(Update: New details from participants)
It’s a time-honored tradition: U.S. presidents, every year, take some time to meet the 2017 state Teachers of the Year and single out the national winner. But things went a little differently Wednesday when President Trump welcomed this year’s winners to the White House.
Usually, the National Teacher of the Year speaks. This year, that didn’t happen. Usually, the president spends some time talking with the teachers, giving many of them individual attention. That barely happened Wednesday, according to several participants who agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity because they said they fear Trump addressing them on Twitter or press secretary Sean Spicer bringing them up at a daily briefing. Usually family members join the winners to meet the president. This time few were allowed — and relatives of the teachers, some who had traveled at their own expense for many hours to attend, were left to wait in a building near the White House, with, as one said, “no water in the hot rooms.”
Rather than a ceremony in the East Room or the Rose Garden, as past presidents have done, Trump invited the teachers into the Oval Office, where he asked them all to gather around him, standing, while he sat at his desk. In the crowd were first lady Melania Trump, Vice President Pence, second lady Karen Pence and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. It was the first lady’s birthday, and the teachers sang “Happy Birthday” to her.
At one point, one of the state winners, Abdul Wright from Minnesota, asked Trump whether the group could sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often called the “Black National Anthem.” Trump, according to the Star Tribune, agreed, and thanked Wright for leading the song. Wright was quoted by the newspaper as saying:
“Yesterday superseded politics. Yesterday was about values, yesterday was about the human experience, yesterday was about the human heart. And I think we got caught up in that.”
The White House did not respond to a query about the event.
In the Oval Office, with the teachers and others standing around him, Trump spoke about the teachers and engaged with a few of them (see video above), and briefly singled out the 2017 National Teacher of the Year, Sydney Chaffee, from Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester, Mass. A ninth-grade teacher, she is the first national winner from a charter school in the program’s 65-year history, and the first from Massachusetts. While the other teachers applauded, she accepted a trophy from Trump, who remained seated during the presentation.
Chaffee was not invited to offer remarks.
According to a pool report from White House reporters, Trump said to Chaffee: “That is really something special,” and he thanked the teachers for singing to his wife. He also said, continuing to remain seated, “You’re all great, great teachers,” and “Each of you has dedicated yourself to inspiring young lives and putting our children on a path to happiness and success.”
One teacher began to cry near the end of the event, and she said to Trump, “Sorry, I’m always crying.” He responded: “I’ve had some of the biggest executives in the world, who have been here many times, and I say have you been to the Oval Office? No. They walk into the Oval Office and they start crying. I say, ‘I promise I won’t say to your various stockholders [that they cried].’ ”
Meanwhile, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next door to the White House, were family members of the teachers, most of whom were not allowed into the ceremony, participants said. Chaffee’s husband and young daughter were kept waiting in a hallway before being allowed to enter the Oval Office, according to participants. A state school superintendent had flown to Washington to support the winner of his state, but he wasn’t allowed in either. DeVos met with the family members, some of whom were upset, for pictures, according to several participants.
A parent of one of the teachers said in an email:
“There was no planning, no care, no water in the hot rooms, and no respect for the families…. One state coordinator who had been working on her job since 1999 said it was a disgrace and the most terrible thing she had witnessed.”
The event was obviously different from those put on in recent years by other presidents.
Last year, President Barack Obama hosted a ceremony for the 2016 Teacher of the Year, Jahana Hayes from Waterbury, Conn., in the historic East Room of the White House. Pop-music artist Nate Ruess sang some songs; Hayes stood at the podium with Obama and was tasked with introducing him to the crowd; the president then gave a speech praising the teachers and calling for more federal funding for public education.
Obama then listened to Hayes, a veteran high school history teacher at a high-poverty school, give a speech. She described how her experience as a teen mom who grew up in the projects surrounded by poverty, drugs and violence fueled her passion for teaching.
Obama had significant ceremonies for the Teachers of the Years during his tenure, and Vice President Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, sometimes hosted the teachers in their residence before the White House event.
President George W. Bush spent time with the winning teachers too. In 2004, for example, he hosted the Teachers of the Year at a seated ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, where first lady Laura Bush spoke first and then the president gave a speech, noting:
Every President since Harry Truman has presented this award — Teacher of the Year Award. And there’s a good reason for that. When you’re in the company of some of the nation’s finest citizens, our greatest teachers, you’re in the company of people who give their hearts and their careers to improving the lives of children. You’re in the company of the best of our country.
Bush recognized Teacher of the Year Kathy Mellor from Rhode Island, who then spoke while the two Bushes and the rest of the crowd listened.
This year, Trump angered many teachers by proposing a 14 percent budget cut to the Education Department. Many also are skeptical of his education secretary, DeVos, a longtime advocate of private school vouchers. During his inaugural address in January, Trump characterized public education as a “system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge.” This system, he said, was part of an “American carnage” that he pledged to stop.