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'My Kids Are In Survival Mode': A Chat With 2019's Teacher Of The Year

Rodney Robinson is the 2019 National Teacher of the Year. He teaches in a juvenile detention center in Richmond, Va.
Steve Helber
Rodney Robinson is the 2019 National Teacher of the Year. He teaches in a juvenile detention center in Richmond, Va.

Rodney Robinson is this year's National Teacher of the Year, and this week he was honored at a White House ceremony. Robinson has been teaching for 19 years, most recently at a juvenile detention center in Richmond, Va.

He says he strives to make his teaching culturally relevant to his students: "You have to use what your kids know and what your kids experience," he says, " to create a positive learning environment for them." Robinson spoke with NPR's David Greene, and the following was adapted from their conversation. It has been edited for clarity.

Tell me about your classroom.

I work in a juvenile jail. My students range in age from 12 to 19 — from, on average, sixth grade up to 12th grade. They're on varying levels. My facility has a capacity of 60 students. I'd say about a third have been sentenced, and the other two-thirds are being tried or awaiting sentencing. I could have a student who's only there for two days sitting next to a student who's been waiting two years for trial.

It's my job to fit the needs of each and every student no matter what they bring to the table and make them feel loved and appreciated and inspire them to do whatever they want to be.

So unlike a traditional school, you don't know exactly how long you'll have with each student.

It's a very transient population, and so you have to be very, very flexible. And that's why I often tell them, "Hey, this is a moment to reset, no matter how long you are with us, and reexamine your life and the decisions you're making."

You've taught them about the history of prison and the Virginia juvenile justice system. Tell us more about that.

I had the opportunity to go and take a seminar called Race, Class, and Punishment with James Forman Jr. [at Yale]. And the point was for you to take the information that was in the class and create a 10,000-word curriculum unit that was specific to your kids and what they needed to learn.

My kids are in survival mode 24/7. And so a lot of times, when they come into the detention center, they're struggling to understand it all. And I hope that my unit about the history of prisons, the history of juvenile detention in Virginia and how to best advocate for yourself will help them make better decisions. So I teach them, "Hey, you need to know more, you need to be able to advocate for yourself." And so I try to teach them about the system and how they can better be served.

I had a student who was offered six months at a maximum juvenile jail or 10 years' probation. And so we literally sat down and had him weigh the pros and cons of the six months versus the 10 years' probation. Because you know kids would think, "Oh, 10 years' probation is OK. I can just go and just live my life." They don't understand the trap of probation and how that's a cloud hanging over them for their first mistake. And so I just wanted the student to be better informed of his entire situation when he was making those decisions.

So you're using their circumstances as the basis of what you're teaching them.

That's the point. I always say in culturally relevant teaching, you have to use what your kids know and what your kids experience to create a positive learning environment for them.

I think the best moment we had was, we had a student and she liked our school so well that whenever she had a problem in education, with trying to get her credits and graduate, she would violate curfew to come in for one day so that she could talk to us and get everything in order that she needed to graduate.

I mean, I didn't want her violating curfew, just the fact that she wanted to come back to see us because she knew we had her back academically and we could get her issues resolved.

There's another kid who said, "You know, I like this school. I wish I could go here but didn't have to be here to go here."

And so those are the moments that make us — well not just me, but all my co-workers — it just gives us a good feeling to know that we're doing a good job.

Two percent of public school teachers right now are black males. What strikes you about that, and why do you think something needs to be done to change it?

I always say it's important that students have teachers and people who look like them, who think like them, who can understand their experiences in life and guide them to what they need to be. And right now we don't have that in America.

Our public school children are 50 percent people of color, but our teachers are 80 percent white. And so with that comes just a lot of misunderstandings. And quite often that leads to students being unfairly punished and sent to the juvenile justice system at an alarming rate because black and brown students and students with disabilities are being pushed out.

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