Teaching Profession In Their Own Words

‘I Was Not Done': How Politics Drove This Teacher of the Year Out of the Classroom

By Madeline Will — August 31, 2023 6 min read
Karen Lauritzen stands for a portrait on the Millikin University Campus in Decatur, Ill., on August 30, 2023. Idaho’s Teacher of the Year moved to Illinois for a new job due to right-wing harassment over her support of the LGBTQ+ community and Black Lives Matter.
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When Karen Lauritzen was named Idaho’s 2023 teacher of the year, she considered it a celebration of her two-decade career in the classroom. But the recognition launched a chain of events that ultimately caused her to quit her beloved profession.

Lauritzen, who taught 4th grade in Post Falls, a city just east of the Washington state border, was accused by conservative media of being a “left-wing activist” who “follows drag queens on social media” and “promotes transgenderism” and “liberal ideology.” Parents, she said, began regarding her with suspicion, opting their children out of certain lessons.

Lauritzen spoke to Education Week about the backlash that drove her out of the classroom and the state. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Ever since 2nd grade, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I had a teacher named Sally Newberry, who was my 2nd grade teacher. And as soon as she read The BFG by Roald Dahl, I was like, “This is magic. She’s magic.” And I knew that I wanted to make magic for kids.

I have taught kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade. I have taught in Alaska, in Arizona, and in Idaho, obviously. It ended up being my last year teaching in the classroom that I was named the Idaho Teacher of the Year. It was an absolute surprise—it was just such a moment of absolute and utter joy with my class. The fabulous thing is I had looped with this class for two years, so I had this super amazing relationship with a lot of them, and it was just such an absolutely delightful and meaningful moment. I really poured my heart and soul into teaching for my whole life.

But as soon as I was named teacher of the year, people started Googling my name. And then all of a sudden, there’s all this horrible stuff [that appeared in an online conservative blog]: “Leftist, commie educator named teacher of the year.” I was like, ugh. “Attends Pride and likes Black Lives Matter.” I was like, well, yeah. I was not particularly apologetic about this.

But it was saying that I was not the type of teacher that should be celebrated. That I did not represent real Idaho, and that I should not have been named, and that it should be a person who reflected Idaho’s true values. That kind of stung because I was in Idaho for 12 years. I’ve done a lot, I believe, for Idaho. And I really feel that I did reflect the best of Idaho.

And then there started to be downright lies. Our district went to a four-day school week, and they said that I was the key supporter of that: “This leftist teacher doesn’t want to work.” That was absolutely false. I was the president of our teachers’ union, but our union did not even go out in support of it, and personally, I was completely against it.

Some of it was trickling to people in my community. For example, as a teacher, I had asked to meet with local legislators in years past, just as a teacher, and they had met with me and heard what I had to say. But [as teacher of the year], I asked to meet with my local legislator who is on our education committee, and he wouldn’t meet with me.

Parents began to complain

I had parents who were asking if I was using words like bisexual in my classroom. I was like, “No, I would not do that. It’s 4th grade.” It is not my job to tell them that they should be anything. It is up to students to be the best version of themselves that they can be, and all I promote in my classroom is that they should be kind.

I had parents who were opting their kids out of [social-emotional learning] lessons, and opting their kids out of class when I taught about global citizenship. I really wanted students in Idaho to start thinking outside of Idaho and outside of the United States and become more globally competent and become better global citizens. So I started to teach more about the United Nations and their sustainable-development goals, because I thought that was important and was best practice. And I had parents tell me that that was against their values, and that I had to not teach their child about that—that their child had to be removed from my classroom.

And that’s really a struggle as an educator, because then you are setting kids apart. The child doesn’t understand why, so you’re saying to this child, “You have to be removed from my classroom.” And then the child, a lot of times, thinks that you’re teaching something bad. It starts to erode the relationship between the educator and the student.

All I want to do as a teacher is do what’s best for all kids, and I want to expose them to things around the world. I want them to see the realities of our world at an appropriate 4th grade level and let students make their own decisions. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. When students are opted out of that, it takes that experience away from them.

All I promote in my classroom is that they should be kind.

I was told that I had to stop using Scholastic News [a magazine for children featuring news stories and interviews] because it was too ‘woke.’ That was one of the [last] straws. If parents are going to complain about Scholastic News, what are they going to complain about next year?

Teachers in general are being questioned for their expertise. It’s not just me, and it’s not just that article. Parents are not trusting that educators have an expertise in what we’re doing in our classrooms, and they really struggle with that.

Deciding to leave Idaho

I started to realize that to be the teacher that I knew that I needed to be, Idaho wasn’t a place that I could do that anymore. There were students at my school who did have two parents of the same sex, but I could never read a book that reflected that because I would get in trouble. I had another teacher at my school get in trouble for reading a book that had a trans character in it.

A lot of [my decision to leave the state] had to do with the fact that I have a 14-year-old son. At one point we were driving around in our community, and there was a group of men who were masked with bandanas, and they were holding up a large sign on a street corner right in the middle of the town that said, “Stop white replacement.” Nobody was doing anything about it, and that kind of thing was becoming really commonplace.

My 14-year-old son just looked at me right in the eye and said, “We have to get out of here.” When your child says that, what do you do? And we were constantly seeing signs like with maps of the United States that said, “Conquered, not stolen.” And I was having to explain those things to him. I just felt that our community was starting to devolve so rapidly in that direction.

And I just started to see that the way that I wanted to teach and the way that I felt was best practice was just not going to be honored anymore in Idaho.

See also

Montgomery County teacher and Kentucky Teacher of the Year, Willie Carver, in downtown Mt. Sterling, Ky., on May 11, 2022.
Willie Carver is the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year and teaches high school English and French in the Montgomery County, Ky., public schools.
Arden Barnes for Education Week

I absolutely loved the students there, and I feel like they deserve the best teachers. That’s why I stayed, even though I could have made much more money right across the border in Washington. I stayed in Idaho for 12 years, because Idaho’s kids deserve the best. But I had to do what was best for my family, and I had to do the teaching that I felt was right. And I couldn’t be the teacher I wanted to be any longer with the political climate in Idaho.

‘I was not done’

I’m now teaching new teachers [at Millikin University], which is so exciting to me. I got my Ph.D. this summer, so I’m teaching them methods classes, introduction to education. I’m teaching them how to be the best teachers they can be.

But like I’ve told my students here, every day since I’ve started teaching, I could have been a K-5 teacher until I couldn’t walk anymore. I loved it so much. I was not done, by any means. I could have stayed teaching if it were something that I felt that I could have kept doing.

I feel that as educators, we are obligated to teach in the best ways that we know are best for kids. And I also feel that as educators, we really need to advocate for ourselves to have our expertise be respected and honored. Teachers go through a lot of education, a lot of content-knowledge tests, and we do a lot to show our professionalism. I feel that professionalism—like any other career that is a profession—needs to be respected and honored.

And I feel that we need to have a reckoning as a nation and as a society—if we’re going to retain teachers that are high quality and are going to be the best for our kids, we need to really look deeply at how we honor teachers’ expertise.

A version of this article appeared in the September 20, 2023 edition of Education Week as ‘I Was Not Done': How Politics Drove This Teacher of the Year Out of the Classroom

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