The Grind

Nurse, Mentor, Entertainer, Manager, Mediator, Coach, Cheerleader.
Being a teacher in today’s society means much more than textbooks and tests.


by April Schoen

When we were in elementary school, we already had a lot on our minds. Who we were going to sit with at lunch and play with at recess. What games we would play or TV shows we would watch as soon as we got off the bus at the end of the day. How we were going to tell our parents about our grade on yesterday’s spelling test…

In that part of our lives, we discover something new each day, and we soak up everything in our first years on this earth. Interactions with the people around us are some of our most influential moments, but not everything is worth absorbing.
For some children, their list of worries and fears can be as long and complicated as an adult’s. If they are unsure of when they will eat their next meal, overwhelmed with caring for siblings, or fighting to avoid abuse, it’s almost impossible to focus on just being a kid, and concentrating on their education is an even bigger challenge.

Even with all of that stress, if we’re lucky, a person will come along who cares about us and meets our feelings and actions with empathy and guidance. Someone who leads us to become the person they know we can be and the person we may not yet recognize. In our eyes, they are our personal superhero and their true value is not quantifiable. Think back and try to remember who that person was in your life. Think about how they made you feel and what they did to support you. If you didn’t realize how much this person impacted your life at the time, it doesn’t diminish the passion they put into your success.

For the students at Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School in Frayser, Tennessee, Craig Robinson is their personal superhero. Robinson, a 2014 Southeast graduate and now elementary science teacher, puts his whole heart into his students’ education and believes while learning in school has plenty to do with textbooks and curriculum, it also has a lot to do with our experiences and the people around us.

Robinson grew up in Hayti, a small, rural town in Missouri’s Bootheel. With a population around 2,900 residents and the majority of jobs being within the manufacturing industry, Hayti is one of those Midwest towns where not many people leave, and the median household income is one of the lowest in the state.

Being almost a decade younger than his brother and sister, Robinson spent 5th grade and on living with only his mom. She worked two jobs, in both a residential treatment center and in senior home-care, but the challenges of being a single parent didn’t hinder her encouragement for her son to go after his dreams.

Robinson’s mom wasn’t the only person looking after his future.

“Everyone knew everyone in Hayti and that kept me out of trouble,” Robinson recalls. “Teachers could just show up at your door. In the 2nd grade, I had a teacher who motivated me and made sure I stayed on track. She always called my mom if I was doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing. It was important knowing she actually cared about how I acted in class and that she cared about me.”

In the 6th grade, Robinson fell in love with science and attributes that love to one of his own heroes.

“The way my science teacher, Sharon Gurley, taught us and the things she did to keep us engaged, it just showed that she was actually there for us and not just there,” Robinson says.

Now, Robinson incorporates some of the same projects and experiments from his childhood, such as making ice cream, into his own classroom, hoping he can spark the same passion in his students.

In high school, Robinson was a football and track and field athlete and in 2009, earned a full scholarship to play football at Southeast. His first time driving north of New Madrid alone was for freshmen orientation.

“It was amazing to me, because I was used to a small town with country roads and all of a sudden, I get up here and get off the exit and there are three stoplights right there. There are three stoplights in my whole town,” says Robinson.

As his first semester at Southeast rolled on, he felt he and a coach weren’t seeing eye-to-eye, making him question whether he made the right decision and if he could continue playing for the coach for another four years. Robinson looked to his biggest cheerleader, his mom, and ultimately decided he needed to make a change, but a big scholarship wasn’t something he could let go to waste. He knew he could still be an asset as a Redhawk, and he approached the track and field coach about transferring his scholarship and joining the team.

“It was a scary transition. Everyone doesn’t get a chance to play Division I football in their life, so it was really something I had to think about. After going to college and doing track for those four years, I feel like I made the best decision,” Robinson explains.

Being on a smaller team allowed Robinson the opportunity to get to know his teammates and make some of the best friends of his life. He also went on to win three Ohio Valley Conference championships, proving even further he could do anything he set out to accomplish.

As all student-athletes do, Robinson had to split his focus between his love for his sport and his desire to succeed in life after college. His passion for teaching started, although he hadn’t yet realized it, in high school when he was cadet teaching in elementary and middle school classes.

Robinson later joined the Gear Up program at Southeast and became a peer mentor to area students. He brought these students on trips to visit colleges and help them see higher education as a possibility in their futures.

“Being able to work with those high school kids and seeing the impact I had on them, because they liked me so much, I thought ‘you know what? I’m going to switch my major.’ My real ‘ah-ha’ moment was when John Legend came to speak at the MLK dinner in 2013. He focused his speech on education and how teachers were needed. He talked about Teach for America and I thought, ‘Boom! I’m doing it,’” Robinson says.

Robinson entered into Teach for America with the hopes of working in New York, but quickly realized he wanted to stay closer to home. He was sent to teach in Frayser, and says it feels like Hayti where everyone knows everyone else. Frayser is also known as having one of the lowest median incomes in the state and crime rates are high, but that didn’t deter Robinson from becoming connected to the area and committing to the progress of its youth.

“To some people, it has a bad reputation or a bad stigma about it, but until you come here and you meet and get to know the people and get to know the community, you realize it’s just like other communities,” Robinson says.

When I walked into Robinson’s classroom for the first time, I immediately noticed that every inch of the walls were covered in educational science posters, superheroes and Southeast gear. Robinson explained that the Southeast décor came from not only his love for his alma mater, but the school’s initiative to introduce students to universities at a young age.

“One thing I love about teaching here, and this is the first time ever seeing it, was that each classroom has a different college or university name. It’s usually wherever the teacher went. So, in my first year of teaching, my class was SEMO. Then there was Kentucky State on the other corner and Pittsburg down the hall. We want to get them exposed to different colleges. We talk about how we went to college, what we’ve done, and how fun it can be. It’s good to have college recruiters come in and hold career days to expose them to things they’ve never been exposed to, but it’s difficult to do those things when you have to follow the curriculum and its schedule. We have to find time to invest in our students,” says Robinson.

In addition to exposing students to colleges, Robinson has the acronym “G.R.I.N.D.” posted inside and outside the classroom to help instill the students with a set of values they can apply to every area of their lives.

“Gratitude, respect, integrity, never give up and discipline. The students know exactly what it means, and we have different chants for each letter. We try our best to get them out of the community for field trips or even just pulling up things online to show them life is different somewhere else. We let them know that they can do it if they put their mind to it and don’t give up. The principles behind ‘G.R.I.N.D.’ push and motivate them. It lets them know we are there for them, and no one is about to give up on them. They can be whatever they want,” says Robinson.

While making sure his students focus on their futures, Robinson also has to keep in mind the realities of the present.

Robinson explains, “You need to get to know your students. You have to know how to be goofy and keep them engaged, because if a student doesn’t know you and you don’t know them, they’ll think, ‘Why should I listen to this person?’ or ‘Why should I pay attention?’ It takes time to get to know them. A lot of times, students move and then new students come in, so it’s a continuous process of getting to know them. Sometimes there were students who had moved and I was so sad because I had been with that student for two years and then they were gone. I do my best to stay in contact with kids once they leave.”

Another reason Robinson tries so hard to get to know his students is so he can understand what may be happening outside the classroom that affects their performance and behavior inside the classroom.

“There are many different challenges. Sometimes it could be hunger. They may not be eating once they leave the schoolhouse. They may not have the help they need to finish schoolwork. It is definitely hard coming from a single-parent household where the parent may work two jobs, and they have an older sibling caring for them, but then the older sibling has to take care of their own schoolwork and might not have time to try to help their younger siblings on theirs. Getting work done outside the classroom is a big challenge,” Robinson says.

Having to deal with these outside challenges inevitably impacts students’ learning. Robinson says low literacy skills are the most prominent issues amongst the students.

“Reading is the foundation of education, so if you can’t read, you can’t do a math word-problem, or you don’t know what the topic is in a science book,” Robinson explains.

Robinson’s network of supporters helped him from experiencing similar challenges, but he also attributes this to a changing social climate.

“I would hate to say that times have changed where things are not heading in the best of directions, but there are higher crimes committed by younger kids now compared to when I was growing up, and I feel issues like this can be a cause of it. I didn’t have to deal with half as much as what my students have to go through now, so I can only imagine why they do certain things or how they feel during class. I definitely keep that in consideration when dealing with students’ behavior,” says Robinson.

One of the toughest situations a child can face is the absence of their fundamental needs being met. When a student doesn’t have a balanced diet or consistently misses meals, it can seriously affect his/her behavior, focus and performance in class.

“When I was a homeroom teacher, students would eat breakfast in class with me, but I don’t see it [hunger] as much now because they aren’t with me first thing in the morning. I know it may still be there, so I try to keep them engaged and focused. I’ve also talked to my principal and next year I want to try starting a backpack program where we send backpacks home every weekend with lunch. We will start small and hopefully grow from there,” says Robinson.

Robinson also wishes there were more after school programs around the area for students to participate. In Hayti, he grew up with the Boys and Girls Club nearby, so he could get help with homework when he needed it. Unfortunately, the closest Boys and Girls Club is about eight miles away. Because students have no easy way to travel there after school, Robinson does everything he can to make sure they are getting the necessary support while they are in his classroom.

For many people in careers outside of education, remembering and practicing the phrase, “don’t take your work home with you,” is a requirement to keep their peace-of-mind, but educators seem to be wired differently. All day long, they are making connections with their students, making it difficult to leave their concerns at the door when they get home.

“There are not many times when I go home clear-headed at all. Working in education, you definitely have to make sure you create some type of work-life balance. If not, you would drive yourself crazy. If a student gets in trouble outside of school, then I’ll think, ‘What can I do? Can I talk to the kid? What could I have done the day before or the day of that could’ve stopped them?’ It’s a lot to think about,” Robinson says. “Sometimes if they’re sad, you’re sad. You’ll be trying to figure out what’s wrong and try to think of ways to make it better.”

He also truly believes teaching goes beyond the classroom. Educators have to wear many hats and manage different facets of their students’ lives. It takes a multitude of skills, and Robinson has them all.

“Students may not have someone telling them, ‘No, you can’t do that,’ at home, so I have to make sure they’re going down the right path and make sure they are able to be successful in the things they do. And then of course, kids ask me all the time, ‘Do you have a bandage?’ so I’m a side-nurse as well. Checking heads for temperatures and all that. Teaching goes way beyond the curriculum.

I’ve been to several Saturday pee-wee football games for my students. Teaching never stops. Doing stuff like that shows you care. It’s a Saturday morning. I could be sleeping in, but I’m up at 9 a.m. watching them play football,” jokes Robinson.

“Teaching definitely goes beyond the classroom. It goes beyond yourself because you don’t put yourself first. You put your students first. People will ask me, ‘Do you have any kids?’ and I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I have 102 of them.”

With all the pressure of being a good teacher, Robinson says it is all worth it to see a student smile and be engaged in a lesson. He loves to see them get excited about science and ask questions, or even answer questions before he has the chance to ask. He says seeing them learning is the most important aspect for him.

“My students motivate me and give me the drive I have to be good. I can’t half-do things and expect great results. I want to push them and get them where they need to go beyond high school and college and help them out socially. I want to help them learn and be good students because they are our future. Who knows? One day, one of my 4th grade students may be my nurse when I’m in the hospital or something! Focusing on them is what keeps me going day-in and day-out,” Robinson says.

Craig Robinson’s positivity and determination are like wildfire, spreading through everyone around him, never extinguishing. And, let’s be honest, there’s a lot that could extinguish it. Robinson has found the determination to focus not on the obstacles to his students’ successes but on something greater—their future. He knows for them, it could make all the difference. Robinson is just a regular guy, but to 102 children in Frayser, Tennessee, he’s truly a superhero.




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