Rodney Dawson, 49, Curator of Education
It might be hard to imagine him anywhere else – even if he never imaged himself here.
Rodney grew up in High Point, a record-setting Southwest Guilford High School track star. He got an opportunity to attend school in the mid-west, where he wanted to study to be an architect.
“That is where I tripped up. I went into school thinking that I would soon be a prize on campus, plus I saw it as just a means to make money,” he says. “I was a smart student, I just didn’t apply myself.”
Due to poor academic performance, his first foray into college was cut short. He was ashamed to go back home, he says. Instead, he joined the U.S. Army and after training and a 1-year tour in South Korea, he was assigned to a field artillery unit already deployed during Operation Desert Storm. Still just a teen, he soon found himself on active duty in the Persian Gulf War.
“It gave me discipline. The Army makes you apply yourself. They force you to critically think,” Rodney says.
His commanders also encouraged him to go to college, inviting him to apply to West Point. After his service, he decided that he’d work in law enforcement or radio. The radio station returned his call quicker. He enrolled in Full Sail University where he studied music production and after graduation moved to Greensboro to work for radio station WQMG, WEAL, and eventually WMKS. He was an on-air personality and handled marketing.
During the recession of 2008, radio was one of the first industries to take a hit; consequently, WMKS would soon change formats. Rodney started contemplating a career change. Coincidentally, an old friend of his reached out seeking recommendations for Black men who might be interested in working with children.
The gig was to work as a behavioral support liaison at Guilford Preparatory Academy, a Greensboro charter school. Rodney asked if they would consider him for the job.
“I said, ‘Hey this is an opportunity for me to have a job where I can work with kids.’ My creative side said that would be fun.” he says. “They hired me on the spot. They even asked me if I could stay the remainder of the day to work with a child.”
The job focused on working with children with significant behavioral or emotional needs. Rodney worked one-on-one to build relationships with students, to recognize when they were having a difficult day, and to deescalate them when they were angry or agitated. He got so good at it, he started training other educators at schools throughout the Piedmont in crisis prevention techniques as a certified CPI instructor.
Rodney found creative ways to engage students who were serving in-school suspension. He got a grant to buy 30 iPads and challenged the kids to use them to research things like African American millionaires and foreign affairs. The technology spurred them to do the work. Today’s students are digital natives, Rodney says.
Inspired, Rodney enrolled in a master’s program for instructional technology at N.C. A&T, while continuing to work as a media specialist and technology instructor in area middle and elementary schools. His goal was to use technology-enriched practices and culturally responsive teaching, which incorporates a child’s cultural references plus immersive technology into lessons.
Rodney played rap music in class to build a rapport with his in-school suspension students.
“Due to disruptive behaviors, some of my kids weren’t making it through the day. No engagement. They didn’t prioritize education. Many didn’t think that they would find success in education. I had students come to school hungry, homeless, abused, tired, and scared all from life circumstances,” he says.
“I knew that regardless of their background my students had the intellectual capacity to do well. I knew they could do it.”
“Growing up, I watched my single mom struggle and face challenges to provide and raise two boys. My mom is the first college graduate in her family. However, it was not only she, but my aunts, grandparents, cousins, and church members who stressed education to me my entire life. While I didn’t always show it, I knew the importance of education,” Rodney says.
Rodney knew that with his students, he just had to engage them and meet them where they were. “I love many genres of music. I grew up playing classical music on the piano. So I decided to use music, particularly rap, to teach students history, including complicated political issues such as allegations that the CIA supported cocaine trafficking operations in the 1980s during the Nicaraguan civil war and how drugs influenced music.”
“We started talking about why rap changed and how it changed. We looked at how drugs came into society. We looked at the Iran-Contra scandal. We just connected all these things,” he says. “They just needed to be engaged and it needs to be culturally relevant.”
Rodney ended up earning his Ed. S, a post-masters education program, at Liberty University. He began following up with an Educational Doctorate or Ed. D in education leadership. His dissertation was on solving the problem of having too few Black male teachers in local schools.
Around the time he started working on his Ed. D, he was looking for a new job. He applied to be the Greensboro History Museum’s education curator. He started the job in fall 2018.
“I never thought I would work in a museum,” he says. Yet the gig allows him to use his past experiences and personal passions – from his life as a veteran to his love of history to his experience with broadcasting and technology – to expand what the museum offers to the public.
“Because of my instructional technology background, I have been able to do webinars. I started a podcast. I still visit schools and teach K-12 classes remotely,” Rodney says.
This year, as the pandemic shut down public facilities and in-person gatherings, Rodney helped the museum launch a variety of virtual experiences.
He’s particularly proud of the Juneteenth celebration – where the City presented a full day of programs around Black and African American culture streaming from the City of Greensboro’s Facebook page. It was a first for the City and came right as there was nationwide conversations about race and the treatment of Black people.
The museum hosted ten different programs. Rodney created five of them, including an interview and cooking demo with the chef and owner of Dame’s Chicken and Waffles and the Juneteenth History and Traditions special. The virtual outreach was right up his alley. But even he was shocked at the community interest. The five Juneteenth segments that Rodney produced acquired over 10,000 views.
He’s now working on a Holocaust program, featuring sculptor Victoria Milstein and a New York Times best-selling author. In addition, he’s working on two documentaries highlighting a local civil rights leader, and the Greensboro women who sustained the 1960 sit-in movement.
Before, Rodney used to criticize himself for changing careers so often. Not anymore.
He used to think, “How come I could not stick with this one thing? Why did I jump? Now, I see it as preparation.”