Sylvia Robinson, who grew up in rural Virginia and always wanted to be a teacher, wasn’t able to graduate high school because of segregation. Two weeks ago, her son Rodney was named the National Teacher of the Year by the Council of Chief State School Officers. “He creates a positive school culture by empowering his students—many of whom have experienced trauma—to become civically minded social advocates who use their skills and voices to affect physical and policy changes at their school and in their communities,” the council said in a statement.
Robinson, a 19-year education veteran, teaches social studies and history to grades 6 through 12 at Virgie Binford Education Center, a school inside the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center in Virginia. According to Richmond Magazine, “many of [his students] are only in his class for a month or less as they await trial or transfer to another facility.” As the 2019 Teacher of the Year, Robinson will spend a year traveling nationally and internationally to advocate for the equitable education of all students and the recruitment of more male teachers of color into the field of education. Slate caught up with him this week as he kicked off his yearlong tour in his home state of Virginia.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Rachelle Hampton: Did you always know you wanted to be a teacher? What inspired you to go down this career path?
Rodney Robinson: Well, I decided to become a teacher to honor my mother. She wanted to become a teacher, but she didn’t get the chance to, growing up in poverty and segregation in the rural South. But she always stressed education. She even modeled it: When I was in high school, she went back to get her GED, and I had to sit in the back of those classes, and it just showed me the power of learning and a different side of my mother. She really got into it, and she was really happy. She’s always been nurturing, but just to see her in the classroom, in that setting, working with her colleagues, it was just inspiring.
What is it like teaching history as a black man in the South? When we hear about history lessons in the South, they tend not to be that accurate. How do you kind of push back against that whitewashing of history?
One thing I do with history is I analyze sources, and we always look at voice—whose voice was left out, why was that voice left out—and then we try to find that voice. It requires my students to really focus and dig deep into history, and personalize the history, like how would you react in that situation? And do you think this is a credible source? So it’s really about analyzing the sources. I hate textbooks. I never use textbooks and haven’t since my first or second year of teaching because textbooks teach you what to think. My job as a history teacher is to teach you how to think.
How do your students react to that model of teaching?
When you don’t use textbooks, you just give them a chance to find their voice, so they really respond well because they feel that their opinion is valued. More importantly, the opinions they read is not someone telling them what to think, it’s the actual source of someone from that time period. So that really generates more engagement.
How would you describe your teaching philosophy?
My teaching philosophy now is about the whole child approach. You encourage social, emotional growth before you get to academic growth. Showing the kid that you care about them, you care about their well-being, and you want them to be a better person, when they see that, they tend to buy into whatever teaching strategy or methods you engage them with.
What makes working at a juvenile detention center different from other teaching environments?
I would say what makes it harder is the limited amount of resources you can have. For example, you can’t do a lot of project-based learning, because you’re not allowed to have items such as scissors and things that are considered safety hazards. Another example is my classroom was very active learning. I want my kids up and about and moving, because I feel that works best for them. However, detention rules only allow one kid out of their seat at a time. So, you really have to be flexible to adjust your teaching style to fit the rules of a detention center. But as far as the kids, there’s no difference. Kids are kids.
What makes it rewarding is just watching growth, and watching kids really step out of themselves to analyze their situation. My kids are often in survival mode 24/7, so they rarely get a chance to stop and examine their life. Sometimes you get them to stop, examine their life [and] it really gives them new perspective. To see them take that new perspective and put it into action, whether it be academic, or whether it be anger management, that’s what makes it rewarding.
What’s working at juvenile detention center taught you about the school-to-prison pipeline?
Well, most of my kids have had bad experiences with school, so it’s important that we have the resources in place to make sure every kid has a positive school experience. Some of those resources are the proper student-to-teacher ratio in class. Ending out-of-school suspension, because with the majority of my kids, that’s where it starts. They get put out of school when they’re in trouble. So we must end out-of-school suspension, and we must create alternative programs that foster social and emotional growth. Why does the kid have to come to jail before they get anger management classes? Why can’t we have that in the schools? Why can’t we have some restorative justice practice? Some mindfulness? Just give them coping skills to help them deal with their life. Why don’t the schools offer that instead of just putting the kid out of school?
Why do you think that schools are kind of more prone to punitive measures rather than something like what you’re talking about?
Because honestly schools are representative of America, and America, we’re very punitive for behavior. Our entire prison system is built on being punitive, and I think we need to switch that mindset, especially with juveniles. I think we need to put more resources in for preventive measures than punitive measures.
You’re on a tour of Virginia schools right now. What’s that been like?
It’s been very eye opening. There are great inequities in Virginia. There are some districts where kids are using STEM bots and launching rockets, and then there are some districts where kids don’t even have textbooks. I think the rural and the urban areas are really dealing with some of the same inequities, and I think that, especially in Virginia, we need to work on our school funding problem to ensure that rural and urban areas get more of the funding that they need to give the kids that great education. There’s some cultural inequities that really bothered me. I think we went to 10 schools, and I only saw one black male educator, only a few black females, maybe one or two Hispanic educators, and that’s the population that is growing in that area. Plus seeing things like students wearing Confederate flags, belt buckles in school, in a school with an African American principal, those things were really eye opening as far as the cultural inequities in our state.
What do you think it’s like for your students to have a black male educator?
A lot of times having someone who looks like you really allows you to open up because honestly, people are untrusting of what’s unfamiliar. So, a lot of times when you have someone who looks like them, who talks like them, who values their culture, students are much more willing to open up. I can give you a concrete example: We had a state senator come to speak to our students, and they were very hesitant with this senator, until they understood that this person was African American. [The senator] told their history, and after that, the kids really opened up and had a great discussion. They now have an advocate in the General Assembly who’s advocating for the things they want. If they hadn’t gotten past that barrier of the skin color of this person, they may have never been able to feel comfortable advocating for themselves.
Why do you think there are kind of so few black male educators?
Well, I just think educators of color, if you look at the numbers of the school-to-prison pipeline, suspension numbers, they aren’t having good experiences at school. They have been singled out for their behavior and for discipline, and that’s traumatic. No one wants to come back to the scene of their trauma, so they don’t see that as a viable career for them because they—from what they have seen, that they aren’t valued or appreciated. So, until we start to have better experiences for the kids we have in school, we’re still going to see the issue of struggling to get teachers of color into the classroom.
Tell me about the moment you found out you were a finalist for the Teacher of the Year Award, and the moment you knew you won.
Well, I found out I was a finalist in December. I was leaving an event, a speaking event, and I got the call, and it was just humbling. Then when I got to meet all the other state teachers of the year, it was extremely humbling because this cohort is just amazing. To be chosen as a finalist to represent them was, that was even more humbling. Then when I found out that I was chosen, that was, I mean it was a speechless moment.
It was really full of emotion, full of tears, because often as a black male educator, we’re put in this box where we’re told to only coach, only deal with difficult kids, only do discipline, and we fight to try to escape that box, and now here I was being chosen to represent all teachers and students in America. It was validating. I spoke to other black male teachers: This is our validation that hey, we matter, we have a voice, we can advocate for our kids. I was chosen for this position because I represent a group of teachers who’ve never been given the stage, but also representing a group of students who’ve never been given the stage. I felt like it was a mission. I was put here for a purpose.