Scott Robinson was lost deep in Beijing — there were no signs he could read and no one spoke his language. He was a tourist just trying to buy a suit but somehow got turned around and suddenly he had no idea where he was or how to communicate.
In that moment, he suddenly realized what it must be like for many of the parents he works with every day, parents who have recently immigrated here and are trying to navigate foreign cultural terrain that is the local school system while facing linguistic barriers.
As the new superintendent of schools in Richmond, one of Robinson’s top priorities is communication. There are translation and interpretations services in Richmond, but he believes they should not be an add-on, rather they should be built into all aspects of the school district.
“Half the community speaks Cantonese or Mandarin at home – that needs to be built into our communications, not an after-thought,” Robinson said.
The school district needs to reach into the Chinese language community, in a trusting manner, and disseminate accurate information to the immigrant population.
“It’s not okay to just say, you’re in Canada now. We need to help newcomers understand, and sort of walk alongside them as we work with their kids on this stuff, so there’s a trust built up,” he said.
Robinson was appointed as Richmond’s superintendent of schools in April, after more than two decades in education.
Troubled youth spark career
When Robinson started university just out of high school, a career in teaching was the farthest thing from his mind, determined not to follow his parents into education.
After a few years at the University of Victoria, he took a job as a tutor in a group home for troubled youth.
The youth in his care were kids who came from dysfunctional homes with poverty, addictions and abuse and whose families couldn’t deal with them anymore.
“In every case, life had not been kind to them, a lot had happened to them,” he said. He was just 21 and was coming from a comfortable home. These kids had experienced much more in life than Robinson ever had.
He was only a few years older than most of his charge, but Robinson was soon promoted to house parent. This experience taught him that he could really make a difference in the lives of young people, even though he was just a few years older than them.
“I liked being someone they saw who wasn’t going to judge them, (I could) be their advocate but also hold them accountable and give them a sense of control over their destiny,” Robinson said. “They were kids who often felt things just happened to them — and they did, frankly.”
That was when he knew he wanted to work with kids and decided to go back to the University of Victoria to get his bachelor’s degree in education.
Robinson’s first teaching job in 1992 was in Abbotsford teaching primary grades, after which he moved on to teach middle school in Coquitlam. He started moving into administrative positions, as a vice-principal and then principal — in elementary, middle and high schools, experiencing all levels of education and dealing with kids from ages four to 19.
“I could see where kids were coming from and where they were heading,” he said.
What he took away from his broad experience was to always meet each child where they are at in the moment and not focus on some nebulous future.
There is a tendency for teachers to always be preparing students for the next level, be it high school or post-secondary.
“Rather than looking so far forward all the time, we just need to be saying, where is this child who is in front of me right now, this second,” Robinson said. “Are they hungry, then maybe I need to stop focusing on the math lesson for this child and do something about that. Are they tired, maybe there are some steps I need to take. Because if they’re hungry and tired, they’re not going to learn the math lesson.”
Robinson acknowledges there is a lot of pressure on teachers to get through the curriculum while at the same time focus on the unique needs of each student.
This is particularly challenging for high school teachers, teaching seven classes of students, he added.
Robinson came to Richmond first as an assistant superintendent in 2011, leaving behind a position as principal in a Coquitlam school with 1,400 students and a large staff.
While he was pleased that his sphere of influence was growing, he missed working with students, the thing that fuelled him the most.
After a year and a half in Richmond, he “jumped ship” to take a position of associate superintendent in Vancouver. After a year in that role, he moved up the ladder to superintendent in Vancouver. Taking on the top education job in province’s largest municipality proved to be the toughest, yet richest, experience in his career.
Fight for equity in education
The city’s diverse population and huge income disparity was only part of the challenge.
Vancouver’s board of education had been entrenched in a decade-long battle with the provincial government over what the board claimed was chronic under-funding of the system.
Finally, in 2016, the board refused to pass a balanced budget, putting them in breach of their duties as trustees.
This was the context Robinson found himself in.
“There were different views on how the system should be governed (in Vancouver). And what occurred there should have been above my head and above my team’s head, but we were inextricably drawn into it,” Robinson said.
Robinson has signed a non-disclosure agreement about his time in Vancouver. Even without this agreement, however, he said, he wouldn’t discuss it as he has moved on.
Although, he said his Vancouver experience taught him a lot and he doesn’t regret his time there.
What he took away from his experience in Vancouver was the need to fight for equity throughout the school system. This is something he wants to continue in Richmond, a city which also has its have and have-not schools.
Robinson believes there needs to be a high-level conversation about what the school district means by “equity” and that it doesn’t p asking questions such as: if a student comes to school privileged, do they need the same resources as the child who is less privileged.
“I think there’s a lot of value teaching kids the sense of being part of the greater good,” Robinson said.
It’s a conversation that will take some time and there is no simple fix, Robinson added.
While Robinson has to take a high-level view of the myriad issues facing the school district — from how to assess students’ learning, to the increase in mental health issues, to communication strategies — for Robinson, his primary focus is the kids and what’s best for them.
“Any time I sit down with a group of kids, they amaze me — every time,” Robinson said. “When you think about it, they are the ones we are here to serve.”