It’s a frigid December morning in Stansbury Park. Students bundled in their warmest winter gear trickle into Rose Springs Elementary to finish off the school week. The school’s snowy lawns and icy walkways leave no doubt that winter has fully arrived. But as far as the students in Mr. Robinson’s sixth-grade class are concerned, it might as well be July.
They sit quietly at their desks — some writing, some pondering and most tapping their feet to the beat of Katy Perry’s recent single, “Roar,” which pumps from the classroom speakers at a volume that would make a schoolmarm blush.
Their classroom is awash in surf-themed décor. An eclectic mix of educational art, University of Utah football and band posters adorn the walls. The writing, pondering and tapping continue until Katy Perry fades to The Ramones. Then, as if on cue, all 30 students begin belting the words to “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” substituting “Sheena” with “Savannah,” the name of a beaming classmate.
The spectacle is a prelude to the class’ morning meeting, an energetic roster of participatory instruction that the students have dubbed “Head Strong.” Overseeing it all from the corner of the room is their teacher, Greg Robinson, who students, parents and administration alike refer to as simply Mr. Rob.
Dressed casually in blue jeans and a Harley Davidson beanie, Robinson, 43, has said nary a word to the class since the bell rang. Instead, he lets the music do the talking: The Ramones’ “Sheena” is a signal for students to clear their desks. They line up for lunch to “Pudding Time” by Primus. The Coasters’ “Yackety Yak” cues their afternoon cleanup.
“Everything is music-based in here,” Robinson said. “They learn the transition to the music so they don’t have to hear from me all day. The less they have to listen to me about tiny, procedural things, the more they might listen when I say something important.”
A Harley Davidson fanatic from the small town of Ferron in Emery County, Robinson spent 13 years as a journeyman electrician with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers before taking up teaching. He’s soft-spoken, yet direct and humble in the extreme. His tone with students is casual, yet positive and purposeful, exuding a certain blue collar accessibility. He’s quick to turn the subject from himself and listen intently to the speaker.
Robinson’s approach to classroom instruction is anything but conventional. He attributes this in part to spending 13 years in a construction field before entering the classroom.
“I wouldn’t be the teacher I am today had I went straight from college to classroom,” he said. “Having worked for so many people, some that I really loved and some that I had a hard time with, I approached with the thought that I want this to be some place the kids want to be.”
Hints of Robinson’s second career — the one that would become his true passion — came in his youth by way of a high school counselor.
“He said, ‘You really ought to do something with the youth because you seem well suited to that,’” Robinson said. “And I thought, really? I didn’t know what he was thinking because I wasn’t even a good student. I barely graduated — no lie! I didn’t get it, but then as I got into my career I thought maybe I do have something to offer.”
His opportunity came in 2002 when his wife, Tara, started a private preschool, which allowed him to enroll at Utah State University and earn an Elementary Education degree. He graduated in 2006 and took his first job as a third grade teacher at Rose Springs in 2007. He taught third grade for two years before moving to sixth. The switch meant that many students who were in his third-grade class came back around for his sixth-grade class.
“There’s nothing more obnoxious than someone who loves their job, but I do,” Robinson said. “I can’t think of a day where I woke up and didn’t want to come here. I always want to come here.”
Does he ever regret trading a lucrative career for the classroom? One word: “Never.”
“Both my brothers are still electricians with IBEW, and I’m very proud of them. One electrician co-worker asked me how I can stand being in one place,” Robinson said. “I tell them it changes every 30 seconds when you have 30 sixth graders; the adventure is there. I don’t need anything more than what these kids provide. When you see them want to be a part of the community and you had any small part in that, that’s where you get the reward.”
That sense of community, or as Robinson calls it, “the power of the group,” is a recurring theme in Robinson’s philosophy on teaching. He considers it crucial to academic learning. He conducts most instruction with the entire group with emphasis on what he calls the “school family.” He said the technique, though simple, is highly successful.
“You can take somebody with high intelligence and they share that. Instead of putting up their little cubical and blocking out everybody around them, they share that knowledge with each other. That builds everybody up, no matter where their level is,” he said.
Key to this strategy are the students’ desire to be in the classroom and readiness for a hard day’s work. Notably absent from Robinson’s syllabus is homework. He has his reasons.
“If they go home with frustrating homework every night, I don’t feel like they come in here ready for the day,” he said. “How can you expect them to want to come to school the next day when they’ve been hammering through homework all night? Not only that but breaking down family ties because homework is always a battle, always a fight.”
He said some individual homework is warranted on rare occasions to help bring up a reading level, but he avoids group homework assignments. The policy thrills students universally and throws some parents for a loop.
“I’ve had some parents say, ‘Where’s the homework? We need homework!’” Robinson said. “And I’ve had others come in and say things like ‘Thank you! I’ve been teaching my daughter to sew.’ Life isn’t all about school. There are other skills to learn too.”
Robinson said his primary goal each day is to foster an uplifting environment for the students, hence the colors and surf décor. He pointed to a baby blue surf board standing beneath a straw umbrella near the window.
“I’m not a surfer,” he said. “I’d sink that board. But I want it to feel like summer on a really dreary winter day. In my very first class, one of the kids in the winter said, ‘It’s snowing outside but it still feels bright and happy in here.’ I thought perfect. That’s exactly what I wanted. I put thought into every single thing to somehow positively affect the kids, so they want to be there.”
Music is a constant in Robinson’s classroom. He searches for songs that lend to a positive atmosphere and incorporates them into a master playlist. Artists like Matisyahu and 311 are prominent.
“If you think about a car ride without music, it’s just not the same at all,” he said. “It builds a spirit in the room. I feel like they’re happier to turn in their papers. They’re happier to clean off their desk. It creates a soundtrack for their year.”
Robinson’s methods are well received by Rose Springs administration. Leon Jones, Robinson’s principal during his first five years at the school, called Robinson a “champion of the students.”
“He has grown to be one of the most effective teachers in building confidence and high achievement,” Jones said. “He is a remarkable teacher.”
Current Rose Springs Principal Belinda Butler praised Robinson as a role model.
“He traded financial gain for the impact he could have on the children,” Butler said. “He helps them understand that they can succeed and conquer. His students adore him.”
Robinson spends his summers doing electrician work to make ends meet. When weather permits — and it does more often than you might think — he rides his prized 2008 Harley Davidson Road King to school. The bike’s name is Rooster (Robinson said he didn’t come up with name; it was inspired).
“We’re bros,” Robinson said. “Rooster’s part of the family.”
Robinson has no love for the limelight and almost bristles at recognition. He said he is inspired by fellow teachers, administrators and his wife. His focus is squarely on the success of the class with the long term goal to develop kindness and compassion in his students. To that end, the class does several service projects each year, including an annual outing to sing Christmas carols at the Cottage Glen assisted living center in Tooele in lieu of a class Christmas party. They also donate presents to the Children’s Justice Center each year. Robinson frequently tells his students that the legacy they leave behind is how they treat each other.
“People often ask how I can stand to be around kids these days,” he said. “They say, ‘Kids are so disrespectful.’ And I’ll say, ‘I don’t think you spend enough time with them, because this is the best generation I’ve ever known.’ I’m a better person because of them.”