WINCHESTER — In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education reported that Virginia had the highest rate of student referrals to law enforcement agencies in the country.
When Rodney Robinson heard that statistic, he wanted to know more about the school-to-prison pipeline. He could do research to gain a better understanding of the problem, or he could teach the students impacted. So he taught.
Since 2015, Robinson, a 19-year veteran of Richmond Public Schools, has been teaching social studies at the Virgie Binford Education Center inside the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center.
Earlier this year, he was named the National Teacher of the Year by the Council of Chief State School Officers.
On Tuesday, Robinson visited Shenandoah University in Winchester, where he addressed hundreds of high school students who are aspiring teachers. He touched on the need for equity in education as well as how to teach with cultural responsibility and make learning relevant.
Robinson began his talk by sharing a story about going to a teen club when he turned 15 years old. His mother wouldn’t let him go, so he went when she was out of town. He got punched in the face at the club that night.
After admitting to his mother what happened, she told him she didn’t give him permission to go to the club because she didn’t think he was mature enough. She said his older brothers got to go when they turned 15 because she felt they were ready.
That was Robinson’s first lesson in equity.
“Equality said I was 15, I could go to the club. Equity said I need to grow up and mature a little more,” Robinson said. “So that’s what I do with my students. I make that my mindset.”
Each student is different, Robinson told the group gathered in the James R. Wilkins Jr. Athletics & Events Center, and each student’s needs should be uniquely met. Teaching should be based on what’s best for that individual, not necessarily based on equality.
“Some students need more and some students need less,” he said.
Being culturally responsive is another important aspect to teaching, Robinson said. It’s not about dancing with students, and it’s not about holding a Black History Month rap contest. The importance of culturally responsive teaching is to not put students in a box, he said.
“It’s teaching not based on stereotypes, but on relationships,” he said, offering an example.
When a teacher made a racially charged comment directed at Robinson in high school, he said he became very upset and cursed at the teacher and flipped a desk.
Afterward, a school administrator asked Robinson where he wanted to go to college, and the administrator suggested Virginia State University. While Robinson was serving in-school suspension for the outburst, the same administrator used that time to help him apply for college.
He added that making curriculum relevant and current helps students learn to advocate for themselves.
After his talk, he told The Star that he believes out-of-school suspensions should be abolished to help stop the school-to-prison pipeline.
“When you put a kid out of school, we are often sending them back to an environment that is not conducive to positive behavior,” Robinson explained.
Out-of-school suspensions also can cause students to fall behind in their studies, which increases their chances of dropping out, he said.
He believes that schools should implement restorative justice strategies that help students learn from their mistakes without being punished.
He also believes school resource officers should be removed from school systems, particularly when it comes to handling student discipline cases.
“A lot of the kids, their first encounter with the juvenile justice system is through a school resource officer,” Robinson said. “So it’s important that we take them out of the disciplinary process in the schools and leave it up to school administrators.”
He added that many students of color don’t feel safe around school resource officers and said it would be more beneficial for schools to hire mental health professionals and counselors instead.