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Washington’s 2019 teacher of the year: What’s his secret?

(Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction)

Robert Hand is Washington state’s 2019 Teacher of the Year.

He teaches family and consumer sciences at Mount Vernon High School — what many people learned as home economics. Of the many aspects Hand can boast — an adviser for Family, Career, and Community Leaders of America and for the Social Justice Club — he also comes with glowing recommendations from … students.

RELATED: 2016 National Teacher of the year reveals his secret

One former student is quoted by Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. She was a low-income student. English was not her first language. And she got pregnant at age 16.

“Mr. Hand got to know my struggles and did what a lot of other teachers didn’t: He actually acknowledged them,” the student said. “After this, he didn’t lower his expectations of me because he knew I was as capable as any other student who had the privileges I didn’t. With Mr. Hand’s support, throughout high school I got to discover my true potential. When I enrolled in Skagit Valley College, I kept that, ‘I can do anything’ mindset that Mr. Hand taught me. I am about to transfer onto a 4-year university and pursue a career as an educator. None of this could have been possible without Mr. Hand always being by my side – no matter what.”

Robert Hand: Secret to teaching

So what’s his secret? How does a teacher stand out from nine finalists in the state?

“I don’t know if it’s a secret … every day, when I get to school and when I leave, I ask: based on today would I want to be a student in my own class?” Hand told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross. “And the answer should be yes. And if for some reason I wouldn’t have wanted to be a student in my class that day — why not, and what wouldn’t have I done differently so I would have wanted to?”

“Secondly, for me, relationships matter so much,” he said. “We are all people. And yes, we are here to teach content. But people first, content second … that’s not to diminish content, but relationships are so important. Teachers need to connect with their students. They need to be caring, they need to be empathetic, and they need to be supportive.”

Connection is at the core of what Hand promotes in education. And Washington state has a hurdle to jump when it comes to getting that connection.

When Hand grew up, he had a lot of teachers that looked like him and had similar backgrounds. It was easy to relate. But studies show that there are benefits for students by having a diversity of educators in their life, he argues.

“When you look at the demographics of our students and the demographics of our teachers, overwhelmingly, our teacher force in the state is about 90 percent white teachers,” Hand said. “If you look at the demographics of our students, you are usually seeing about 50 percent students of color. That can go up or down, but our teacher force is not representative of our students in our classroom.”

Hand says that having a teacher of color in the room can considerably affect graduation rates, test scores, college applications, and other indicators of success. Even just one teacher of color can have this affect.

“And that’s not just for students of color, though it overwhelmingly positively impacts students of color to have a teacher of color in the room, but it also impacts white students positively as well,” Hand said. “I think our teacher workforce needs to diversify; it needs to reflect the students in the room.”

“Teaching matters,” he said. “It has an impact. It impacts the community so positively and so wonderfully … you are impacting young people and the future of our community and society. It’s exhausting, but it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”

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