“Any other teacher would have given up on me,” read the letter. Undocumented and pregnant at 16, Robert Hand’s unnamed former student recounted how the Mount Vernon High School teacher encouraged her to pursue her education despite serious disadvantages. The missive helped earn Hand the 2019 State Teacher of the Year award. Now the family and consumer sciences instructor is a contender for the national title, an honor that went to Spokane’s Mandy Manning in 2018. Known for his comfy classroom and innovative techniques—did your driver’s ed teacher let you play Nintendo?—Hand’s using the opportunity to hone the skills he’s developed in just six years on the job. —Jessica Voelker
It was 2007. My daughter was just born, I graduated from Western [Washington University], and my wife and I moved that weekend—all within about a four-day period.
My wife and I were walking and talking. I told her, “Hey, I think I want to become a teacher.” It meant I had to go back and get another degree, but I tell my students all the time: Those things that are the hardest in life are the ones that mean the most.
My first year, I remember being fearful of being myself. I was a little robotic, thinking that I have to be so careful with what I say and do.
I remember people in my teenage years would sell me short or treat me like a little kid. It made me want to live down to the expectations that they had for me.
I didn’t plan on going to college in high school, and a lot of people around me did. And I remember feeling really conflicted about that—almost like, it’s not for me.
I could have used teachers really pushing and encouraging me. And I thought, anything that I needed when I was younger that I did not get, I have the opportunity to take those lessons to help my kids learn from the things that I’ve experienced in life.
Our kids right now are worried. Where am I going? What am I going to do? In ninth grade, we’re asking them to start picking career choices and work on them throughout high school.
It’s this pressure that comes across like, You need to start deciding now what you’re going to do.
I’m a little extra with how I decorate. My daughter came in with me and counted about 46 lamps that I have throughout my classroom and office.
I have curtains up on my windows. There are a lot of windows in my classroom, and if we have any kind of safety concern or lockdowns, we cover the windows. It shows other teachers that, hey, there’s a way to do this without making it feel like a jail cell.
When you can be comfortable in a space, it’s easier to focus on what you’re supposed to do there.
My distracted driving lesson—we play Mario Kart at the end of it. We’ve learned all the dangers of distracted driving and how quickly things happen. In the end, we use Mario Kart to do a simulation and kids see that they can’t always do what they think they can do.
One of the biggest areas of growth is finding out how to be myself, and remembering I teach kids content. But also I teach kids. And I teach kids content.
I’m getting the opportunity to travel to different schools across the state. Maybe they learn something from me. I know I’m going to learn a lot from them.
I’m going to bring that back and use it to better serve my kids.