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#AACTE20 Closing Keynote Speaker Rodney Robinson Underscores Cultural Equity

Rodney Robinson

The AACTE 72nd Annual Meeting culminated with a Closing Session keynote address by 2019 National Teacher of the Year Rodney Robinson, a Richmond, Virginia, 18-year veteran educator who has developed programs to prevent students from entering the school-to-prison pipeline. Robinson shared how he uses culturally responsive curriculum and the whole child approach to learning in educating vulnerable students.

In talking about inequity, Robinson spoke about two different types: resource inequity and cultural inequity. During a tour of schools in Southwest Virginia, he noted the differences in resources. “It’s mind boggling. We went to some schools with 21st century buildings, state-of-the-art high-speed internet. Kids were using STEM boxes to plant agriculture, kids were using drones to to study space. And then we would go 30 miles down the road and buildings don’t even have AC, no high-speed internet; one school district didn’t even have text books.” He was challenged to advocate for these types of inequities between rural and urban schools.

Robinson introduced cultural inequity by recounting statistics: in the United States, 80% of teachers are white, while 50% of students are students of color. African American males make up only 2% of the profession. “We have to get more teachers of color in the field,” he said. “All students benefit from teachers of color in the classroom. Imagine how much less racism there would be if white students had teachers of color.”

During his keynote address, he reflected on his own experiences growing up as motivation for becoming a teacher and an advocate for students in the juvenile court system. He credits his mother for being the catalyst for choosing education. “My mother never got the opportunity to become a teacher due to segregation and poverty in rural Virginia.” He also shared how the only black male teacher in his school district helped him navigate cultural identity confusion, while the African American high school assistant principal was the one to encourage him to apply to college and assisted him with the process—leading him to become a first generation college graduate.

Because of these experiences, Robinson had a desire to uphold the legacy of equity—giving more time and attention in the classroom to those who needed it the most. “Each student is different and a good teacher gives them love and what they need, not what’s equal,” he said, “I have students in AP classes and others with developmental delays. I have to view them through the lens of equity. Am I giving each student what they need to be successful?”

Robinson made the transition to his current teaching role in 2015, after seeing a report about Virginia being number one among the states referring students to juvenile detention. He began teaching 12 to 19 year olds, whose crimes ranged from truancy to murder, at the Virgie Binford Education Center, a school inside the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center. He embraced the principal’s three goals: to focus on the basic needs, social/emotional growth, and then academics.

“If a kid doesn’t feel loved or and cared for, they are not going to care about learning,” said Robinson. He also emphasized the importance of students feeling safe. “A lot of students are going through life issues, like LGBTQ students who feel pushed out of school, pushed out of everything by a community and system that doesn’t appreciate or understand them.”

In embracing the trauma informed approach, he stressed that forming relationships is the key and encouraged educators to consider three questions:

  • Do you know your students and their experience?
  • Do you empathize rather than sympathize?
  • Do your lessons take into account students’ experiences and knowledge and make them feel good about themselves?

Robinson added that he intentionally made the switch to a culturally responsive curriculum, and offered a definition of what that means. “Being culturally responsive is not based on stereotypes or race but on getting to know your students, and their interests, history and cultural norms.”

The AACTE 2020 Annual Meeting Closing Session is available to attendees at aacte.org. Additional video recordings, including the Opening Keynote Sessions and Deeper Dive sessions from the 72nd Annual Meeting may be accessed in the AACTE Resource Library.

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Katrina Norfleet

Content Strategist, AACTE