Rodney Robinson, a social studies teacher in Richmond, Virginia, was named the 2019 National Teacher of the Year on Wednesday by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).
Robinson, a 19-year veteran of Richmond Public Schools, teaches at Virgie Binford Education Center, a school inside the Richmond Juvenile Justice Center. CCSSO commended Robinson for creating "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."
Robinson says he looking forward to helping lead a conversation about the students he calls "the most vulnerable in society" and how the nation can address the school-to-prison-pipeline that has pushed too many kids out of school.
“This year I hope to be the voice for my students and all students who feel unseen, unheard, unappreciated and undervalued in America,” Robinson said.
At the Virgie Binford Education Center, which serves youth ages 10-18, Robinson uses a social studies curriculum that centers on juvenile justice and the prison system. Robinson collaborated with Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Forman Jr at Yale University in developing the unit. The curriculum allows "students to step outside of themselves and examine the system and the circumstances that have led to their incarceration and a better understanding of how to avoid future incarceration," Robinson wrote in the introduction.
Congratulations to the 2019 National Teacher of the Year @RodRobinsonRVA 👏🏽👏🏾👏🏽 an amazing educator and proud member of @VEA4Kids We are so inspired by your passion, dedication and commitment to our students! https://t.co/Q8qOCJ8WHY
— Lily Eskelsen García (@Lily_NEA) April 24, 2019
Robinson, who previously taught at Armstrong High, Wythe High, and Brown Middle School, earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Virginia State University and a master’s degree in administration and supervision from Virginia Commonwealth University. In addition to being published three times by Yale, Robinson has received numerous awards for his accomplishments in and out of the classroom, most notably the R.E.B. Award for Teaching Excellence.
A proud member of the Richmond Education Association, the Virginia Education Association, and the National Education Association, Robinson is a vocal and dedicated union activist, and was a featured speaker at the VEA Fund our Future rally in Richmond.
Robinson is standing up for students who "feel unseen, unheard, unappreciated, and undervalued in America," said NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia. "He is not only a beacon of light but also a mentor, a leader and a role model in the fight for racial and social justice in education....Every student in every public school in this country deserves a teacher like Mr. Robinson no matter their ZIP code or their circumstances.”
Robinson has focused great deal of his efforts on the need for mental health services in schools and singles out the stigma surrounding treatment. As teacher of the year, Robinson will have a heightened platform to advocate for the students who are being left behind by budget cuts and a system that emphasizes punitive discipline over preventative and rehabilitative measures.
"I want school counselors, I want conflict mediators, I want restorative justice, I want people to come in and actually work with the kids and not just put a kid in handcuffs whenever there is a minor disagreement," Robinson told WCVE Radio in Richmond.
Robinson says the positive influence black educators can have on the lives of vulnerable students cannot be overstated. When he was a student at King William County High School in the 1990s, Robinson admits he struggled "to find his place" and looked up to his band director Mr. Calvin Sorrell, who at that time was the only male, black teacher in the district. Today, only 15 percent of licensed teachers in Virginia are people of color.
"It’s important to have role models of all races and ethnicity — especially for students of color,” says Robinson.
After graduating high school, Robinson set his sights on becoming the kind of educator many students who have made mistakes desperately need.
"Most are in survival mode 24 hours a day, seven days a week... but they still persevere and strive for success. They are my inspiration, and I will fight to my last heartbeat for them,” Robinson says