To know Robert Bell Wilkins is to know a born teacher. Bell’s path to education and to Edstruments, while seemingly unexpected on paper, was predestined, thanks to a love of learning that remained constant amidst a wave of changes and challenges throughout their life.
Robert Bell Wilkins, known familiarly to many as Bell, was born in Kentucky and raised in Georgia with two sisters. For K12 education, they originally attended Lovett, a Christian school in Atlanta. “More than anything, it taught me how it’s possible to love institutions that can be deeply flawed,” Bell said about the school, which rejected Martin Luther King Jr.’s children and was recently profiled in The New York Times. But even those difficult memories can’t erase the joy education brought.
“Even if it was a lot sometimes, I loved that school. I loved my teachers and was super close to my classmates, and I felt like I wanted to be in education from that point on.”
After completing K12 education at a different school, Bell attended Stanford to pursue a career in education. Once on campus, though, a different, pervasive message proved disheartening.
“When I got to college, the general sentiment whenever someone wanted to talk about education was either mild curiosity or polite condescension,” recalls Wilkins. “I was being asked over and over again, ‘Why would you only want to be a teacher?’ And that stuck as I explored my other interests.”
A reckoning over future career paths was one of several issues in college. The emergence of Black Lives Matter—including the Ferguson uprisings in 2014– made college a time of “trauma and drama.”
“Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and I were all the same age, so I took their murders pretty hard. My dad and I have both had neighbors call the police on us because we were ‘suspicious’,” recalls Wilkins, who was forbidden from leaving the house without wearing private school apparel to avoid police or vigilante encounters. “Ferguson brought back a lot of those memories, just like everything that’s happened lately.”
In college, Bell focused on history and economics while also studying critical race theory and gender studies. Though spending each summer teaching high school students on Stanford campus was a joy, finding a post-graduation path without internship experience proved challenging.
“I was interviewing with a lot of government organizations, but that kind of fell apart after the 2016 election,” says Wilkins. “I had also applied to Teach For America too and got cut…which was fine, because I didn’t want to miss the end of senior year for their mandatory training anyways.”
Instead, Bell launched a career in banking based out of Palo Alto, but health issues soon spurred a career pivot. “I learned a lot and loved my colleagues,” Wilkins says of working with a disability, “but it was still pretty brutal.”
At the same time, Bell spent weekends mentoring a young child in foster care and leading a boy scout troop. “I lead it with this a retired businessman who’s a die-hard conservative Republican. We’re so different but have this amazing bond for life,” said Wilkins, who became an Eagle Scout 50 years after the co-leader. “The kids are a hoot. They’re a big reason I wanted to try becoming a teacher again.”
Fortuitously, Bell was still on Teach For America’s mailing list and received a direct offer to interview during the final round of applications. After another cycle, they joined the Bay Area 2018 Corps. “Whoever’s up there,” Bell said, “It was a blessing.”
Bell was placed at Empire Gardens Elementary, a role not without its challenges. “Lots of teachers dropped mid-year,” said Wilkins. “When I started my second year, my students said, ‘You’re back? You’re the first person to come back.’”
Entering year three of teaching, Bell’s commitment to their students is unwavering, as is their commitment to the teachers at Empire. Midway through Bell’s first year, Empire’s union representative left the school. They remember sitting in a room with other staff to determine her replacement, and no one wanting the job. “I said: I have no idea what I’m doing, but if you want me to, I’ll do it.” The staff unanimously approved. “I just doggedly do things if people tell me it’d really help them out.”
In many ways, joining Edstruments stemmed from a similar desire to help others. After spending the previous summer working on the talent team at Alpha Public Schools, having another experience to learn about education outside the classroom was a big summer goal.
“In my union capacity, I’d seen the way my principal kept track of school finances, and it looked like there just had to be a better way,” Bell explained. As an Education Pioneers fellow, Bell is excited to work in marketing on a small team of interns—all of whom have been teachers.
Reflecting on past experiences, Bell is grateful to have found a way back into education, and continues to support students who will return to school next year, whatever form that may take.
“Last year, one of my second graders had no idea what a strawberry was. She’d never seen or tasted one before. I’m just worried there’s so many basic things like that they’re missing out on,” said Wilkins. “In a lot of ways there’s nothing I can do, but I can’t just do nothing, so right now I’m doing everything I can.”
Edstruments exists to equip education leaders with the knowledge and tools to most effectively and equitably serve their students. To learn more about how we can help your school administrators make better financial decisions, email us at email@example.com or fill out the contact form on our main website.