Robert began teaching Family and Consumer Sciences at Mount Vernon High School in 2013. He has taught Beginning Foods, Life After High School, Careers in Education, Nutrition, and Leadership. He has also been an adviser for Family, Career, and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) and Social Justice Club. He has taken students to national competitions where they have earned top honors for projects such as Nutrition and Wellness, Recycle and Redesign, and Advocacy. Robert enjoys taking on new challenges and helping every student realize the potential he sees in them.
Robert is a bundle of energy and positivity. Between classes, music spills from his classroom, and he is in the hall greeting kids with a smile, a fist bump, or a unique handshake he shares with them. Robert makes a point to say hello to every student to make them feel visible and welcome. If you enter his classroom at any point in the day, you might find him teaching students how to deconstruct a chicken and make three meals out of it on a budget, teaching how to balance a budget, or teaching students about what it takes to pursue their dream of becoming a teacher.
We talk with Robert about the importance of remembering the why behind what we do as we work in education and he gives some strategies that he uses to teach the whole child.
John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong podcast where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today we're talking with Robert Hand, who is a teacher at Mount Vernon High School where he teaches family and consumer sciences and leadership. He is currently teaching careers in education, recruiting Washington teachers, leadership, nutrition, and life after high school. Robert is the 2019 Washington State Teacher of the Year. Are you ready? Let's get CharacterStrong with Robert Hand.
John: How are you my friend?
Robert: I'm great, John. Thanks very much for having me on. I'm looking forward to talking to you, man.
John: Awesome. Well, we already know that a teacher's life is so incredibly busy, and then to add, I'm sure what you now are being asked of, and making your rounds, but really a champion for the work that we know is so important, a champion for teachers. I know that one of your key stances is just how important it is that we are focusing on the whole child. Can we just start with that? Why is that so critical? Why is that so important to you?
Robert: Well, I think that we know in schools what we're there to teach in terms of content, but we always have to remember the "why" behind why we're there as teachers. It's because we're there to teach kids, not content.
Robert: When we think about it in that way, there's a lot more to teaching kids than just what's in the curriculum that we have in our class. We have to think about it as a whole child from the time that they leave their home in the morning until the time they get back to their home in the afternoon or evening. Their entire experience throughout that day at school is not just the curriculum that we're trying to teach them but the people that we're trying to help them become.
Robert: We have to really be thinking about how we're going to teach the whole child in every way possible at all times.
John: Yeah. I mean, just recently, I think it was the Aspen Institute came out with kind of an article, basically a brief, to the country. It was calling for all hands on deck when it comes to this work of supporting the whole child, social, emotional, learning, character development. I love that. It is what it's going to take if we really want to curb much of what we're seeing. We know how important this is.
John: Kind of take me through it then. I mean, for you, how do you approach folks in supporting the whole child day-to-day in your classroom?
Robert: Well, I love what you just said about all hands on deck. That's kind of one of the ways that I try to think about it. It's not just me in my classroom. It's me as a teacher and my classroom as part of a system that my kids are in. I try to think of what I'm doing with my kids in my classroom as a piece of what they're experiencing and their whole day both in school and out of school in their lives to try to keep some perspective on how things are going. It can get really easy to just feel like it's me and my classroom and what we have going on in here is really all that's going on. That's just not the case. There always has to be that context.
Robert: The idea of all hands on deck, that we're all part of the system that these kids are trying to navigate, and we're responsible for the part that we play in the system that these kids are in. No one gets to opt out. We're always in, one way or the other, positive or negative. We have to make sure that our system works for all the kids that we're teaching. It's always trying to keep that mindset.
Robert: I think for me it's just trying to think about some of the ideas that are always prevalent in my mind. Things like teaching is hard, but growing up is harder. I'm always trying to remember that. It's a lot to do. We feel like we have a lot of responsibilities and pressure on us as teachers and that's definitely true. But, it's work worth doing. To remember why I'm there and to say that focus on relationships keeps things in perspective for me and makes all the other stuff that I have to deal a little bit easier to manage.
Robert: A lot of it is in my mindset. If you ask what I do, it's the mindset that I bring to school every day before I even get there, before I'm even actually out of my car and walking in and doing something. I always try to ask myself would I want to be a student in my class today? I ask that question every single day, would I want to be a student in my class today? If so, why? If not, why not? It's a good way for me to reflect on the things that maybe I'm doing well and the things that I need to be doing better.
Robert: Then, I try to think about my daughter all the time. Like, what do I want my daughter's school experiences to be like from the time she leaves home until the time she gets home. I have to be willing to give every kid the same thing that I want for my own kid. Just trying to keep that perspective.
Robert: Also, just being real. I'm always real with my kids about who I am and where I come from. I talk about my own life and my own experiences. If I'm having a rough day, I'm honest with them. I try to be relentlessly positive and always assume best intentions first with everybody that I deal with. That helps, I think, a lot of times with things as well.
Robert: So, a lot of it is mindset. The stuff that I do throughout the day all kind of revolves around that mindset. Everything that I'm doing to teach my kids and to learn with them as well is framed around that mindset of being relentlessly positive and providing not just knowledge but love and care and support for all of the kids I interact with every day.
John: Yeah. I mean, how critically important. I think the thing that is difficult many times is it's like, oh, mindset. That can seem like it's such a simple thing, but everybody knows that's not simple at all. I mean, that's the battle in a sense, is in our mind. Like, how we win those daily battles as an educator who deals with a lot that is coming at them.
John: I think one of the things that really stood out to me there in your response is all kids. If we're going to be here to serve all kids, right, we have to then have that empathy that you're talking about. I mean I love that line that teaching is hard but growing up is harder. I think about even our world that we grew up in, the world even for you and I, was not moving as fast as it does now for our youth. Would you agree with that?
Robert: Yeah, absolutely. It's kind of funny to think. I remember when I was growing up, you know, I used to take mental notes kind of as a kid, as a teenager, when people would treat me like a little kid. They would want me to have responsibility for things but then not kind of treat me like I was a responsible person at the same time.
Robert: I would always take mental notes at that time, remember this when you're older and remember when you're dealing with kids, whether they're your own or whatever, to not do that with them. A lot of times we kind of look back and say, "Oh, when I was growing up," or "Things are different for you now then they were for me." It's definitely different. There's a lot that's still the same. A lot of the challenges that we can kind of see what our kids are going through that we can empathize with that we went through. But, there's a lot that's different, too.
Robert: It's crazy to think about the advances in technology that kids are ... You know, we didn't have phones when I was in high school, we didn't have cell phones. I'm dating myself it feels like, but it wasn't really that long ago. The social world and everything that they have to navigate now that we didn't have to when we were younger is definitely much more of a challenge that we have to help them through.
John: Yeah. I mean, you think about that, too. It's like even just that alone, that technology side, and the fact that for so many of us who either have kids of our own, who didn't grow up with cell phones right then and there. We all have it now, but it's the idea of we would be wise to have empathy for our kids. At least if I had a stable home, identifying that not all students do, but if I had a stable home back in the day and something was going on at school, at least when I went home it didn't follow me there.
John: Now, it follows me 24 hours a day, right? So, if you think about the struggles that youth have to deal with that maybe we didn't. It also shows when all you've got to do is look at how adults struggle with that right now, like technology. Their own inner workings. We're the ones that are, what? Responsible for teaching students how to navigate that.
John: I love the assuming positive intent, how important that mindset is. I'm guessing that you have to remind yourself on a regular basis. How do you remind yourself? Is that a regular routine that you're going through? How are you making sure that you're being reminded of that mindset that you want to have?
Robert: Yeah. No, it is definitely a constant reminder. There are days when it's harder than others, but because I roll with my kids and we have those really good relationships that we build early on, they're good about calling me on things, too, if I'm ever not living up to what I say I'm supposed to live up to. You know, we kind of hold each other accountable.
Robert: Those things that I say to myself, just always reminding myself when I'm bogged down by the things that are really weighing on me, and I'm thinking, man, this job is really hard, it's hard for me to put a smile on, it's hard for me with all this stuff that I have to do, I'm just getting bogged down. Then to remind myself that, yeah, teaching is hard but growing up is harder. These kids need me. Every time I remind myself of that it makes it a little bit easier for me to kind of put my chin up and my shoulders back and just say, "All right, man, I have work to do and these kids are relying on me to do it."
Robert: The other thing is just, the acronym for it is QTIP. A lot of times when I'm doing this I'll just say in my mind, I'll just say QTIP. It reminds me. QTIP stands for quit taking it personally.
John: Love it.
Robert: Yeah. Thinking about how we're dealing with kids on a daily basis in our classroom or at school. And, it's not just like in our classroom. I'm thinking about this all of the time with the kids I'm interacting with, outside of my classroom, in the halls, around school. Like, 2,000 kids at my school, and they're all my kids whether they're in my class or not. I'm responsible for all of them.
Robert: Just that mindset, too. I'm first, I'm here to meet them where they are, and to try and provide what I can to help them grow, and I'm growing right along with them.
Robert: You know, to say quit taking it personally, a couple of ways, if you're dealing with a kid where something is going on, I mean, think about it in class if the kid is disengaged. The best thing you can do is to go check in with them and have a conversation. And, always with that assuming best intention and that positive mindset. Not a conversation about why aren't you listening? Why aren't you paying attention? That's not going to do anything except make the kid shut down.
Robert: But, to say, "Hey, I noticed that you don't seem to be tuned in today. Is there something going on?" You can talk to them about it, and because you have that relationship they know you're there for them.
Robert: There's one of two things that's going to happen, and they're both positive. If the kid is bored and that really was all it was, if you have a good relationship, they're going to tell you that. "Yeah, I'm not tuned in because this isn't really doing it for me." That's good feedback for me. That means that I have work to do to improve my practice. That's positive.
Robert: If the kid had something else going on in life, this is an opportunity for me to actually check in with them and then help and support them, which is also going to end in a positive result. Either way, you know, if we just don't take things so personally. If there's something that's going on, have a conversation, talk to the kid, find out what's going on, and let them know that you love them and you're caring for them and you're there to support them in any way that you can.
John: Yeah. One of the things that I'd love to follow up with you, and even do a second podcast if you'd be willing, is just that topic on the authenticity piece of being real. So many times, I think, when you're in that teaching role, we can easily fall into the trap of I can't show that I made a mistake. You see many educators go there.
John: In reality, students not only see right through that when we're not real, but have greater respect when we do demonstrate it. I'd love to just have another convo with you just about that topic if you'd be willing to.
John: But, I think to even close this one down, I love that idea of the QTIP. You want to know why I love it? You literally have an anchor point. Q-tips are not very expensive. I could just put like a Q-tip on my desk every day to remind me every time I'm walking by the keyboard of quit taking it personally because of that Q-tip. Or, put one in my pocket and reach in, oh, there's a Q-tip. How easy that reminder would be as well. I love the idea of QTIP and how important it is that we're not taking things personally because students are dealing with a lot and so are we. That mindset piece is so important.
Robert: Yeah, absolutely, man. Yeah, it's a good constant reminder. Everybody has an ego in one way or another. Sometimes, that can really get in the way of building and maintaining those relationships with people that we need to. I think that works in all aspects in life.
Robert: When something is going wrong, a lot of times it's not about you. Put that aside, talk to the person across from you, find out what it is that's going on with them. A lot of times you're going to make a lot more progress on both sides if you can take the time to do that, for sure.
John: Love it. Well, thanks for being on with us, man. Appreciate it. Thank you for the work that not only you continue to do, but thank you for being a champion for teachers and this work that we know, right now as much as ever before, how critical it is that we're putting a focus on the whole child. Can we talk to you again sometime?
Robert: Absolutely. I'd love to, John. Thank you for all the work that you do, man. You've been a huge inspiration to me, and I appreciate everything that you do as well.
John: Thank you. All right. Well, have a great day. Take care.
Robert: All right. You too, John.
John: Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review, and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on Spotify and iTunes. Thanks for listening. Make it a great day.