Armed with a talent for math and science, Robert Baxter, ’94, ’03, once dreamed of becoming a doctor. He changed his mind while watching his friends drop out of the rigorous classes that came naturally to him.
“No one really expected me to be the smart one, because I was black,” he recalled. Increasingly he became frustrated with being the only black male excelling in these subjects.
Coming from a family of teachers and school administrators, Baxter soon found himself wanting to prove that “everybody can learn.” Biology and science education became the focus of his studies at Buffalo State.
Today Baxter is a highly regarded science teacher at Westminster Community Charter School in Buffalo. He was one of about 50 teachers across the country, and the first in Western New York, to receive the Milken Educator Award last October. Teacher magazine calls the Milken Awards the “Oscars of Teaching.” It is the nation’s preeminent teacher-recognition program for exemplary K–12 educators.
Recently almost 70 percent of his eighth-graders passed the high school Regents biology exam, a notable achievement by Westminster students, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds and were raised in a struggling urban school district.
When asked about his success as an educator, Baxter credits “personal relationships.” He believes “showing an interest” makes all the difference. He goes to students’ homes when necessary, or invites them to his, he said, “demanding the same things I would demand from my own kids.”
While he began his teaching career with idealistic goals, Baxter soon encountered roadblocks. He discovered student problems ranging from reading difficulties to misdirected hostilities.
“For years, students would get attitudes with me,” he said. He realized he had to make a connection and establish a relationship with his students, especially those who are high-risk. “You can’t take it personally, and you can’t be afraid of them.”
Baxter also recognizes how young people have changed since he first started teaching. “Today’s students are the technology generation. I try to limit the time I talk. I want to get them doing.” That could mean anything from a field trip to an amusement park to learn about machinery to a biology lesson taught at a nature preserve.
Baxter and his wife, Vicki, also a graduate of Buffalo State and a teacher at Westminster, own a salon and barber shop on Main Street. They plan to use the $25,000 Milken Award to open a cosmetology school.
One of their four children is currently enrolled at Buffalo State. “Their fate is etched in stone,” he said. “They will teach.”
Baxter also serves as president of the Bethesda Community Development Corporation. The organization recently took over a historic building on Main and Utica streets with intentions of “totally renovating it and making it a business incubator for students to come in and get started.”
“It’s time for the people of our city to save themselves,” Baxter said. “We have to be producers of products that people can buy and use. It’s one way to stabilize the community.”