Moments before he was named Washington state's 2019 Teacher of the Year, Robert Hand beamed on stage at MoPOP in Seattle as a presenter read a letter from one of his former students.
The student credited the Mount Vernon High School teacher with helping all students who face barriers to graduate — including, in her own case, not speaking English as a first language, living in a low-income home and being an undocumented immigrant.
"There is one other thing that made it harder for me to focus 100 percent on school: I got pregnant at 16," the student's letter said. "Any other teacher would have given up on me, but Mr. Hand loves to get to know all his students and tries to facilitate and nourish their learning experiences."
Hand, a family and consumer sciences instructor at Mount Vernon High, was one of nine regional finalists for this year's honor. The Puget Sound finalist was Tracy Castro-Gill, who teaches at Denny International Middle School in Seattle. Hand represented the Northwest region of the state that spans 35 school districts, including Bellingham, Everett and Mount Vernon.
"I'm just here because I love my kids and I work hard," Hand said at Monday's ceremony.
"I think about my daughter every day that I go to work, and I think about what she deserves. I'm going to give that to every kid." he added. Gesturing toward the other finalists, Hand said, "We all have the same goal in mind, and that's to leave the world a better place than when we got here."
In his application for the state award, Hand wrote that he considers the lack of diversity in the teaching workforce a major issue in public education. About nine in 10 teachers in Washington state identify as white, compared with just 55 percent of students.
Previously, Hand helped the state Professional Educator Standards Board develop an online curriculum for a teacher recruitment program.
"My whole life I have always had the privilege of having all of my teachers look like me," Hand wrote in his application. "It was easy for me to see myself as a
teacher because I could see my reflection in every teacher I ever had. Diversifying the teacher workforce has to start somewhere, and it starts with my kids."
In his acceptance speech Monday, Hand also encouraged students to "be proud of yourself, be brave, be bold."
"I have to remember to model for my kids what I ask them to do," he said.
As the state winner, Hand now will contend for the national teacher of the year award. That title is currently held by Mandy Manning, an English and math teacher at Spokane's Ferris High School, who spoke at Monday's event and praised each finalist for their commitment to students.
"Each of these regional teachers of the year deserves 100 percent to be here. They have earned this, and they've earned this because they love kids," Manning said. "You have earned the privilege of having a platform, so now the question is: How will you use it?"
Manning made headlines in May, when she handed President Donald Trump an envelope filled with letters from her students — many of them immigrants and refugees — during the National Teacher of the Year ceremony.
"There is no more impactful career than being an educator," Manning said Monday.