Teaching Profession

Rodney Robinson, Who Teaches Civics to Students in Juvenile Detention, Wins 2019 National Teacher of the Year

By Sarah Schwartz — April 24, 2019 4 min read
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Rodney Robinson, a social studies teacher who works with students in juvenile detention at the Virgie Binford Education Center in Richmond, Va., has won the 2019 National Teacher of the Year award.

In the announcement today on CBS This Morning, Robinson credited his mother, who ran an in-home daycare, with forming his approach to education.

“She always taught us that every child deserves the proper amount of love that he or she needs,” he said. “So that was my first lesson in equity.”

As Teacher of the Year, Robinson will focus on “economic and cultural equity,” he said—the resources for students to achieve and the opportunity for students to have teachers who look like them.

“Throughout my schooling, I only had one black male teacher the entire time,” Robinson said in an interview with Education Week. This teacher led band class, which Robinson took from 5th to 12th grade. Robinson liked playing music, but this teacher was one of the main reasons he stuck with the class for so many years. “It meant so much to see someone like me in the classroom,” he said.

Robinson said his students, who are all incarcerated, deserve as much of a chance to achieve as other teenagers. “They just made mistakes, and they’re paying for mistakes,” he said, on CBS This Morning. “But America is a country of second chances.”

In his social studies classes, Robinson takes a student-centered approach to civics education, empowering his students to push for social change. With them, Robinson has explored the historical roots of the U.S. prison system, the ongoing effects of racial segregation, and voting rights.

“One of the proudest moments is when my students are able to legally advocate for themselves, resulting in a positive outcome in their legal case,” he wrote, in his Teacher of the Year application.

A 19-year teaching veteran, he started working at the Virgie Binford Education Center in the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center in 2015.

In an interview with Education Week in February, Robinson called for more government investment in education.

“It’s more than just more pay for teachers,” he said. “We need a lessened workload, we need more counselors in the schools, we need to treat teachers like professionals, we need proper professional development. We just need a wholesale investment from the federal government and state governments to make sure our kids get what they need.”

Every year since the National Teacher of the Year program began in 1952, the state teachers of the year have been honored by the current president in a ceremony at the White House in the spring, after the announcement of the national winner.

At this year’s reception, Robinson said, he hopes to speak with President Trump about prison reform and supporting education for incarcerated students. The Trump administration has highlighted education for incarcerated students as a priority, after bipartisan prison reform legislation passed last year. Under Trump, the U.S. Department of Education decided to continue the “Second Chance Pell” program, allowing incarcerated individuals to access Pell Grants, which subsidize college for low-income students.

“I think we need to get rid of the stigma that no learning can take place in the juvenile justice system,” Robinson told Education Week. “Kids come in with the opportunity to reset and refocus.” It’s up to governments to adequately fund these education programs so that students can make the best of that opportunity, he said.

Last year’s award recipient, Mandy Manning, said she used the opportunity to hand-deliver 45 letters from her students to President Trump. Manning, who works with newly arrived refugee and immigrant youth, has said that it’s important for the president to hear her students’ stories—about their struggles in coming to the United States, their experiences with anti-immigrant sentiment, and their hopes for the future.

The national winner is chosen from a group of four State Teacher of the Year finalists, by a committee of representatives from 16 education and community organizations.

The other finalists this year were Donna Gradel, an environmental science and innovative research teacher in Broken Arrow, Okla., Kelly Harper, a 3rd grade teacher in Washington, D.C., and Danielle Riha, a 5th-8th grade teacher in Anchorage, Alaska. Read more about their work here.

Perhaps the most famous recipient of the national award, Jahana Hayes, was elected to Congress last year, representing Connecticut’s 5th district. In her new role as a member of the House committee that oversees K-12 education, Hayes, who was the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, has advocated for a greater investment in education funding.

Photo: Virginia Teacher of the Year, Rodney Robinson, center right, smiles as he is honored on the floor of the Virginia House of Delegates as Del. Steven Landes, R-Augusta, left, applauds during the House session at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019. —Steve Helber/AP.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.


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