By Amanda Menas
“I talked to my students a lot about how they wanted me to represent them,” said Kelly Holstine, 2019 Minnesota State Teacher of the Year.
On Monday, April 29, Holstine and Kentucky Teacher of the Year Jessica Dueñas opted not to attend the annual White House ceremony, during which traditionally the President presents an award to the National Teacher of the Year with the other state teachers of the year on the dais.
This year, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos presented the award to Virginia teacher Rodney Robinson. Then the teachers in attendance were surprised with a brief meeting with President Trump in the Oval Office.
Speaking with reporters, Holstine and Dueñas discussed their personal and professional reasons for not attending.
“I talked to [my students] and said, ‘What do you guys think about this? How can I best represent you?’ and they were very, very supportive,” said Holstine, who teaches at Tokata Learning Center, an alternative high school in Shakopee, Minnesota. “A lot of my students felt appreciative that I saw them, that I see what they’re going through, that I’m going to stand up for them.”
Holstine, who is an out, gender-nonconforming educator, teaches students of varying abilities and backgrounds, including one Somali Muslim student she mentioned at the press conference on Tuesday.
“I work with a lot of students who face discrimination and prejudice every day of their lives. My frustrations with the current administration are the messages, and the actions, and the policies, and the words that are shared about the population of students that I work with, and it impacts them,” Holstine said of her decision.
“Educational equity is finding out what every student needs and getting it for them. But not prioritizing equity is causing many of our students to fail,” said Holstine.
Dueñas, a Latina, first generation American, chose not to attend the event at the White House due to the administration’s immigration policies.
“There are students at the border right now who should be in our classrooms,” she said to start the conference.
Dueñas also addressed Secretary DeVos’ visit to her state, during which the secretary discussed policy, but did not include public school teachers and actively turned away public school student-reporters.
“We don’t need school choice, we don’t need to privatize out schools, to see academic gains,” said Dueñas, a special education teacher at W.E.B. DuBois Academy, whose student body is 90 percent African-American males. Student test scores improved significantly during the school’s first year.
The two educators called the press conference on Tuesday both to explain their choice not to attend the White House event and to celebrate and champion the national and state teachers of the year.
“We all express ourselves in different ways. We all participate in the freedom of speech in different ways. We just really respect everyone’s choice to talk about their students, and their crafts, and do it in ways that feel comfortable to them,” said Holstine.
They also wanted to use their national platform show their students that when they see an injustice, they have the right and ability to speak up, even if that means protesting.
“I want to model for students that they get to choose,” said Holstine. “They get to choose if something makes them comfortable or not, if they feel safe or not, and to pay attention to that. I want to show them that I will also do that for myself.”
Holstine ended the press conference, which she and Dueñas hosted instead of attending the optional self-guided White House tour, by again paying respect to the choices of their fellow educators, as well as to the office of the president.
“We’re not going to get a lot of opportunities like this in our lifetimes, to be able to speak about our kids and have folks who are really interested in our message,” said Holstine. “We did not want to let that opportunity pass by.”