MOUNT VERNON — With the variety of lamps, greenery and inspirational posters filling the room, Robert Hand’s Mount Vernon High School classroom feels like a cozy dorm room.
With blue, green and white paper lamps hanging above their heads, students in Hand’s beginning leadership class stood in a circle Wednesday, using mnemonic devices such as clapping and stomping to remember each other’s names.
“It’s up to us to create the environment where kids have the optimal learning environment,” Hand said.
His attention to detail and his dedication to each student are some of the qualities that earned Hand the title of 2019 state Teacher of the Year.
“Mr. Hand demonstrates the commitment to reaching and teaching every student, all day, every day,” Mount Vernon School District Superintendent Carl Bruner said. “He holds himself to high standards and continuously looks for ways to improve his professional practice. He is truly an outstanding representative of the best public schools have to offer.”
Hand, who has taught family and consumer science at the high school since 2013, said his philosophy about teaching is simple.
“People first, content second,” he said. “It’s really hard for students to learn things when you haven’t built a relationship with them.”
It’s a philosophy that’s not lost on his students.
“It’s nice to know our teacher doesn’t only care about the work,” said freshman Bailee Martinez. “He cares about the students. He can get serious and he can also be fun. And he’s relatable and makes sure we know he can relate to us.”
It’s a sentiment that has been echoed by other students, including the one who nominated him.
“Mr. Hand got to know my struggles and did what a lot of other teachers didn’t,” former student Dania Jaramillo wrote. “He actually acknowledged them.”
Jaramillo came from a low-income family, she wrote. English wasn’t her first language, she was undocumented and at 16 she got pregnant.
“Any other teacher would have given up on me,” she wrote. “But Mr. Hand loves to get to know all his students to try to facilitate and nourish their learning experience. 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.”
The student who nominated Hand, Karla Gallegos, is now a freshman at Central Washington University, Hand said, where she is studying to become a family and consumer science teacher — just like him.
When he first read what Gallegos wrote on his nomination form, Hand said, he teared up. The next time he saw her, he gave her a hug.
Hand said he was happy just to have been nominated and that he would have left it there, but Gallegos made him continue through the process.
“She said, ‘You better do it,’” Hand recalled. ‘You better go through with it. You know if the roles were reversed you’d make me go through with it.’ I have to model for my students.”
Growing up, Hand never saw himself going to college, he said. No one else in his family had, and he had never had a teacher with whom he had a positive relationship.
In his early 20s, Hand decided it was time to go to college. He specialized in digital music production at Edmonds Community College before transferring to Western Washington University, where he studied communications and sociology.
Still, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do.
It was during a walk at a park with his wife when he finally decided he wanted to be a teacher — and back to school he went.
“I always tell (my students) to follow your dreams and your passion first and don’t let anyone get in your way,” Hand said. “It’s good for our kids to hear that on a regular basis: You can do anything you want.”
Hand was named the Northwest Educational Service District 189 Teacher of the Year, which serves Whatcom, Skagit, Island, San Juan and Snohomish counties.
Each of the state’s nine districts honors a teacher.
Hand was then named state Teacher of the Year on Sept. 10.
Hand is now in the running for national Teacher of the Year, which will be awarded in the spring at the White House by the Council of Chief State School Officers. That title is currently held by Spokane teacher Mandy Manning.
As the state Teacher of the Year, Hand said he hopes to advocate for career and technical education programs, and for building diversity in classrooms.
Most of all, he said he plans to advocate for kindness.
“I view everything through a lens of kindness, compassion and empathy,” he said. “That’s what I try to model. I do my best every day and I hope that makes a positive impact. I just think we all need to be kinder to each other.”
In January, he will essentially take a leave of absence from the Mount Vernon School District to focus on his state Teacher of the Year duties, which include visiting the schools of each of the other regional winners.
But, he said, he’ll be sad to leave his students.
“That’s my favorite part of this, there’s always something to learn for me and for them,” he said. “I’m right where I feel like I belong.”