School & District Management

Trump Meets With Teacher Honorees, Even as Two Boycott

By Sarah Schwartz — May 07, 2019 6 min read
President Donald Trump welcomes the 2019 National Teacher of the Year Rodney Robinson and State Teacher of the Year winners to the Oval Office. Two honorees, Jessica Dueñas of Kentucky and Kelly D. Holstine of Minnesota, boycotted the event on political grounds.
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Two award-winning teachers boycotted last week’s White House ceremony honoring the 2019 national and state teachers of the year, saying that they wouldn’t support an administration whose policies they feel have harmed their immigrant, refugee, and LGBT students.

The boycott added another twist and element of controversy to an already unusual set of circumstances surrounding the annual event.

The Council of Chief State School Officers, the organization that administers the Teacher of the Year program, had announced the previous week that the president would not be attending the April 29 ceremony. But President Trump, in an apparent last-minute change of plan, did end up meeting with the 55 teachers in the Oval Office.

“The entire day was an exciting surprise,” Kelly Harper, the 2019 District of Columbia State Teacher of the Year and one of the four finalists for the national award, said in a press call with reporters after the event. (The ceremony was closed to the press.)

But Jessica Dueñas, the 2019 Kentucky State Teacher of the Year, and Kelly D. Holstine, the 2019 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, did not attend—they boycotted the event on political grounds.

“It’s uncomfortable for me right now to not be with my peers, but it’s the right choice,” Dueñas, a 6th grade special education teacher at W.E.B. DuBois Academy in Louisville, Ky., said in an interview with Education Week the day of the ceremony. “When I’m gone someday from this earth, I feel like I’m going to be on the right side of history, for speaking up for my students and my state in this manner.”

Official Recognition

The teachers who did attend the event also met with Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. And they participated in a panel discussion with Education Department officials.

Rodney Robinson, the 2019 National Teacher of the Year, who teaches social studies at the Virgie Binford Education Center, a school inside a juvenile detention facility in Richmond, Va., said that Trump congratulated him on winning the award. “He was happy that I was giving the kids a second chance,” said Robinson.

Trump also said that teachers have the hardest job in the world, according to Danielle Riha, the 2019 Alaska State Teacher of the Year and a finalist for the national award.

Pence took a minutes to speak with each teacher individually, the teachers said on the press call. “He was extremely cordial. He told us a few jokes—he was funny,” said Donna Gradel, the 2019 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year and another finalist.

Before meeting with Trump and Pence, Robinson delivered a speech to the teachers, and they heard remarks from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. The secretary presented Robinson with his award, he said.

“Today wasn’t about policy or funding,” he said. “It was just to honor the teachers and the profession and give us the respect we deserve.”

Still, DeVos used her address to highlight several Trump administration education policy priorities.

“Rodney, you were recently asked whether your students are ‘different’ simply because of where they learn,” DeVos said, according to prepared remarks. “I loved your answer. You said, ‘America is a country of second chances, and in order for them to achieve and get that second chance,’ you said, ‘they deserve a quality education like everybody else.’ ”

DeVos said that she and Trump also “believe in the power of redemption,” highlighting the administration’s efforts to support incarcerated individuals: the First Step Act, a prison-reform bill that Trump signed into law earlier this year, and the Second Chance Pell program, an Obama-administration initiative that the Trump administration has continued, allowing incarcerated students to qualify for Pell Grants.

The secretary also said that teachers “should be trusted with more autonomy, honored with more flexibility, and lifted up as professionals,” according to prepared remarks. She said that the professional development “vouchers” that Trump included in his 2020 budget proposal could provide this increased autonomy.

The $200 million stipend program would allow teachers to select training programs tailored to their needs. However, the president’s spending plan, which is not likely to pass as originally proposed, would also cut the $2.1 billion Title II grant program that funds teacher and principal professional development.

‘Damaging and Hurtful’

The two teachers who boycotted, Holstine and Dueñas, said they would have refused to attend the ceremony regardless of which Trump administration official was hosting.

“I’m an out, gender-nonconforming lesbian, and I’m the first Minnesota Teacher of the Year to be an out LGBTQ person,” said Holstine, an English teacher at Tokata Learning Center in Shakopee, Minn. “I feel that the policies of this administration, and the homophobia and the transphobia and the demonizing of the LGBTQ people, is so damaging and hurtful. And it creates an environment where other folks feel emboldened to also feel that hatred.”

Holstine teaches a diverse population of students at Tokata, an alternative learning center. Many of her students are undocumented immigrants, or have relatives who are undocumented. She also works with Somali refugee students.

She says the Trump administration’s immigration policies and rhetoric have directly harmed her students and their families. Her Somali students have experienced more bullying and discrimination, she said, and another student of hers was separated from a parent when his father was taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“I cannot in good conscience even implicitly support an administration that does not support my students,” said Holstine in her interview with Education Week.

Dueñas, the daughter of a parent who was formerly undocumented, cited the administration’s family separation policy as a major factor in her decision to boycott the event. The Trump administration has said that it has stopped the practice of widespread family separations at the border, though they have not yet identified all of the children who were separated from their parents.

She also pointed to a recent roundtable discussion in her state with Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin and DeVos, which high school student journalists were barred from attending because they were unaware they needed to RSVP for the event.

“I would rather give up the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity than go against the things that I firmly believe are best for students, across the country and in my state,” said Duñas.

Holstine and Dueñas held a press conference the day after the event at the American Federation of Teachers headquarters in Washington to speak on creating inclusive schools and funding public education.

The two teachers said during the press conference that while they didn’t go to the White House, they respected their fellow educators’ decision to meet with members of the Trump administration. “We all participate in freedom of speech in different ways,” said Holstine.

National Winner’s Role

As the National Teacher of the Year, Robinson will focus on issues of “economic and cultural equity,” he said in an interview with Education Week after his win last week.

“Throughout my schooling, I only had one black male teacher the entire time,” Robinson said. That teacher led band class, which Robinson took from 5th to 12th grade. Having a black teacher was one of the main reasons he stuck with the class for so many years. “It meant so much to see someone like me in the classroom,” he said.

Robinson is the first black man to win National Teacher of the Year in more than 25 years. The last black male teacher to receive the national honor was Thomas Fleming from Michigan in 1992.

A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 2019 edition of Education Week as Trump Meets With Teacher Honorees, Even as Two Boycott

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