Two award-winning teachers boycotted a White House ceremony Monday held to honor educators, an act of protest the teachers said was prompted by President Trump’s policies on immigration, education and other issues.
Jessica Dueñas, the 2019 Kentucky State Teacher of the Year, and Kelly D. Holstine, the 2019 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, did not attend the ceremony, where Education Secretary Betsy DeVos presented an award to the National Teacher of the Year. The winner is Virginia’s Rodney Robinson.
Presidents usually give the award to winners, but this year, DeVos did. Trump did, however, invite Robinson and the other state winners into the Oval Office after the ceremony, where the educators also met with Vice President Pence.
Last year, Trump gave the 2018 national winner the award at a White House ceremony, where Mandy Manning of Washington state made clear her opposition to the president’s policies. She handed the president letters from her refugee and immigrant students, and wore pins and buttons with political messages, including one in support of the LGBTQ community.
On Tuesday, Dueñas and Holstine explained why they decided to boycott the 2019 event, saying they felt they could not attend in good faith. (See video below.)
“My frustrations with the current administration are the messages and actions and policies and words that are shared about the population of students that I work with,” said Holstine, who teaches immigrant children.
“It impacts and it hurts them, and it hurts them both in their hearts and in the world because they then have to deal with the fallout of all of that discrimination,” she said. “I cannot implicitly support people who hate my kids and who talk about them in the ways they talk about them.”
She also said she opposed other Trump policies, including those regarding LGBTQ people.
Dueñas said she opposed the administration’s immigration policies and attitudes about the Latino community, and rejected its support of the privatization of public education. Her mother, she said, was once an undocumented immigrant. Dueñas is a first-generation American.
“This administration’s treatment of the Latino community has really broken my heart, and the way in which families have been separated at the border and there are students at the border right now who should be in our classrooms,” she said.
She also said that in her state, teacher pensions are being diminished, and teachers are being threatened for exercising First Amendment rights to protest.
Dueñas — a teacher in Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville — said DeVos recently traveled to Kentucky for talks with the Republican governor and held a roundtable discussion, but no public educators were invited to participate. She also said students wanted to attend and report on the event but were barred.
“So there was no way that in good faith that I could go to the ceremony at the White House, whether it was Donald Trump or Betsy DeVos or anyone else in this administration, because I felt it would be turning my back on the state of Kentucky, turning my back on my students and ultimately turning my back on my background and my family,” she said.
Dueñas said she and Holstine explained to the other winners why they would not attend and were supported in their decision.
Robinson was selected in the annual Teacher of the Year program, which is sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers. Every year, winners are selected from each state, the District of Columbia, all U.S. territories and the Department of Defense Education Activity, which operates schools. They come to the nation’s capital in the spring for the annual Teachers of the Year week, where the national winner is named.
Robinson has been teaching for nearly 20 years. In 2015, he began working at the Virgie Binford Education Center, a school inside the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center. Now, he teaches social studies to young people incarcerated there.