Onalee Smith: Welcome to HMH Learning Moments. I’m Onalee, and I’m excited to share today’s episode of Teachers in America, which is our season one finale for this series. We’re joined by Rodney Robinson, the 2019 National Teacher of the Year and the 2019 Virginia Teacher of the Year.
Rodney is a teaching veteran with nearly two decades of experience. In 2015, in an effort to better understand the school-to-prison pipeline, Rodney started teaching at Virgie Binford Education Center, a school inside the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center. Now, he uses the knowledge he has gained from his students to develop alternative programs to prevent students from entering the school-to-prison pipeline.
Rodney earned a Bachelor of Arts in History from Virginia State University and a Master’s in Educational Administration and Supervision from Virginia Commonwealth University. He has been published three times by Yale University and has received numerous awards for his accomplishments in and out of the classroom. He has worked with Pulitzer Award-winning author James Foreman [Jr.] on developing curriculum units on race, class, and punishment as a part of the Yale Teacher’s Institute.
Now, let’s turn it over to our conversation with Rodney.
HMH: So, tell me why you decided to become a teacher.
Rodney Robinson: I mainly got into education to honor my mother. She wanted to become an educator, but she never got the chance to because she was denied an education growing up in south due to poverty and segregation. When she decided to go back to school and get her GED I was in high school myself and she was in night school and just watching her in that classroom learning, having fun, helping her other classmates, she was truly a leader in that classroom. She was almost like the teacher, but she was learning herself. Just watching that joy inspired me to want to be like her, to want to put that love of learning into every single person I came across.
HMH: I love that image of seeing your mother almost become a different person. Being a collaborative student, almost a teacher-leader, and she was learning later on in life is inspiring to adults and not just obviously to you as a child. You've been at Virgie Binford Detention Center for some time now. And I'd love to hear a little bit about what your first impressions were when you first arrive and what you did.
Rodney: I remember that first day walking in and hearing that gigantic click. When you're in jail those doors are loud and they're heavy, and so that giant click just snapped me into the reality of "Hey this is jail.” And then as I walked through I saw just bare white walls and I got the institutional feel. And I was like this isn’t the school, this is a jail. So my whole point was to just change that feel. Change that environment. First thing I did was met with the kids and talked about “Who were your heroes?” and “What inspired you?” And we began to make displays and murals to put up in the building just to create more of a school feel. I asked them some of the places they want to go in and around the world and research those places. And we created picture murals. I say they can lock up your body but they can never lock up your mind. And so I wanted to create the entire building to inspire them to just wonder where you can be and where you can go.
HMH: Were they surprised by that?
Rodney: They weren't; detention staff was. Things are very institutionalized from their point of view. So it was a fight to get them to understand that this was necessary to create a positive environment for school. We kind of ran into some roadblocks along the way because some of our displays were creating reflections on the security cameras. So we had to move some things around. But once they learned and they saw that the kids were starting to smile and to enjoy it a little bit, then they got with the program and they understood even though detention is a negative situation it can still be a positive environment.
HMH: I would suggest that a lot of teachers who are listening today have never had this experience, Rodney. Have never heard that clank. You've taught in regular high schools for 14 years. How would a day be different at the Virgie Binford Education Center than a regular high school?
Rodney: To start with every day is different because you don't know who's on your roster. And a comprehensive school, you have the same kids every day. When we come in every day we may have six or seven new kids. We may have had three or four kids that left from the previous day. So it’s a constant rotation of kids in and out. And because of detention rules, we don't know. We don't know when they’re leaving and then depends on who may get picked up on the street that night. Every morning when we get there, we have approximately 30 minutes to see who's there, to track down their paperwork, to find out what school they were at, what classes they were in, and just sort of get organized. Now thank goodness we have the best exceptional education teacher in the country in LaTesha Anderson. She tracks down those records usually by 8:00. We usually have all the kids, the kids’ IEP, the kids’ schedule, and everything we need to keep that kid on track. At a detention center, we're told education is third. Safety is number one and legal is number two. By safety I mean and making sure the kids feel comfortable and that they're in an environment where they aren't going to be scared. And the second part, legal, for example we can't have two co-defendants in the same class. That sets up our schedule for the day. So when we get our students we may have a class of ten kids who may be in seven different subjects, and then on top of that you may have a kid who’s developmentally delayed next to a kid who’s in an AP class. That's very difficult. You have to differentiate your instruction constantly and be extremely flexible to accommodate the needs of all students. But one of the things I do is I kind of go back to the old schoolhouse, the old 19th century schoolhouse where you have multiple kids in the same grade. I allow my older students to help the younger students and so that they can work together so that everyone can be successful.