Why Aren’t More Teachers of the Year Leading Social Change?

A friend just sent me a link to an article about Kelly Holstine, Minnesota Teacher of the Year, who, earlier this week, knelt, a la Colin Kaepernick, during the national anthem at an NCAA Football Championship game. Holstine said (in a tweet):

Honored as State Teachers of the Year at NCAA Champ FB Game. Given platform to stand up for marginalized and oppressed people. Like many before, I respectfully kneeled during Nat’l Anthem because, “No one is free until we are all free” (MLK).

The interesting thing about my friend is that he—like me—is a former Michigan Teacher of the Year. We’ve had a number of discussions about whether the State Teacher of the Year honorific gives any recipient license to use the title as a bully pulpit.

I say yes.

But I am guessing that a large majority of those recognized teachers, over the 60-odd years that there has been an organized State and National Teacher of the Year program, would disagree. At least, most would think it appropriate keep their personal beliefs under wraps during their tenure as TOY.

Because that’s what teachers are supposed to do, right? Be modestly grateful for acknowledgment of their hard-won excellence at a chicken dinner, then keep their opinions to themselves?

Holstine and the Kentucky Teacher of the Year, Jessica Duenas, also made waves for not attending the National Teacher of the Year ceremony in the White House last April, over which Betsy DeVos presided. Holstine and Duenas were explicit in the press: they chose not to attend because of Trump’s policies toward immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized groups.

That hasn’t happened very often. No matter what their political persuasion, it’s hard for your garden variety teacher to not be a little starry-eyed at being flown to Washington D.C. or having her photo taken with the President. And, to be fair, the National Teacher of the Year program, which has long been sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers, does do some prep work with new TOYs: media training, policy workshops, and non-political opportunities for recognition (like the NCAA game).

There have been a handful of out-there State TOYs over the years. John Taylor Gatto was an iconoclast who promptly quit teaching after being named New York TOY in 1991, saying he no longer wished to ‘hurt kids’ while making a living. He wrote books excoriating public education and urging parents to homeschool. He was not, I’m sure, a popular guy in the mainstream education community of New York. I was MI TOY in 1993, and he was held up to my class as an example of What Not to Do.

Brett Bigham, Oregon TOY ’14, was a powerful spokesperson for both LGBTQ students and those with disabilities, and quickly became a compelling national figure—writing, speaking and collecting other awards for his advocacy. His district tried to control his public declarations, including identifying himself as a gay man. A protracted and ugly public fight ended with Bigham being fired, then winning a settlement over being unfairly let go. (There’s a lot more to his story. Click here.)

Bigham’s story is equal parts inspiring, infuriating– and intimidating. Most teachers instinctively realize that being named Teacher of the Year will put them on a different footing than their colleagues, and might result in being resented and ostracized while simultaneously being celebrated.

The 2018 National Teacher of the Year, Mandy Manning of Spokane, Washington, found a good balance between representing teachers in ways that her sponsors could tolerate, while not forgetting the needs of her students—refugees, immigrants and kids whose first language was not English.  She organized a ‘teach-in’ at the border in El Paso, Texas to protest child detention, after writing op-eds proved to be not enough. She was careful to say that it was not a partisan issue—both Republicans and Democrats could or should be concerned about the welfare of children brought to the border.

Manning (whom I deeply admire) pushed up against the limit of the things TOYs (who typically are under the watchful eye of someone invested in the policy-administration process) can get away with saying or doing. Whose watchful eye is managing a TOY? It varies from state to state, but program funders and State DOE officials are usually looking for a vibrant and engaging teacher whose speeches, op-eds and actions won’t ruffle feathers.

I know dozens of State TOYs, and almost without exception, they were definitely managed during their stretch as TOY, and reined in if their public statements crossed the line du jour. In 1993, that line was remarks about local control or school funding– but now, 27 years later, there are plenty of contentious issues for TOYs to write and speak about, from opting out of harmful testing to best-practice reading instruction to just why there aren’t enough teachers to go around and what to do about it.

Want to see a Teacher of the Year start a firestorm? Watch them shift the focus of their stump speech from beneficent ‘helping students’ in high-poverty schools to WHY we allow generational poverty to exist, and whose fault it is that entire communities still have poisoned water.

Twenty-six years ago, in the first year of the Clinton administration, State Teachers of the Year were invited to a National Teacher Forum in Washington, D.C. The purpose was to encourage teachers to use their titles as warrant to speak out on education issues, to not be sidelined as selfless missionaries.

We were asked: What’s the one thing you want policymakers to know?

The answer: We want a seat at the table when policy is made. We want to be partners in, not objects of, reform—because our experience and insights could help make better decisions for children.

Since then, there have been three other administrations, many glossy reports and influential whitepapers, and countless new nonprofits and Gates-funded initiatives, but we’re further away from that goal than we ever were.  What goes around, comes around.

We live in a different age than 1993, media- and technology-wise, but many Teachers of the Year are still waiting to be asked for their thoughts, and debating which advocacy organization will give them the best platform and most exposure.

Being a Teacher of the Year is both responsibility and opportunity. Build your own platform, say what you know for sure, and keep true to your own North Star.

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4 Comments

  1. I think it boils down to seeing leading social change as either a choice or a necessity. Either something outside yourself you can take or leave, or something you can’t NOT address. The way you look at it depends on the level of responsibility you feel you have.

    As a mandated reporter, is reporting a choice or a necessity? Can you imagine choosing to turn a blind eye to a student’s marks of physical abuse? Would you choose to not report a student’s confession of experiencing sexual abuse out of fear the parent might complain about you higher up, or that it might be too stressful for you? Would you choose to not report fearing your own personal burn out because you already reported two other abuse cases earlier this year? I imagine every one of us would say reporting is not a choice, it is a necessity.

    What about other forms of abuse, like generational poverty, disparate discipline, systems of white privilege, etc.? I believe we should see addressing social abuses/inequities at whatever level we can impact as a necessity for our students, instead of a choice, effectively turning a blind eye and perpetuating the easier-for-you status quo.

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    1. Very perceptive. And it’s ironic that making a person as public as a TOY might lead to even more fears around doing the right thing, or speaking up.
      If the Minnesota TOY does something public, speaking out for oppressed students, it’s newsworthy. But read Brett Bigham’s story–he used his bully pulpit forcefully, in a way that he thought a necessity, and because so many people heard about it, it cost him his job. He landed on his feet. But–the kids he was championing lost.

      You are right. Necessity not choice.

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