RICHMOND, Va. — Rodney Robinson was driving to a Whole Foods six weeks ago when he got a call he'd been waiting for.
The 19-year teaching veteran had won National Teacher of the Year, besting the more than 3.6 million teachers in the U.S. for the honor. He pulled to the side of the road, laughing, crying and experiencing "every type of emotion" as he reached the pinnacle of a profession his mother - his inspiration - desperately wanted to get into.
Robinson, who works in the city’s juvenile detention center, had to keep it a secret, much like he did when earlier this school year when he found out that he was one of four finalists for the highest honor a teacher can receive. His family found out on Easter and three days later, on CBS This Morning, the world discovered that Richmond is officially home to the country’s best teacher.
"It means my students have an advocate who is going to tell their stories and fight for the resources they need to be successful," Robinson said about winning the award. "I didn't get into [teaching] for this. I just got into it to help students and fight for them.
"Winning this award means I now have a big stage to fight for my students and what they need."
Robinson became the first teacher ever from Richmond Public Schools and just the third in Virginia history to claim the title.
“Richmond has a crown jewel,” said Hubert Anderson, a former student of Robinson’s who eventually became a teacher.
Robinson, a King William County native, teaches at Virgie Binford Education Center on Oliver Hill Way. He’s taught there since 2015.
He was inspired to go into teaching by his mother, Sylvia, who wanted to be a teacher and ultimately ran an in-home daycare. He went to Virginia State University and got his history degree before starting his teaching career at Lucille Brown Middle School in Richmond. After a year there, Robinson spent two years as a world geography and U.S. history teacher at George Wythe High School.
In 2003, Robinson moved to Armstrong High School, where he taught government, history and geography. He now teaches social studies at Virgie Binford, where he is working to better understand and disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.
His connection with his students is what puts Robinson apart from his peers, former students, principals and school administrators said.
Robinson has committed himself to getting to know his students and talking about the issues in their communities - oftentimes the violence that’s killed or injured family and friends - in the classroom.
“If you don’t address it, it’s going to be a cloud that hangs over the class and kids aren’t going to be able to focus," he said in a recent interview. "You have to show them that you care about what’s going on and then you’ll be able to get them to learn.”
When he got to Virgie Binford, he saw bare, white walls, which he immediately filled with pictures of inspirational black historical figures, college pennants and a pictorial timeline of African-American history.
Through the Yale National Initiative, an institute based at the Connecticut university to improve teaching in public schools, Robinson developed his own curriculum on the history of prison and the Virginia Juvenile Justice System that he taught to his students this year.
“His defining characteristic is the love that he has for his kids - his love for them for who they are today and his love for them for who they will become,” said RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras, who was named National Teacher of the Year in 2005. “I can’t think of anybody more deserving or more honorable than Rodney and I could not be prouder to have him representing RPS, Virginia and the entire United States.”
Robinson was the first RPS teacher to be named the state’s best since 2011. In January, he was named one of four finalists alongside teachers from Alaska, Oklahoma and Washington, D.C.
The finalist announcement came during a ceremony inside Virgie Binford's gymnasium in front of his students and co-workers. While Wednesday's announcement was larger in title, Robinson said it wasn't his favorite of the five he's experienced since November 2017 when he was named Richmond's best.
"It was a bigger ceremony today but the home ceremony meant the most because my students were there and I got to share in the moment with them," he said.
Robinson is the first Virginia teacher since 1998 (B. Philip Bigler of Fairfax County) to earn the honor. Virginia has had one other winner - Mary Bicouvaris in Hampton - in 1989. The program started in 1952.
"Rodney's passion for kids and his dedication to ensuring that all students have the opportunity to maximize their potential shines through in everything he does, each and every day," said Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane. "As an educator, working with students who face a multitude of challenges, teaching as a member of a school division team and a state-operated program, his commitment to educational excellence and supporting the social-emotional learning of his students has made a tremendous difference in the lives of Virginia students."
Robinson’s victory is a bright spot for a district with woefully low student achievement - the graduation rate is the lowest in the state and less than half of schools meet the state’s full accreditation standards.
School Board Chairwoman Dawn Page said Robinson’s victory is a sign of where the school system is heading.
“We are moving forward and Rodney Robinson will lead the way,” she said.
As a black male teacher, Robinson is part of a group that represents only 2 percent of public school teachers in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Virginia is one of six states that does not mandate data collection on teacher race and ethnicity.
In winning the award, Robinson will be pulled out of the classroom for a year to talk about education across the country. First comes a traditional visit to the White House, a stop he said he’d make not because he supports President Donald Trump, but to honor the slaves who helped build the White House.
He knows the message he wants to share: Students of color need more teachers of color and impoverished students need more resources.
“It’s time the children of America received their fair share of the nation’s resources,” he wrote in his application of National Teacher of the Year. “We must increase our funding and make equitable changes to education funding to ensure every student and teacher get the proper resources to guarantee success for all of them.”
Now, the rest of the country will have to listen.