Now, he’s National Teacher of the Year.
Rodney Robinson’s mom grew up during segregation and wasn’t able to graduate from high school due to poverty. Still, she taught him to value learning.
He took it to heart, becoming a teacher in order to honor her.
Robinson, who teaches at Virgie Binford Education Center, a school inside the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center in Virginia, was named on Wednesday 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.
The honoree is selected from 50 state teachers of the year from the states, plus the Department of Defense Education Activity, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, the US Virgin Islands and American Samoa.
Robinson, 40, grew up in King William County in Virginia. He remembers sitting in the back of his mother ’s GED classes at his high school while waiting for a ride home from football practices.
His mother always wanted to become a teacher, but she never got the chance to. Sylvia Robinson grew up in rural Virginia, where “segregation and poverty stripped her of the opportunity to graduate high school and go to college,” Robinson told CNN.
Instead, she ran her own day-care facility, where Robinson said she “taught lessons of equity and love.”
After seeing his mom “transform” while pursuing her GED, Robinson decided to become a history and social studies teacher. He has been teaching for 19 years, and said his current students are no different from other high school students.
“They’re typical students but, unfortunately, they have made mistakes and are now paying for those mistakes,” said Robinson.
In 2015, Robinson moved to teaching at the juvenile detention center because he wanted to understand the school-to-prison pipeline, which refers to strict school policies that can push students from disadvantaged backgrounds to leave school and become incarcerated.
Many of the students at Virgie Binford come from impoverished backgrounds, live in high-crime areas and have had negative contact with schools and the judicial system, Principal Ta’Neisha Ford said. The educators’ goal is to help these students fall back in love with school.
“(Robinson) allows students to really shine and he gives them the tools to succeed,” Ford said.
The teacher said he hopes to instill hope and confidence in his students.
“(I want them to know that) you’re important and you have a place in this world and you can achieve your goals,” Robinson said. “Jail is only a temporary setback.”
Robinson said he’s honored to have won the teacher of the year title because it allows him to spread awareness of the work that he and his school are doing.
“It was a chance to tell my students’ stories — the story of them trying to do better,” Robinson said.
He is working on programs to lower high school dropout rates because people without high school diplomas are more likely to end up in prison. The teacher also worked to expand the school’s African-American history curriculum and boost student morale.
Robinson also wants people to understand “the importance of culturally competent educators and recruiting teachers who look like my students and represent them and my culture,” because he believes all students benefit from diversity.