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Heart in Hand – Washington State Teacher of the Year

Heart in Hand – Washington State Teacher of the Year

It’s 9:30 A.M. in Robert Hand’s Family & Consumer Science class at Mount Vernon High School. Nineteen seniors settle into their seats and everyone has an HP Notebook. Trendy music plays softly in the background, there is a string of white lights on the ceiling, the classroom lights are dim, and curtains cover the windows creating a calming ambiance. One World posters with inspirational quotes and eye-catching graphics decorate the classroom. Tea and hot cocoa are available for the students. This day the students are subdued, there is not much chatter, and the overall energy of the room seems low.

The bell rings and Hand sits on a stool in the front of the room observing his students. After assessing the situation, he begins with one word, “Senioritis.”
“Does anyone know the definition?” he asks.

Long pause, then one student says, “I’m fully aware of it, skipping.”

Hand continues the thought, “How about no motivation? It’s a disease, but it’s not, but it is. It hits everyone senior year; you think I’m done, it’s really hard, I’m ready to be done. But let me tell you, here’s what you do! You recognize it. Realize it. Don’t let it get you! Your senior year goes quickly. Don’t get behind. Remember to look for causes and symptoms. Is the weather getting cold? Is it darker out? Is it harder to wake up? Think about what you do to overcome it? I can tell you all this, four o’clock A.M. is not my friend. I put my alarm clock on the other side of the room so I have to get up.” A few students chuckle.

Hand then guides the students through the elements of applying for a job. Starting off by acknowledging, “Job interviews are awkward and you’ll probably be nervous, it takes practice.”

There’s a giant applicable quote projected on the screen up front, “Life isn’t perfect. But your outfit can be.” Hand gives the students an entry task of finding examples of professional dress (including what to wear and what not to wear) while he walks the room and greets each and every student with a fist bump and checks in with them on their job applications.

Next is a tie tying lesson, followed by professional behavior: introductions, eye contact, and other interviewing advice. By the time they get to the professional handshake demonstration, the students are smiling at each other and cracking jokes.

Hand then launches into a comedic sketch of types of bad handshakes with a student volunteer demonstrating: “the dead fish” (shake but no pressure), “the death grip” (too much squeeze), “the pumper” (shake them out), “the royal shake” (fingertips only), “intense eye contact,” and the “power trip handshake” (hand
on top). The students are completely engaged and laughing.

Hand tells them, “I make you guys get awkward sometimes. You’re just going to have to deal with it.”

It is clear that Hand puts his whole heart and soul into teaching; he makes an effort to know each of his students, what makes them tick, and how to communicate and engage with them. He genuinely cares about these kids and works on individual relationships built on trust and communication. He checks in on them and follows up to see how they are doing. Hand believes that it is important for kids to learn valuable life lessons in a safe place from someone who cares about them.

What makes Hand so relatable is that he incorporates his personal stories into his lessons to make them relevant. In his Teacher of the Year application, he wrote about a lesson on distracted driving:

He starts with a video that gets everyone’s attention. After the video, he has students text words that come to mind when they think of distracted driving. They text the words to an online poll, which creates a wordle on the screen.

Next, they watch a collection of short videos, ending with one about how the human brain isn’t actually capable of multitasking.

Then he shows PSAs and statistics from distraction.gov. Afterward, they all go to the football field and students stand next to each other in the end zone. Hand asks them to look down, walk forward, wave at him with one hand, and send a text with the other hand. When they’re done, they stop and see how far they have walked. He tells them that the average text takes four seconds to send, in which time a car travels 108 yards at 55 mph which is longer than a football field. He tells them that an average of eight people die per day due to distracted driving.

When they return to the classroom, Hand shows them a picture of a seventh-grade boy who was hit by a distracted
driver. Students figure out it is a picture of Hand, and he tells them the details of his accident and reminds them that everyone is not as fortunate as he was.

He finishes the lesson with an interactive activity. He brings his Nintendo Wii with Mario Kart and has two students sit up front. One student is driving through a course while texting the student next to him. The driver has to continue texting while navigating the course without crashing. No one has ever been able to do it.

Hand says that throughout the lesson students listen, engage in conversation and ask thoughtful questions. He knows this lesson has an impact because they continue to talk to him about it for the rest of the semester. They become much more aware of their behaviors behind the wheel and it scares them a little. They tell him how they start to advocate to friends and family to change their driving habits. Hand says, “It’s a great feeling knowing the lesson has reached them and that it is reaching others through them. And personal stories are a reminder that it can happen to anyone.”

About his philosophy on teaching Hand says, “I strive to be a force of positivity in my kids’ lives. I smile and greet each student every day with a fist bump or a unique handshake we’ve come up with. I ask how they are doing. I keep food for my students who are hungry and clothes for those who need them. I don’t just teach, I provide. I provide knowledge, but more importantly, I provide care. Teaching is hard, but growing up is harder.”

And in the words of Karla Gallegos, the student who nominated Robert Hand for the Teacher of the Year, “I personally don’t think anyone other than a student who interacts with the teacher every day can truly understand how much a teacher deserves this award. His hard work and passion for helping others is the reason why I proudly recommend Mr. Hand for Washington State Teacher of the Year.”

What’s in store next for Hand as Washington State Teacher of the year? He has got a full schedule:

  • Representing the state at all required National Teacher of the Year events, including several national leadership conferences and the national recognition week in Washington, D.C.
  • Serving as the Teacher-in-Residence for Washington’s Teacher of the Year program January – June.
  • Responding to and fulfilling Teacher of the Year speaking requests, presentations, etc.
  • Sitting on the Washington Teacher Advisory Council (WATAC) leadership team and helping plan the spring convening.
  • Identifying and taking on at least one statewide initiative and carrying out activities to support it.
  • Designing and carrying out a personal communication plan to include a social media and web presence, traditional media strategy, and other publications.
  • Networking with teacher preparation programs across the state.

Keep up the good work, Mr. Hand!


This story’s cover photo was taken by Kaitlin Petrick, a ninth-grade student at Mount Vernon High School. Kaitlyn is a student in Melinda Elliott’s photography class.

Kaitlyn wrote, “Working with Mr. Hand was so much fun, he was very easy going and not difficult to work with. He was my first real portrait work and it wasn’t difficult or awkward. I just recently started to study photography. I became interested in photography in the late summer/fall of 2017. I started to save up and research cameras and ended up getting a Nikon d340. My favorite subject to shoot is the outdoors. I love taking photos of hills, mountains, lakes, oceans, and sunrises.

I was selected for this project because Mrs. Elliott saw that I was able to understand the manual mode shooting, and that I wasn’t just taking a photo, but looking for new angles and perspectives early on in the school year.”