Virginia history teacher and HBCU graduate Rodney Robinson was chosen as the 2019 National Teacher of the Year by the Council of Chief State School Officers on Wednesday. 

Robinson graduated from Virginia State University in 2000 and has spent the last 19 years teaching kids in honor of his mother. Robinson says he was inspired by his mother who struggled all her life to get an education in the segregated South.

He now works for the Virgie Binford Education Center in Richmond, Virginia, which is connected to the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center. Since 2015, he has taught social studies and history to kids between grades 6-12, some of whom have criminal charges on their records. 

"Robinson uses the whole child approach to education to help the students who are most vulnerable. His classroom is a collaborative partnership between himself and his students and is anchored in him providing a civic centered education that promotes social-emotional growth," the Council of Chief State School Officers said in its statement about Robinson.

"Robinson uses the knowledge he has gained from his students to develop alternative programs to prevent students from entering the school-to-prison pipeline."

When filling out his application for the award, Robinson wrote, "My students’ life experiences have led to bad choices, which have caused their incarceration. Most are in survival mode 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The students do not have the vision to understand the juvenile justice system because they are too busy trying to survive the system.”

“Kids have big dreams — they just don’t know how to get there. This is a temporary stop, and their goals can still be achieved,” he told the newspaper. “Our job is to give them hope.”

He made a name for himself with his work on mental health, addressing persistent, outside-the-classroom issues that other teachers ignored. He moved from one of the biggest schools in the district to the Virgie Binford Education Center because he wanted to work more closely on the school-to-prison pipeline. 

“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 his interview the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “You have to show them that you care about what’s going on, and then you’ll be able to get them to learn.”

He will now spend the year traveling across the country giving speeches about education before being brought to the White House for a ceremony.