Teacher of the Year, Kelly D. Holstine, explains why she did not participate in the White House celebration for Teacher of the Year.
By Kelly D. Holstine
My 2019 State Teacher of the Year Cohort was recently invited to the White House to visit with the current administration: Donald Trump, Mike Pence and Betsy DeVos. After talking to my students, my wife and members of multiple communities, I chose not to participate in this event. I could not, in good conscience, implicitly support people who hate my students and who do not support my LGBTQ community.
My choice to reject a visit to the White House and stand up for historically marginalized and oppressed youth made a whole bunch of folks really mad. They expressed their rage and exhibited their prejudice through direct messages, emails, voice mails, death threats, letters and social media comments. But my action also inspired so many people to communicate their pride and support in the same ways (minus the death threats). And I find it very telling that while there were many white, Christian, heterosexual folks in my corner (including many of my current and previous students), all of the aggressive words hurled at me were from people with privilege.
Those who are trying to isolate me, shame me and coerce me into being quiet must be terrified of losing all the ways they benefit from existing systems of oppression. They are furious with me for advocating for the very people that they need to stay oppressed. And I hope that the people who are full of hatred and unresolved trauma will get the help they need so that their pain will stop coming out sideways onto other humans (i.e., “Hurt people hurt people” [Will Bowen]).
I know this is going to disappoint the folks who are trying to control me, but their attacks against my looks, my orientation, my gender presentation, my respect for immigrants and refugees, my support for people from the global majority (i.e., people of color), my personality, my Teacher of the Year worthiness, my support of LGBTQ humans, my negative impact on youth, and my status as an “American” just make me want to fight harder for those being hurt by their xenophobia. Yes, hurt. As teachers, we are in the unique position to see the impact of discrimination on the faces of our kids. And as a responsible adult and a mandated reporter, it is my duty to stand up for every single one of my students. Every. Single. One.
And their threats to physically harm me if I won’t just “shut up and teach” won’t silence me. In fact, I am even more fired up to stand up for all my students and keep teaching them that their voices matter:
I demonstrate for my students how to exercise their First Amendment rights.
I teach my students how to identify and respectfully communicate their thoughts and feelings.
I implement ground rules because the personal safety of my students matters: There can be no discrimination, prejudice or personal attacks in my classroom. Conversations are only productive when basic rules of civility are followed.
I uphold that Every Heart Matters. And, yes, this means that Donald Trump, Betsy DeVos and Mike Pence matter, too. But I teach my students that they don’t have to sacrifice their own needs in order to make other people happy. James Baldwin is right, “We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and my right to exist.”
I model for my students that everyone has the right to set physical and emotional boundaries. And as a gender-nonconforming lesbian, I have the right to not go to the homes of people who actively discriminate against my community.
I support my students to love whomever they want; be whoever they know they are supposed to be; believe in whatever gods, goddesses, prophets, spirits or religious entities that they choose; and stand up for themselves and for others. And I make sure every single one of them feels safe, cared for and seen. Regardless of their class, race, sexual orientation, religion, gender presentation, ability, etc. …
And I will continue to celebrate all of the ways that Educators Stand Up and Teach. From the quiet consistent caregivers, to the diligent union workers, to the burning stars. I see and honor every single one of you. Your words, love, actions and compassion directly battle the fear and rage directed at our students. And you remind me every day how important it is to never give up fighting for our kids. Every single student deserves to have their individual needs met. And we all benefit from equity. Our students need all of us, and we need each other in order to dismantle systems of oppression. Every Heart Matters. Every. Single. Heart. #StandUpAndTeach.
Kelly D. Holstine is Minnesota’s 2019 Teacher of the Year. She teaches English at the Tokata Learning Center, an alternative high school, in Shakopee, Minn. Holstine is a member of Education Minnesota, a joint AFT/NEA affiliate. She was joined in the White House boycott by Jessica Dueñas, 2019 Kentucky Teacher of the Year.
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