Robin Davidson was announced as the 2023-2024 Teacher of the Year for Springfield Public Schools. The announcement was made Monday, April 17, 2023, during the Foundation for Springfield Public Schools Celebrate SPS event. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

From the moment “Eye of the Tiger” played over the public address system, it was clear it was going to be a celebratory day at Wanda Gray Elementary School. 

Before Survivor’s power chords blared through the school, the secretary asked Robin Davidson if that was a good pick to honor him the morning after being named Springfield Public Schools’ 2023-2024 Teacher of the Year. Mr. D., as pretty much everyone calls him, gave it the green light.  

“I said if it works for Rocky, it’ll work for me,” Davidson said. 

Congratulations for Davidson came the morning after his win in the form of shout-outs from students lined up in the hallway, handshakes from the custodian and fist bumps from the school resource officer. Along with individual acknowledgments, there was a school-wide effort to get on Mr. D.’s level in terms of facial hair. 

Even though his employee badge depicts a clean-shaven fourth-grade teacher, Mr. D is known for his Santa-sized beard. On Tuesday, students across the school got the chance Tuesday to color in a beard of their own, cut it out and wear it to honor Davidson. 

There was a stack of a few hundred printouts of future beards on the school’s front desk that would later be passed out to students. But a few students got an early shot Tuesday morning at making beards that included a blank space below the words, “Mr. D is.” Early versions included the following adjectives: “awesome,” “generous,” and “kind.” 

When Davidson popped in on his students during their morning art class, they made sure a reporter knew he’s very, very hilarious. Five particular students made sure Izzy, Chloe, Lyndsie, Peyton and Henlee were described as some of his favorites, but there appeared to be more favorites to choose from. 

And on Monday before Davidson learned he won, one of his students came up to him and told that no matter what happened, he was already the Teacher of the Year. 

“And I said, ‘Buddy, that’s all I really care about is having you guys on my side,’” Mr. D told him. 

Robin Davidson complements this group of girls on their work during their morning art class. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

Davidson, a self-described ‘unicorn’ among elementary school teachers, said he found his calling after joining SPS

Davidson joined the Wildcats staff a decade ago after teaching fifth graders at Westport Elementary for the first 14 years of his career. It was a profession he came to in his early 30s after dabbling in a number of others, from occupational therapy to law. He said his wife, Teresa, asked him one day what he would do if money or any other obstacle weren’t part of the discussion. He said he’d teach. She said, “Let’s do it.” 

The Davidsons have nine children, ages 33 to 18, and Robin Davidson said the students he’s taught over his career constitute an extended family. He said one former student who reached out to him after learning he’d won the honor said, “My home life was awful, and I always felt safe coming to be with you.”

His response to the student he had two decades ago: “You’re still family, kid. And if I can ever help you, let me know.”

Helping kids who were missing family was a reason he decided to become an elementary-age teacher rather than teach his favorite subject, U.S. history, to older students. At Westport, he said, there were many students with absent fathers, and he strived early on to be a male role model for kids who might be lacking one at a pivotal age. It’s a role he’s carried with him to Gray, where he and the other couple of men who teach there refer to themselves as “unicorns.” 

“Mr. D came to interview with us from Westport, and one of the first stories he told us was he requested an all-boy class at Westport,” said Angie Carder, principal at Gray Elementary. “He asked for the toughest kids from the school. And when he said that, I was like, ‘Sold.'”

Carder said she’s seen how Davidson’s students want to work hard for him, which speaks to the environment he’s created in his classroom. 

“They leave the class successful,” Carder said. “I mean, they’re able to manage their big feelings or emotions and are going to get on track with learning. And so anyone that requests tough kids and wants to make a difference in their lives, I mean, right when he said that we were like, ‘Yup.'” 

Davidson initially took the job at Gray because he was considering a career transition to an administrative role, and wanted to see more of the Springfield district before he made the leap. Then, Davidson again conferred with his wife and they collectively decided he enjoyed teaching too much to leave the classroom. He’s been building up the family at Gray ever since. 

It speaks to the hearts of staff and families, Davidson said, that he recently managed to raise about $3,500 within 24 hours of putting out a call for contributions before a last-minute trip overseas to help Ukrainian refugees. 

Sending Springfield help to Ukraine

Davidson and his family have a longstanding connection to Ukraine, where they have done mission work and also adopted two refugees from the country. In the midst of the ongoing war, Davidson was invited by a contact to go to Poland with no particular mission beyond simply spending time with child refugees who’d recently fled there. It coincided with the SPS spring break week, so he jumped at the chance and was said he was blown away by the last-minute outpouring from people at Gray. 

“They just trusted me,” he said. “I had parents throwing me cash and checks and no one said, ‘Well, what are you going to do with this money?’” 

He said some went to help two churches in Poland that were housing refugees and the rest of the money went directly to orphans. 

On Monday night, after the school district shared the news that he’d won the award at the Celebrate SPS gala, Davidson said he expected to celebrate with his family, maybe watch a movie and go to sleep. But then his Facebook notifications began to ping. 

“And I started going through those, and sometimes it would be kids from 20 years ago or teachers that I knew 10 years ago,” he said. “And before you knew it I was talking and responding and liking and loving all these responses.”

He said his wife told him the night was more intense than the 2020 November elections, when their son Bishop was chosen to represent Missouri House District 130

Superintendent Dr. Grenita Lathan, Teacher of the Year Robin Davidson and Wanda Gray Elementary School Principal Angie Carder at the award ceremony on April 17th, 2023. (Photo: SPS)

Nomination process helped center his thoughts on what’s important to teaching — belonging and purpose

Davidson said he’d been nominated before and always appreciated that someone took the time to suggest him. But he never followed through with the next steps that required him to explain why he was deserving of the honor. 

“My resistance to it was (that) I know these kids love me,” he said. “I know I love them. And I don’t need really need anything more.” 

But this year, when he mentioned to his wife he’d been nominated, she convinced him to give it a go. Honoring the nomination, she argued, shows gratitude to the person who took the time to submit it. 

“She knew where to hit me,” Davidson said.

He said he’s grateful he did, because it forced him to consider his views on his chosen profession in ways he hadn’t. The first step, he said, involved answering a set of questions in 1,500 characters — not words, characters. That was a challenge because Mr. D has developed a number of beliefs over his nearly 25 years in public education, and he is admittedly verbose when it comes to sharing them. 

In his classroom Tuesday morning, he said academic achievement and being an excellent educator are goals he strives for with his students and for himself, respectively. To achieve each, he and his students needed to build an environment that fostered learning. He described it in home-building terms.

“And if you don’t have that firm foundation, they don’t regard this as a safe place,” Davidson said. “And they’re more worried about that than they are learning. Before you can start putting in your beautiful rooms of academic excellence or your educational excellence. Before you can do that, you have to have that roof of expectation. And so at the very beginning, I’m telling them, I’m going to expect a lot and I’m not going to compromise on those expectations. You have to meet ’em. And I love you. But it’s because I love you that I’m going to make you meet these expectations. I love you less if I don’t insist on excellence from you. And that’s kind of a big thing with me. It really is.”

That quote’s a shade under 700 characters right there. 

“So it really made me go, ‘OK, Robin, let’s start paring the tree down to its bare essentials and figure out who you are and what you stand for,’” Davidson said. “So it was really a good experience for me. It was awesome for me to go, ‘I’m taking a look at myself now.'”

Regarding that home-building metaphor, Davidson realized he was talking about a sense of belonging. When kids feel like they belong, he said, then you can build a sense of purpose through both the lofty and daily expectations you set for them. Ultimately, he said, he distilled his short answers to what those two words, belonging and purpose, meant to him. 

“From the very beginning, my class was called the D-Team, and I want them to know, you’re my family, you’re my people,” he said. “I got your back. I want you to have my back. We’re going to stand together. And that idea of belonging is Point No. 1 that I made. And Point No. 2 is purpose. That idea of, ‘I have someplace that I want to take you, but you’re going to have to chase after it.'”

He said he was notified he’d made the next round, which required a 60-second video about a piece of information he’d share with a fellow teacher. That, he managed to get down to 68 seconds after multiple takes at his admittedly messy desk. 

“I’ve enjoyed the process and I became more and more invested,” he said. “First it was, ‘I love you, honey; I’m going to do this since you want me to do this.’ But as I moved through the process, it was, ‘Hey, this is good.’ And it’s good on two counts. One, I kind of really have to figure out who I am. But also, I get the chance to express what I think is important about education, and then will have venues to do that should this pan out.” 

It did pan out. Along with being honored Monday night, Davidson will join the other four Teacher of the Year finalists — Josh Cantrell, Central High School; Rachel Hoeing, Sequiota Elementary; Tiffany Lynch, Pipkin Middle School and Sam Shelton, Central High School — at next week’s school board meeting. He’ll also speak at next month’s high school commencements and pitch in however he said he’s asked to.

“I’m working on my 25th year now, and obviously very happy to be here,” Davidson said. “And happy to serve the district in whatever way I can.”

Meanwhile, he’ll continue working for the D-Team, some of whom will soon get their hands on a pair of shears. At the end of every school year, Davidson’s students are graded on an opinion essay. The topic is always, “Should Mr. D shave his beard or not?” To help his fourth graders form their opinions, Davidson shaves half his face and stands in profile before his students and gives one speech about why not having a beard is the best move and another about why he should stay bearded. 

The next time he does a full shave, there will be several hundred spare beards around Gray Elementary, should the need arise. 

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson