Two 'Teacher of the Year' recipients skipped the White House ceremony: 'Speak up if you don’t agree with something'

Elise Solé
"Teacher of the Year" recipients Kelly Holstine of Minnesota and Jessica Dueñas of Kentucky skipped the 2019 ceremony to protest the Trump administration. (Screenshot: Facebook/Speak Up For Education and Kids)

Two educators honored as “Teacher of the Year” in their respective states skipped the annual White House award ceremony for their marginalized students.

Jessica Dueñas, Kentucky’s 2019 Teacher of the Year and Kelly Holstine, Minnesota’s 2018 Teacher of the Year were not among five dozen of their esteemed peers at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building for the Monday tradition led by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Vice-President Mike Pence. Teachers who attended also stood for a photo with President Trump, who made a surprise showing.

Education secretary Betsy DeVos oversaw the April 29th Teacher of the Year awards at the White House. Two teachers skipped the event on principal. (Photo: Getty Images)

Skipping was the right decision, says Holstine, who first deliberated with her students, administration, and Emma, her wife of two-and-a-half years. The English teacher at Tokata Learning Center, an alternative high school in Shakopee, is the first openly-gay teacher to receive the award. “As a gender nonconforming lesbian, the policies of the Trump administration have been hateful and I see the painful impact in my students,” Holstine, 45, of St. Paul, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

In particular, Holstine mentions the U.S. Department of Education’s recent revocation of Title IX rights that allow students to use bathrooms that serve their gender expression. “I know transgender students at other school who purposefully don’t eat or drink all day long to avoid using the ‘wrong’ bathroom,” says Holstine.

Dueñas, a first-generation Latina, won for her work at Oldham County Middle School in La Grange, where she worked in special education for four years. She now teaches at W.E.B. DuBois Academy in Louisville, an all-boys middle school whose demographic is 90 percent African American.

“The day after the 2016 election, my former undocumented students came to school crying, worried they would be deported,” Dueñas, 34, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “We also had non-Latino students who chanted, ‘Build the wall.’”

Dueñas’s current students, many from inner city areas, are more fearful of white supremacy. “They know the systemic issues as young black men,” Dueñas tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

Dueñas explained on Tuesday in a press conference with Holstine that her mother moved from Costa Rica to the United States where she once lived as an undocumented citizen. “This administration’s treatment of the Latino community has really broken my heart, 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 classroom,” she said.

“Right now, we are currently under attack in terms of losing public school funding and privatization of our schools,” Dueña said in the conference. “Also, teachers are under attack in terms of their pensions being diminished and changed.” Recently, opposition to pension reform, Kentucky teachers partook in mass sick-outs which forced six school districts to temporarily close, according to NBC News.

Wisconsin Teacher of the Year Sarahi Monterrey went to the White House. “My dad said, ‘I want you to go and I want him to know you were proud to be born in El Salvador,’” the El Salvadorian immigrant who teaches English at Waukesha North High School, told the Star-Tribune. “So I’m in there yesterday and [Trump] gets to me and I said, ‘I’m originally from El Salvador and I’m proud to represent Wisconsin.’ You could tell from his face that he knew what I meant. And he said, ‘Oh, I was just there,’ because he was just in Green Bay for a rally.”

In 2018, President Donald Trump gave the National Teacher of the Year award to Washington educator Mandy Manning. She accepted wearing pins for transgender and LGBTQ rights. (Photo: Getty Images)

Holstine and Dueñas know their colleagues don’t all approve of their boycott. “Some were very excited — we live in a diverse county and our teachers reflect that,” Dueñas tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Other people were unsure but they still went. I heard it was fun to see the Oval Office.”

However, they stood for their students. “My kids sent me a bunch of hand-clap emojis,” Holstine tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I represent those who face targeted harassment and discrimination — particularly one Somalian Muslim student who wears a hijab. People yell at her on the street that she’s a terrorist. But she’s the nicest person and gives the best hugs.”

Dueñas tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “Many parents thanked me for not going. My students are still processing the world, so I’m showing them to speak up if you don’t agree with something.”

Last year, reported Politico, President Trump handed the National Teacher of the Year award to Mandy Manning of Washington, who teaches refugee children. To accept, Manning wore pins to represent transgender and LGBTQ rights and the Women’s March. She also gave Trump letters written by her immigrant students.

This year, Rodney Robinson, a social studies teacher at Virgie Binford Education Center in Richmond, Virginia, was named 2019 National Teacher of the Year, according to a press release from the Council of Chief State School Officers, which organizes the event. Robinson has taught for two decades, currently at a juvenile detention center.

“My kids are in survival mode 24/7. And so a lot of times, when they come into the detention center, they're struggling to understand it all...” he told NPR.

Robinson undermined the current administration in a 2018 Ted Talk. "Today, in the face of a government that assaults minorities, that denies the rights of gays, lesbians and transgendered people; a government that separates asylum seeking families and locks their children in cages, it's not the adults who must stand up to these inhumane acts," he said. "It's the children who must lead the way. So rise up, young people, what you do best."

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