Children need to feel safe, understood and loved in order to find success in the classroom. That’s the message 2019 National Teacher of the Year Rodney Robinson delivered last night in UMW’s Dodd Auditorium.
“It’s about relationships,” said Robinson, who teaches history at the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center’s Virgie Binford Education Center. “It’s about touching their hearts and making them want to change.”
He had one word for teaching, especially in the prison system: tough. Robinson believes teachers must meet students’ basic, social and emotional needs before tackling academics. He urged educators – many of whom were in the audience of about 350 – to get to know their students, empathize with them and create culturally responsive curricula that take into account the students’ interests and experiences as human beings.
“Every day, everything I do is viewed through a lens of equity,” Robinson said. “I believe that all students can learn and it’s everybody’s job to help teach the children.”
He shared with the crowd photos of those who inspired him, including his mother, an educator in her own right, who ran an at-home daycare, and two teachers who encouraged him throughout school and steered him to college. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Virginia State University and a master’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University.
Robinson flashed onto the screen behind him photos of poignant moments in his career, including meetings with Gayle King during his appearance on CBS This Morning, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, and the most meaningful of all, civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis.
Like Rep. Lewis, all of today’s students should be “civically minded, socially conscious change agents,” said Robinson, who told of the successes of young people who have come through his own classroom and worked hard to pull themselves out of poverty.
His daily activities in a Richmond classroom make it clear that the school-to-prison pipeline remains an issue that must be addressed. “I know it’s real because I experience it. I live it every day.”
Today’s educators, Robinson said, are in a unique position to be able to help accelerate change: “Nothing is more important than what a student feels, hears and sees in your classroom.”