Podcast: 2019 National Teacher of the Year Rodney Robinson on Teachers in America

Rodney Photoshoot 34

On the podcast today, we have the 11th episode and season one finale of the Teachers in America series!

Our guest is Rodney Robinson, the 2019 National Teacher of the Year (NTOY) and the 2019 Virginia Teacher of the Year. Every year since 1952, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) brings together State Teachers of the Year from all 50 states, U.S. territories, DC, and the Department of Defense Education Activity for a yearlong program for professional development and facilitates the selection of the NTOY. You can read more about Rodney and his platform, including his 2019 NTOY application, on

A full transcript of the episode is below.

The views expressed in this podcast are those of the guest and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

Rodney Photoshoot 67

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.

Rodney Photoshoot 25

HMH: So really the first step you have to do almost every morning is create a community.

Rodney: Exactly. And you have kids that have been there a while and they're your biggest help in creating the community because they set the tone and they help. I often say you guys are my leaders and they welcome that positive experience—the chance to be a leader in a positive way. So they tend to set the tone with the kids. For example, before the kids come to class they'll let them know, hey this is Mr. Robinson. He's really good. But this is what you need to do. The kids come in with the mindset of OK the tone has already been set because I've talked to the classroom leaders when we've been on the pod and in our cells.

HMH: Obviously you work through building trust. There's no other way that you could reach these students. What does that look like and how is that different for kids who may have convictions and charges or being awaiting trial?

Rodney: Every one of our kids has suffered some sort of traumatic event. And even if they haven't suffered a traumatic event, being in jail is traumatic itself. So what you have to do is just create a positive environment and create a positive school feel. You don't just end up in detention. That's a long road and part of that road usually starts with a bad school experience. And so I just sit them down and we talk about what's your previous school experience. And we get to know each other and say this is what we're going to do. We're going to create a great environment for you. We're not going to treat you like your other schools. We’re going to give you a chance to be a leader. Everything you say has value in this class. And we’re going to put you on a positive road to success. And once they tend to buy into that, especially when they get positive attention, because most of them throughout their school career only received negative attention. And so you have a teacher that is saying, “Hey, what do you want to do? How can I help you? Let’s make sure this works for you.” It's really a different feel that kind of throws them off for a minute. They don't know if it's real or it's just a different experience, but they tend to buy it within a couple of days.

HMH: What sort of backgrounds and traumatic experiences are you helping them with or helping to process through them or unconventional learning?

Rodney: From the academic side it’s just giving them the support they need. Because a lot of our kids come in behind on reading levels, so we have a literacy coach who develops a literacy plan for them. And we just work to improve on their overall skills and build the students up. Now from a social experience a lot of them are in survival mode on the streets. They come in. Some of them are malnourished. Some of them are homeless. Some of them just suffered the trauma of life on the streets. We just had to say, “Hey, this is a safe environment. When was the last time you felt completely safe without having to look over your shoulder? When was the last time you got three solid meals throughout the day and had a place to rest your head without worrying about the street life?” And so once they get comfortable, let’s build on that. So now let’s focus on getting you academically built up. Let's get you some books that you like to read or books that are on your level that you can read. And so it’s just creating that level of comfort. Sometimes it takes a kid two weeks to a month to start to buy in and believe in what we're selling. What we have to do is, we just have to remain consistent. And when they try their little tricks to get out of school or to not do work, we just stay constant on them. And eventually if you set that culture in the classroom, they're going to buy in. And this may take a while. It may take a day, it may take a month, but they’re eventually going to buy in, once they see that everyone in that building has their best interests in mind.

Rodney Photoshoot 47

HMH: I read that one of the important lessons that you help them understand is also about their rights and how they can actually understand them both socially and legally and be able to approach the context that they’re in with some of that real knowledge and create a path to being an active citizen.

Rodney: Ultimately most of my students don’t ’understand the justice system, especially the juvenile justice system. What we do is we try to, well me personally, I try to teach them all about the system so that they can make better informed choices. I went to Yale as part of the Yale teacher's Institute last year and I worked with Pulitzer winner James Forman on creating a 10,000-word curriculum unit on Virginia and the history of prisons and specifically the juvenile justice system. And what we'll talk about is things such as probation, parole, and start to get them to understand what their situation is. And so that they can make better informed decisions, because the majority of them have public defenders. And a lot of times we know how overworked public defenders are and sometimes they may not have the best interests of the kid in mind. So we try to inform them of every right, every decision, that they can make better choices. For example, I had a student who was offered six months in juvenile detention or 10 years probation. So he and I had a long discussion of what those two options entail. You know six months and it's over with or 10 years hanging over your head of detention. And so once he was able to understand  the system and how it works he made a decision. I didn't agree with the decision because he chose the 10 years probation. But he was informed. And I felt okay with it because I knew that he made a knowledgeable decision. He knew the history. He knew every option. And he chose that option. I'm technically not allowed to give them legal advice.

HMH: Right.

Rodney: According to juvenile justice rules. But as a social studies teacher, if I’m teaching them about their rights, I can do that. And so it's a fine line I have to walk, but I'm going to do what's best for the kids.

HMH: It's them first as well as the safety and the legal issues right.

Rodney: Yes. Yes. 

HMH: What are your reflections on the year that passed and maybe one or two students where you really feel that you were able to reach them and make a difference to their lives?

Rodney: I had one student last year who he was just involved in some gang life and the street life. And when he came to us he was in our six-month diversion program, which is a program for students where they can earn home passes, they can get jobs. It's sort of like a community-based program. So the last chance before they go get sentenced to the big jail. And when he came in he had a love for history, and I remember specifically we were watching the scene from Saving Private Ryan and we were talking about the military strategy and the paratroopers and he said how he always wanted to jump out of airplanes and that he was going get a job where he jumped out of airplanes. And the rest of the kids were just like, “Okay, yeah, yeah. You talk it, let’s see you do it.” And he just said I'm going to do it. And then not only did he graduate, he was allowed to walk and participate with his graduating class at his Comprehensive School, which was a big proud moment for us because we had never had a student who graduated walk with their graduating class. But he came back about two months ago for career day and he just finished basic training in the army. He was on his way to airborne school to learn how to be a paratrooper.

HMH: Wow.

Rodney: So he was telling the kids like, “Look I told you all I was going to do it. I did it.” And so it was very inspirational to see the kid who was just sitting beside them a couple months ago come back and say you can change your life. You can do it. I've completely changed mine. There wasn't a dry eye in the building when he came back and was talking to the kids because we knew his struggle. What he's overcome and what he did, and it was just so inspiring to the rest of the kids.

HMH: Wow, that's a fantastic story. Because it's not just about you being there to support them through legal challenges or just sort of inspire them not to offend again. It's truly putting them on a path to making the right choices to build a better future for themselves. I know with your wonderful speech at the National Teacher of the Year Awards gala, you talked about a young woman in your class as well.

Rodney: Due to just circumstances of life she ended up on the street. She became involved in gang life and prostitution at a young age. She resorted to that for survival and she got charged with a serious assault. And she had served juvenile life, which in Virginia means you serve until you're 21 years old. And she really came in just a confused young lady. But by the end she just developed a strong sense of who she was and what she could be. Not only did she graduate, but she thanked us for just everything. And I mean when she read her speech, once again it was one of those moments where there wasn't a dry eye in the building. And she said being locked up actually was a good thing for her because there was a time for her to calm her life down. There was a chance for her to get her education, something she’s pretty sure she wouldn't have gotten the chance if she was still on the street. And so she's really. . . she's my heart. She really has overcome a lot and she's now going on to another facility in Virginia, but she's starting to enroll in some community college classes and she really has a plan. She says you're going to hear from her again about the positive things she's doing and she's going to come back and thank us once she gets out and is contributing and being a positive member of society.

HMH: She, I think, is going to feel connected to you for the rest of her life, whatever different paths she takes.

Rodney Photoshoot 58

HMH: You were working in high-needs high schools and we talked about the first year of teaching being tough, but most of the research shows that around year five and six teachers really get burned down and that's when we see attrition take hold. You were in high-needs high schools for 14 years and you felt burnt out and then you did this. I mean there's a lot of teachers that can't quite get a calculus of that.

Rodney: It really goes back to my mother and my college, Virginia State University. They always taught me that you do best where you're needed. And I felt that I was always needed in these schools and that that sense of community that they put into me was always there. I know I've always wanted to work with students who needed me the most. I've done things in the suburbs and other places and I've really enjoyed my time out there. But I felt those students didn't need me as much as the students in high-needs schools. They needed a positive teacher who was going to be there for them regardless. One who was going to push them no matter what obstacles they had their way, and so I always felt the need to be in the high-needs school. When I began to get burned out, I felt I can still work with the high-needs population. I just can’t do a thousand kids. So I moved to the juvenile detention center where we had 60 kids. And to be honest sometimes at 60 kids as some of their major issues feels like I'm dealing with a thousand kids, because a lot of them have such trauma in their life. It's really, really hard.

HMH: How do you take that? How do you absorb that trauma yourself so that you're supporting them and be as empathic as I know you are and not get down and not get overwhelmed?

Rodney: Plain and simple, it’s therapy. We have to remove the stigma about therapy especially for African-Americans, particularly African-American men. We need to start looking into therapy to help us cope and deal with some of our issues. And I remember the moment when I realized I need to go to therapy was there was a case locally where a four year old unfortunately was shot as an innocent bystander in the shooting. And my wife was telling me about it, and I was like, “Yeah, that happens.” I was like wait a minute. That's not a normal human reaction. And that's just because I had internalized so much trauma and bad situations from the students I worked with. That was my moment to say, “Hey I need to talk to someone about this and deal with these issues so that I can be there to provide the help for my students.” And it was really interesting that one of my students the next day he has gotten sentenced to court-ordered therapy. He was upset over it. So he and I had a long talk about what is court-ordered therapy and his situation. And I was trying to say you need to go to therapy. You need to take this seriously. Let’s work on this together. I'll make an appointment. If you take yours seriously I'm gonna go and take it seriously myself. We have to model the behavior we want our kids to have and he went to therapy and he started to work through some of the issues he had. 

HMH: Well that's a really important conversation to have been able to have and to try and I guess explain that therapy is not about fixing something, or as you say it has a stigma, but it’s about processing wrongs or experiences in real time to feel better. And I'm not sure that a lot of teachers would think that they needed therapy, but when you put it as you did, you are the kind of mufflers if you like of so much trauma in the classroom that it only makes sense that you would need some processing time. And that can't necessarily be your wife or your family.

Rodney Photoshoot 85

Rodney: I tell teachers all the time if you can't be there for your kids—I mean be there mentally—then you're not doing them any good. You have to take care of yourself not only physically but emotionally and mentally as well to be the best for your students.

HMH: It's a powerful role model you provide not only by being so thoughtful about the curriculum and what students of color and students who've had these legal challenges can do to understand their context but also how they can heal themselves. And as an African-American male teacher that's got to be something that is unique. You're on a platform talking about the power of healing through knowledge as well as healing through sort of self grounding.

Rodney: Yes, this is really important that I get the message out there because so many of our youth are hurting and one thing I've discovered is that a lot of our kids are using substances not because it's the cool thing to do. It’s because they’re dealing with the process and the pain that they’ve never dealt. So the substance that they use, whether it's alcohol or drugs, is really an escape mechanism. If we can teach ourselves how to cope with these things then we can stop using these illicit substances and be our better selves.

HMH: This is a bit of a different conversation than is sometimes had in educational corridors around culturally relevant teaching and equity because it's very personal. It's very equitable in the sense that you're as vulnerable with your students as they are with you. Talk a little bit about what you see going on out there.

Rodney: One of things I often tell people is never make assumptions about your kids. Always get to know them and their interests. A lot of times when people think culturally relevant education you think teaching black kids black history. Yes that’s a part of it, but it's really also good to know your kids and what they're into and what their interests are and don't base those interests and beliefs on stereotypes. I often tell the story that my kids who have charges that range from truancy to attempted murder, their favorite show was Teen Wolf: the Series, which was one of those cheesy teen shows. And you wouldn’t normally think that about my kids, but you can start to talk to them about things and just find out what they're interested in, what do they care about, and don't make assumptions based on what you think they care about. That I feel is the biggest jumping off point for culturally relevant education. It's taking what the kids know and their experiences and build an education on top of that. If you value them and value their experiences, then they’re going to value whatever you’re teaching.

HMH: So really you're talking about two really important things that obviously you have that you promote for teachers which is curiosity—true curiosity—about what’s motivating to whatever child is sitting in front of you and also the power of listening.

Rodney: The best thing you can do as a teacher is listen to your students. Students will tell you what works for them and what doesn’t work, what they like what they don't like, and they’ll tell you if they’re doing a good or bad job. You just have to be open and receptive to that criticism. But that starts with creating a culture where there are open lines of communication between you and the student. And once you give the student that voice then they'll begin to take ownership of their own learning.

Rodney Photoshoot 40

HMH: You've just recently been touring the state, southwest Virginia, and you’ve seen some very different kinds of schools. I want to share a couple of the things that you've seen that have either inspired you or some things that you feel like need to be brought into focus.

Rodney: Immediately, there's the economic equity. I mean that that was amazing to see. For example, we were in Montgomery County which was where Virginia Tech is located. And we had students who were in sixth grade who are using StemBots to grow and plant agriculture in their classroom, which was just amazing. And just to put a generational twist on this, the hardest part for them when they were explaining to me how they did it was actually measuring where the plants would need to go for the robots. It wasn't programing the robots, it was actually getting the ruler. It took us like eight hours to do that. I was like, “How long did it take you to program the robot?” Like a minute, that but that was hilarious. But then we went to one county over where they didn't even have textbooks. And  so how do we lead this school, which has all this 21st-century technology and come to this school right the next county over that doesn't have textbooks. That was pretty eye-opening. And then the cultural inequities: we went to a school that had an African-American principal. Yet students were walking around with Confederate T-shirts, Confederate flag belt buckles. That was a little odd to me.

HMH: What did you say? Did you say anything? 

Rodney: Actually, I didn't. But Superintendent Lane spoke on it. He spoke to their superintendent of that school system and said that's not something you should allow to happen. I was really impressed that he spoke up on a lot of cultural inequities that he saw. And even I think I saw one black male teacher my entire time. That was in Pulaski County in Virginia. And we went to like ten schools in ten different counties in Virginia. I was just out and then seeing those inequities take place. One common thing I noticed that if they have a college in the town then there's usually a lot more economic resources for the school. But those counties in southwest Virginia that didn't have a college tended to struggle a lot.

Rodney Photoshoot 24

HMH: What do you think could attract more African-American males into the profession of teaching?

Rodney: It simply starts in the classroom. We need to create better experiences. I would also say there is not a coincidence that we lack people of color in education that we lack teachers who teach exceptional education. But if you look at it, those are the two groups that have the worst experiences and no one wants to come back to the scene of their trauma. We need to start creating better experiences for those students in schools so that they can see education and teaching as a viable career option not as something where they don't feel welcome.

HMH: You have a student who is going into teaching, right?

Rodney: I've actually got 15 or 16, but Doron Battle and Hubert Anderson. They teach elementary education, which is really important because the studies show that a black student who has a black teacher in elementary school is 39 percent less likely to drop out of high school and 19 percent more likely to go to college. So that's one factor. The second thing is the fact that they're back in the schools that they attended as kids because they saw a need for African-American male role models in their school and they’re teaching exceptional ed. And then on top of that they started a program to mentor, they’re pairing teachers with students and community members to mentor, to take the kids out to expose them to different things and not only did that program start off doing well, the city has picked up on it. Now we’re starting to spread the program across the city. We now have politicians, even the mayor has a mentee in that program. I'm really proud of them for what they're doing in their neighborhood. They're seeing the problem and they're committed to making the change and making the difference.

HMH: I love that you began with the idea that the most simple thing to do for equity-based teaching or culturally relevant teaching is get to know your kids, because I think a lot of white teachers—and I mean we know 76 percent of educators are white women—don't always know how to have the conversation or a conversation but you know what that looks like. What do you tell someone if they imply that, or they say that, or they ask you directly.

Rodney: The key I always tell is just to be vulnerable and talk about yourself. Once they get a sense of who you are and where you come from, then they'll feel more open too. They’ll start telling you things and you just have to listen without judgment. A lot of times when kids talk about their experiences, as adults we tend to be like “What? You’re doing this?” We need to start listening without that judgment and let them express themselves. And once they feel they can trust you, that's the starting point for building that relationship and building their academics. Because it's that old cliché, they don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. It starts with just a simple conversation and being vulnerable and not judging the students.

HMH: I don’t think people start off wanting to be judgmental. I think there’s a feeling that they should be doing something as teachers or they should be disciplining or they should be disapproving, and all their own moral framework is somehow challenged and they feel that that needs to be implemented. It's a challenging position as teachers are faced with more and more complexity and massive diversity not just in terms of race or religion in the students that are coming into their classroom. So that ability to be able to listen without judgment is clearly a as a 21st-century skill for teachers.

Rodney: Yes. And you must listen with empathy not sympathy. A lot of times teachers begin to feel bad for the kids in this situation. No, I can identify and empathize with your situation. But here are the skills we're going to work on to help you overcome the situation. It's not about feeling sorry for them, it's about understanding their situation and teaching them how to overcome.

HMH: There's something that happens in being sympathetic that also reduces your power as a teacher in a way. Because you're like, I feel so bad. I don't know what to do and that's not going to be helpful for a kid who's looking to an adult to perhaps be a different stabilizing influence. So it's a really fine distinction I think between sympathy and empathy.

Rodney Photoshoot 6

HMH: One of things I want to ask you about is the work that you did at Yale.

Rodney: Well, the Yale experience. First of all, the Yale Teachers Institute. I’ve done it three times. What I like about them is they give you the tools to create lessons and units that are unique to your students in your situation. And that's what I love about it. And it generates student interest. Well I did a unit on the schools, the neighborhood schools. And the fact that how it used to be a predominately upper-class black neighborhood and how policies of the government kind of destroyed that neighborhood and led to the situation that is then very relatable to my students, because a lot of the names and the people are people they know. People whose streets are named that in their neighborhood. As long as you get that relevant connection students will buy in.

HMH: And I'm sure that the opportunity to create those units was pretty unique both to that program but also a unit like that pretty unique to your context, so kids know that. They sense that they're not given a one-size-fits-all experience. How does the history of the old African-American schoolhouse more specifically influence how you teach?

Rodney: The whole sense of community, getting into a bit of history, was integration kind of hurt some of those good things of the black community. One thing about segregation is that there was a strong black community in the sense of everyone helping one another and we're all in this together. Integration kind of weakened that aspect of the black community. So my goal is to teach them this is what we were. We can do this again. We just have to do our part. And this is how this works in my classroom. We help the younger kids and we give them advice so that they don't make the same mistakes that we made. We don't show them how to be better criminals. We show them how to be better people, and we like to teach them to learn from our mistakes. And then when you go out to the community, I want you to spread that message to the younger people in your community. Hey this isn't the route that you want to go on. I can tell you from my experience. And so just building that sense of community and understanding that we're all in this together. And because honestly the neighborhoods in Richmond are still somewhat segregated. So let's try to make our neighborhood the best it can be.

HMH: And you can still do those things and build that community in integrated classrooms too. You're not suggesting okay let’s go back to segregation, but you're saying where most things are segregated you know use that community power for good then when you're in an integrated context you can also rebuild.

Rodney: Yes. Exactly. Because a lot of the neighborhoods are going through heavy gentrification. So let's start working with them, the people who are gentrifying our neighborhoods, so that our history isn't lost. And so that we understand that hey you bring in your culture. We're going to adapt your culture to our culture and we're going to make this a better neighborhood all around. One of the happier things I saw was there was a group of skateboarders, all African-American skateboarders, and that to me that was a proud moment because that's a sense of community. You took some of the new things that were coming into your neighborhood, but yet you used it to mentor the younger people and you create a little club of skateboarders. That's what I mean by building the sense of community—working with everyone to make it make a neighborhood.

HMH: Going to go full circle what you build every day with your students is a new community because there are new people coming in and new challenges, and new relationships to forge.

Rodney Robinson 1 Pic By Yasmine Jumaa

HMH: I ask this of everybody and it's an important question. If you could wave a magic wand and change the lot for teachers or something about the profession for three-and-a-half-million educators, what would that be?

Rodney: That's a good question. If I could wave the wand, I would definitely make sure that all teachers had the resources that they needed to be successful. By that I mean technology, emotional support, cultural support, just everything you need. Because it's easy to point at one thing and say this is what we need. But the reality is we need a lot. We need everything that serves the needs of students. So if I can wave a magic wand it would be unlimited social, economic, cultural resources to help our students be the best that they can be.

HMH: Is there something else you'd like to share with our listeners as part of your call to action on behalf of CCSSO and the National Teacher of the Year program?

Rodney: Clearly because I work in the juvenile detention center I want to bring attention to the school-to-prison pipeline. And one of the big things that’s a problem with that is the overreliance of school resource officers to handle disciplines, I think. And in this country we need to start removing police officers from the discipline aspect of schools because a lot of my students, that’s what their first encounter with law enforcement takes place is in the school. And it’s usually not a positive one. I think we really need to look at the use of school resource officers, police officers, in the school environment for handling discipline. You know whether that's writing your school board, getting a clear memo of understanding of what a police officer is or is not to do in a school. But it's a balance because we want our schools safe. But I don't think having a full-time police officer in the schools makes our schools safe specifically for black and brown students. We really need to start looking at and examining the use of school resource officers if we really want to tackle the school-to-prison pipeline. 

HMH: That's a really important question. I think one that people don't think about very much when they walk into a school building. Often it gives them a sort of sense of security that oh there's somebody there, particularly parents, teachers, visitors, and that's probably not true for the people who are actually the people we're serving in schools, which are students.

Rodney: I just appreciate the opportunity to spread my message because I'm in a unique situation. I represent two groups who don't usually get the microphone in traditional educational conversation. The first of that group is being students who are in jail and have an understanding that hey this can be a life-changing moment if we commit the resources and commit everything that they need to be successful. And the second group is that of black male educators. Black male educators typically don't get the national spotlight to speak on the issues that are affecting them and how they can recruit and advocate for their students on the high stage. So I'm very happy that I had this day and I'm proud that you're giving me the opportunity to express my platform.

Rodney Photoshoot 46

HMH: Well I couldn't be more proud on behalf of all educators in America that you are this year's National Teacher of the Year, Rodney. It fills me with so much optimism as you take this message on the road. Thank you, Rodney. Thanks so much for spending time with us.

Rodney: It's my pleasure.

Onalee: Thanks for listening and learning with us for season one of HMH Learning Moments: Teachers in America. We owe an extra thanks to our guests, Rachel, Wilson, Amanda, Brittany, Donna, Alexa, Georgette, Garrett, Monica, Tracy, and Rodney. Thank you all so much, it is an honor to share your stories. And to all our teacher-listeners, if you’d like to be featured on a future episode of Teachers in America, please email us at We’d love to hear from you.

Stay tuned for future episodes of HMH Learning Moments, including our newest series, Shaping the FutureTM, which debuts this fall. Shaping the Future will be hosted Dr. David Dockterman, better known as Dock, an education lecturer at Harvard, as he talks to both education experts and thought leaders from other industries. Together, they will examine leading issues from across the industry and offer insights for educators to best “shape the future of education”.

In our first episodes of Shaping the Future, you’ll hear a conversation about civics education and sparking engagement between Dock and Sylvia Acevedo, CEO of the Girl Scouts and author of Path to the Stars, and Dr. Emma Humphries, Chief Education Officer at iCivics. And George Anders, Senior Editor at Large at LinkedIn, and Dr. Bill Daggett, Founder and Chairman at International Center for Leadership in Education join Dock to talk about job preparedness and the future of the workforce, for students as well as educators.

Be the first to hear new episodes of HMH Learning Moments by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. We hope you enjoyed today’s show and will please consider rating and reviewing or sharing with your network. Join our community and read more on our Shaped blog by visiting There, you’ll also be able to read blog posts written by the teachers featured on Teachers in America.

HMH Learning Moments is produced by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, The Learning Company. Thanks again for listening, and we’ll talk to you again next time.


You can follow Teachers in America wherever you listen to podcasts. Subscribe on:

Please consider rating, reviewing, and sharing Teachers in America with your network. We value our listeners' support and feedback. Email us at

SHAPING THE FUTURE is a trademark of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

Related Reading

WF1985950 Hero Banner
Photo: High school science teacher Dr. Claudia Singkornrat
WF1964639 Hero Banner
Photo: Kindergarten teacher Melissa Hawkins