Sonoma County educator who lost home in Tubbs fire selected a California teacher of the year
There was Katya Robinson, locking horns with one of her students. Again.
“Do you want to go to recess? Then go sit down,” she told AJ Staggs one morning last week.
He is a bespectacled, charismatic 5-year-old and the unofficial mayor of Room 21 at Park Side Elementary in Sebastopol. That’s where Robinson teaches a kindergarten through third grade class for students with moderate to severe disabilities.
It’s where she does the pioneering, creative work that earned her recognition as one of California’s five extraordinary public school educators named 2020 teachers of the year.
Robinson, 38, works for the West County Special Education Consortium. The award, announced earlier this month, follows her selection in April as Sonoma County’s teacher of the year.
Unaware or unconcerned that he was dealing with such a highly decorated professional, AJ laughed at her instruction to return to his seat.
“Don’t you laugh at me,” said Robinson, who, it should be pointed out, also was smiling broadly.
“We’re trying to increase his communication,” she said, once AJ was back at his table. “So if he’s arguing with me, that’s great, as long as he’s talking.”
After arriving that morning last week, and attaching personalized clothespins to the category that best described “How Do You Feel Today?” (most, but not all, were “happy”), her students gathered for circle time. At one point during an identification exercise, students were asked to name “something that’s big.”
Robinson called on AJ, who touched an image on the tablet in front of him - Robinson is big on digital literacy - which obligingly emitted the word, “Cow.”
AJ has issues with his speech; that digital tablet helps him participate in class. It’s one of countless accommodations she uses to help her students learn.
“A cow is big,” she agreed.
“You’re crushing it,” whispered Madison Minton to AJ, who smiled and nodded in agreement. She’s the Crocs-rocking behavioral assistant, one of the many Sonoma State University teachers in training Robinson has mentored in her 15-year career.
Also crushing it is her boss, Robinson, who’s been whipsawed over the past two years by wonderful and terrible news. A Piner High School graduate who studied English literature at Sonoma State, before pivoting to teaching, she lost her Coffey Park house in the 2017 Tubbs fire. It was during a recent walk-through of her newly built home when Robinson took a call from Tony Thurmond, California’s superintendent of public instruction, who told her she’d been selected a state teacher of the year.
The events weren’t unrelated, Robinson thinks. She coped with the loss of her home by channeling her energy and emotions into teaching.
Kathryn Davy, who directs the special education consortium, got a text from Robinson around 6:30 on the morning of Oct. 9, 2017.
“I don’t think I’m coming to work today,” it said. She sent a picture of the smoldering rubble that had been her house in north Santa Rosa.
School was canceled for a week. When Robinson returned, her job seemed to serve as an escape.
“Instead of wallowing in sadness,” Davy recalled, “she shifted this intense devotion to her classroom.”
Returning to the space she’d taken such care to design, a place she regarded as “a kind of second home,” to students for whom she cares deeply, was highly therapeutic.
“We create a family in here,” Robinson said of those pupils, who come from all over west county. “They’re so positive, they love seeing you every single morning. It was calming to come back to work after everything was lost.”
In her teacher-of-the-year application, Robinson wrote that her students might describe that classroom “as a comfortable and colorful wonderland currently being taken over by dinosaurs or the sneaky Dogzilla.”
This was a nod to the children’s book by Dave Pilkey, who parodies Godzilla with a Welsh Corgi named Dogzilla. Robinson has led class discussions over who might emerge victorious in a battle between Dogzilla and Cat Kong, another Pilkey creation.
While she uses whimsy to reach her students, Robinson is a fierce advocate for them, and for their right to progress towards a common curriculum: “all content areas that an elementary general education teacher would teach.”
She’d been teaching for five years when she got her master’s degree in education, focusing on autism intervention, at Sonoma State.
At first, she admits, she was chasing a piece of paper: “It was a bonus $1,000 in your paycheck.” In time, she took to heart the message of a professor who reminded her, “When you get your master’s, you’re committing to building your profession, to be a leader for this population” - the special needs community she’s embraced.