Updated at 12:34 p.m. Tuesday
Minnesota's "Teacher of the Year," Kelly Holstine of Shakopee, is in Washington, D.C., but boycotted a White House ceremony Monday honoring the nation's top teachers to protest the president's policies and rhetoric, which she said harms her students.
The Minnesota and Kentucky teacher of the year, Jessica Dueñas, held a press conference Tuesday in D.C. to discuss their decision to skip the White House ceremony and chance to meet the president in the Oval Office.
Holstine and Dueñas said they decided to skip the White House ceremony to show their opposition to Trump administration policies that have harmed their immigrant, refugee and LGBTQ students.
The president wasn't expected to attend the White House ceremony honoring teachers after the Council of Chief State School Officers, which administers the Teacher of the Year program, said last week that the president would not be there, according to Education Week. But President Trump did end up meeting with the teachers, along with Vice President Mike Pence and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Holstine is an English teacher at Shakopee’s Tokata Learning Center, an alternative high school she described as a place for students of varying abilities and temperments who sometimes arrive angry, sad, hurt or scared but reveal their "authentic, vulnerable, brilliant, beautiful selves" when they feel safe and valued.
Holstine said this diverse group of students at Tokata — many of whom are or are related to undocumented immigrants or are Somali refugees — face discrimination daily and the Trump administration's immigration policies and rhetoric impacts and hurts them.
“And so for me, this is for my kids (students),” she said. “I cannot even implicitly support people who hate my kids.”
She said it’s her First Amendment right – as an out, gender-non-conforming lesbian who’s been spit on, stared at and suffered a traumatic brain injury for it – to speak out about why she chose not to go to the White House. She is the first Minnesota Teacher of the Year to be an out LGBTQ person, she said.
“I’m not going to go into someone’s home when they hate me for who I am,” she said. “I want to model for students that they get to choose if something makes them uncomfortable.”
Holstine talked about her students – one who is a Somali Muslim who wears a hijab, gives the best hugs and is “sweet, sassy and smart.”
"She sticks up for anyone who is being mistreated," Holstine said. "The degree of Islamophobia, racism, and prejudice she faces on a daily basis could very easily make her hate the world. But she doesn’t. She is full of love, and joy, and passion. And she inspires me every day."
Another Mexican-American student's father was deported for a crime he didn't commit while the student was watching cartoons on a Saturday morning, at age 8.
"The impact of that moment has and will affect him for the rest of his life," Holstine said.
Another student was born female, but “knows she’s a male” and still uses the she/her pronouns because she knows the discrimination she would face in her family and the world.
"So she feels consistently depressed and lonely because she does not get to be her true self. And it is impossible to get into your learning brain when you don’t feel that your needs matter," Holstine said.
Lesbian-gay-bisexual youth are five times as likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youth, according to a 2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, and a 2019 CDC study found nearly 35 percent of trans students they surveyed had attempted suicide in the previous year, Holstine said.
"It is not enough to tell our kids that 'it gets better' — we need to show them that it will be better now," Holstine said.
She also talked about Minnesota’s equity gap, which is among the worst in the nation and is a contributor to one of the nation’s lowest graduation rates for students of color.
For all those reasons, Holstine did not choose to meet the president or visit the Oval Office.
“My goal is to heal trauma, and never ever be the source of it,” she said.
Holstine said she respects the White House and the position of president, and Trump and Pence “matter as human beings,” but “I decide… where my boundaries are.”
It was not an easy decision, Holstine said. She had a lot of sleepless nights thinking about it, but talked to her wife and students about it, and they were very supportive of her decision and appreciated that she saw them and what they go through. She said she also had the support of her school, school district and teachers union, Education Minnesota.
Dueñas teaches in Louisville and is Latina, and her mother was once an undocumented immigrant.
Holstine and Dueñas still participated in other activities for the honored teachers that began Sunday night and wrap up Thursday — except for a self-guided White House tour Tuesday morning, which they also chose not to attend.
The press conference was held at the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest teachers union in the nation.
Since being awarded the top teaching honor for Minnesota, Holstine has also spoken out against the government holding immigrant children in detention centers. She was part of a "teach-in" in February in Texas to educate people about immigration, asylum, and issues often encountered by people trying to enter the country.