announcement, Robinson has brought his message of increased teacher diversity and more resources for at-risk students to Washington, D.C.
He has met with President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. He has also met with Virginia’s two senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. On Thursday, Rep. Donald McEachin, D-4th, introduced a resolution commending Robinson.
The resolution highlights Robinson’s goal of increasing the number of teachers of color in public schools.
“The passion he has brought to teaching throughout his career, particularly his focus on helping disadvantaged youth overcome their challenges to achieve their dreams, is exemplary,” McEachin said in a statement. “He has also tirelessly advocated for much-needed improvements to our education system to make it more equitable and inclusive.”
Robinson will spend the next year traveling the country as an education ambassador. But first, he’ll return next week to his Virgie Binford Education Center classroom, teaching social studies to incarcerated students.