Since 1952, the National Teacher of the Year Program has been recognizing excellence in education. Every state puts forward a nominee, as do four U.S. territories, the Department of Defense, and Washington D.C., and a winner is chosen by a large committee of education professionals. Winners go on to speak around the country and are often brought onto private, state, and federal commissions to speak about the issues facing educators today.

2019’s winner, announced Friday, April 26, is Rodney Robinson, a Virginia teacher who teaches grades 6-12 inside the walls of the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center. He regards his classroom as a “collaborative partnership” between his students and himself and teaches them social studies and history with an aim towards producing more civic mindfulness. As his students are all in detention, he hopes to contribute to keeping them from re-offending.

“They’re on varying [educational] levels,” Robinson said in an interview with NPR. “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.”

Robinson, who grew up in rural Virginia, became a teacher in honor of his mother, who had been prevented from getting a good education as a child by segregation and poverty. He wants to make sure that the most vulnerable of all students aren’t left behind or worse, deliberately shunted towards the prison system by a lack of educational opportunity.

“My kids are in survival mode 24/7… 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.’” Robinson said.

“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 … she would violate curfew to come in for one day so that she could talk to us,” Robinson told NPR. “I mean, I didn’t want her violating curfew … but she knew we had her back academically and she could get her issues resolved.”

Robinson shared another story of a student who told him, “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.”

Rodney Robinson and the other candidates for 2019 Teacher of the Year were honored on Friday in a White House ceremony. For the first time in the history of the award, the president did not attend, which is widely viewed as just another in a long history of insults toward the black community and black people who have made notable achievements in particular. Awards were handed out by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

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