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National Teacher of the Year Urges Equity for All Children

  • LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Rodney Robinson, the nation’s top teacher for 2019, says it took a punch to the eye and his mother’s wisdom to teach him what every educator needs to know: treat every child with special care.

    His mother had said no, don’t go to the local teen club, but Robinson, then 15, went anyway and got jabbed in the eye. His mother didn’t ground him. Instead, she explained why she hadn’t wanted him to go in the first place.

    “The black eye is punishing you enough,” Robinson recalled her saying. “A good parent knows their child and what they need and what they are ready for in life. And you were not ready for that environment.”

    That advice changed his life and was his first lesson in equity, said Robinson, in an inspiring speech to more than 1,500 urban educators assembled here for the Council of the Great City Schools’ 63rd Annual Fall Conference.

    Earlier this year, Robinson was selected as the 2019 National Teacher of the Year by the Council of Chief State School Officers. A veteran educator with 19 years of classroom experience, Robinson teaches social studies and history at the Virgie Binford Education Center, a school inside the juvenile detention center in Richmond, Va.

    “We need to understand that not every child in America starts at the same place. Some need more help, more time. … A one-size-fits-all model does not work in education,” he said. Students born into multigenerational poverty require more supports than those born to privilege, Robinson emphasized.

    He called on national, state and local governments to restore educational funding to pre-recession levels. “It’s time for the children of America to receive their fair share of the nation’s resources. You must fight for school funding to ensure that every student receives the resources to guarantee success,” he told conferees.

    Robinson believes that students of color deserve teachers who look like them and value their experiences and their culture. He urged urban school districts to recruit at historically black colleges and universities, such as Virginia State University, the school he attended.

    Since 2015, Robinson has taught inside the youth detention facility, which has given him first-hand perspective on the school-to-prison pipeline. When students enter Robinson’s classroom, it looks like school. “We tell the kids jail is across the hall. When you come over here, this is school,” he said.

    In his classroom there is a timeline of African-American history to convey an important message: remember what harsh realities black people have overcome in the past.

    There are also college pennants on the windows. “If you’re going to look out the window and daydream, you’re going to dream of college in my classroom,” the teacher said.

    Robinson shared the story of David, a student whose mother was drug-addicted and died young, leaving the boy to be raised by a drug-damaged older sister. The child was misdiagnosed with autism; charged with assault as an 8-year-old because of a temper tantrum; placed in a series of foster and group homes; and then placed in detention at Robinson’s school, where he tested at the first-grade level in reading and the second -grade level in math.

    Multiple interventions later, including treatment for early-childhood trauma, David emerged as a successful student and a leader among his peers. He has been released, received his GED, works two jobs, and is on a path to a successful adult life.

    Robinson gave credit to the professionals who worked together to support David and other youth at the facility and made the point that all children deserve such support.

    “Do we stay with the status quo?” Robinson asked. “Or do we step up and fix our education system? … Do we say enough is enough? We must fight for the future of all kids in America.”