WASHINGTON — When Karen Lauritzen was named the 2023 Idaho Teacher of the Year last September, she was hoping it would be her best school year yet. Instead, she said, it turned out to be one of the worst in her two decades teaching — and, she decided by the summer, her last.
Despite her selection by a Republican administration after a rigorous application process, her nomination was met with attacks on her character from conservative outlets in the state, accusing her of “promoting transgenderism” and being a “left-wing activist,” smears that carried into her fourth-grade classroom in the form of sudden suspicions about her from parents in her school.
Lauritzen, 44, is still the reigning teacher of the year, but she is no longer teaching elementary school or even living in Idaho. Instead she is taking her talents to a university in Illinois, a long-considered career move hastened by the experience.
“I should have felt celebrated and should have felt like this is a great year, and honestly it was one of the toughest years I have ever had teaching, not only with my community but with parents questioning every decision I made as well,” Lauritzen said. “Even after 21 years of teaching, my professional judgment was called into question more this year than it ever has in the past.”
What Lauritzen experienced isn’t an isolated incident. As the culture wars have come for public education in the United States, the Teacher of the Year contest has become yet another battlefield.
The contest was launched by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 as a way to honor the profession. All 50 states, the District of Columbia, and several territories now participate, selecting a top educator to represent them in the national competition, which is run by the Council of Chief State School Officers. Winners are customarily fêted by the president at the White House.
Each state or territory has its own selection process, but most use a similar format requiring nominations, a series of essay questions, in-person interviews, and classroom videos or visits. Most of the contests are run by the state governments, though four are administered by outside groups. Winners typically spend their year as a spokesperson and role model for educators in their state, sometimes paid by the state to spend the year focused on development outside of their classroom.
But some states have begun to tweak the program, leaving observers to question whether they are injecting politics into the process. In Arkansas, for example, teachers are prompted to praise the new governor’s controversial education law; in some blue states including Massachusetts, antiracism is an explicit criteria of the program.
“It’s a wild time to teach,” said Chris Dier, the 2020 Louisiana Teacher of the Year and a national finalist, who himself has received social media death threats. “People just signed up to teach. Now all of a sudden I’m engaged in some existential battle.”
Teachers have described their horror at being targeted by right-wing personalities quick to publicize and vilify teachers who profess pro-LGBTQ+ or pro-inclusive views on social media. And under the banner of “parents’ rights,” conservatives encourage parents to demand teachers disclose and justify their lessons and materials, leaving them feeling their every move is watched and questioned.
The day after she was announced as Idaho Teacher of the Year, Lauritzen was accused by conservative outlets in her state of being a “left-wing activist” because she had expressed support for the LGBTQ+ community and Black Lives Matter on her personal social media accounts. Though the outlets offered no evidence linking her personal views to her classroom instruction, parents in her rural western Idaho community began emailing and confronting her with questions. Some accused her of teaching fourth-graders inappropriate content, even though no discussion of sexuality was in her curriculum and was already prohibited by her school district. Her own global interests often inspired her teaching, but Lauritzen said she faced complaints from parents about a lesson on some worldwide cultures who eat insects, and even objections to students learning about the United Nations.
“When it’s, ‘My kid can’t do this because it’s propaganda,’ and ‘My kid can’t do that because we don’t believe in United Nations,’ it’s like, what? It’s not Santa Claus, what do you mean you don’t believe in it?” Lauritzen said. “Even if I have certain beliefs myself, that does not mean that I teach kids. It’s not my job to ‘indoctrinate’ or make kids little versions of myself. It’s to make kids into the best versions of themselves.”
For Willie Carver, 39, winning Kentucky Teacher of the Year was a joyful surprise, a rare moment when he felt acknowledged as an out gay educator in the rural South. He said he applied after a student joked, “Yeah, they’re really going to let a big gay Appalachian be Teacher of the Year.” At first Carver laughed, he said, but then thought he didn’t want students like her believing society would shun them as well for being gay, and wanted to prove her wrong.
But, like Lauritzen, he too would not last the duration of his tenure.
The comments online questioning his selection and his identity began not long after his appointment in September 2021. Then attacks grew more pointed.
By spring 2022, Carver said, social media posts and speakers at school board meetings were targeting his work as an adviser to “Open Light,” a student-led positivity club that was an LGBTQ+-affirming space. One particular parent repeatedly posted about the group, calling it a “grooming ground,” naming and attacking its founding students, and suggesting Carver had nefarious motives for sponsoring the group.
Feeling little support from his eastern Kentucky school district, Carver thought about toughing it out, he said. But he began to feel his presence was harmful, with former students being brought into it. He wondered what example he was really setting.
“It was affecting me emotionally so much because of having to fight and how tiring that was and the depression that comes with being abused, and as much as I wanted them to see a queer teacher . . . I didn’t want them to assume they would have to be depressed and broken as well,” Carver said.
He resigned his job teaching high school English and French that summer and is now a university academic adviser.
Most states model their application questions on the prompts used by the group that runs the national contest, the Council of Chief State School Officers, with an open-ended question about what message an applicant would communicate as Teacher of the Year. But in a few states, that’s begun to change.
In Arkansas, Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ first major act as newly inaugurated governor was to push through a major education overhaul. The wide-ranging bill instituted a voucher system for private education, banned teaching concepts such as “critical race theory” and gender identity or sexual orientation for younger kids, and raised teacher starting salaries.
After the bill passed this spring, the state Department of Education altered two essay questions on the Teacher of the Year application, asking teachers to describe how the law has had a “positive impact . . . for Arkansas students,” and how as the state’s education spokesperson, they will speak for the law.
The move prompted outcry from local educators and advocates who said Sanders was injecting politics into an apolitical process. The Arkansas department did not respond to a Globe request for comment, but told local media that it was reasonable to ask the Teacher of the Year to speak to the law as “an ambassador for education.”
In California, applicants are asked to describe how their teaching “contribute(s) toward the work of California’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction’s (SSPI) Initiatives.” Those initiatives include a range of areas such as community engagement, mental health support, closing the digital divide, as well as antibias education. A spokesperson for the department defended the question as “provide(ing) a place for educators to highlight the work they’ve done for their students” and said it is not weighed more than other essay answers.
Georgia has taken a different tack and recently updated its application with instructions that the 2024 Teacher of the Year “must refrain from voicing political views on any platform.”
Many blue states, meanwhile, have fully embraced the concepts red states are trying to ban. For example, in Massachusetts, one of the criteria for the Teacher of the Year is that the candidate “centers equity and anti-racism in their practice,” an expansion from 2022′s version committing to “racial equity,” which was added in 2021 after the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020.
Connecticut Representative Jahana Hayes, a Democrat and former Teacher of the Year in her state, criticized the Arkansas move in particular and the politicization more broadly, saying it could deter excellent candidates.
“It’s completely inappropriate: Nothing about the Teacher of the Year program or the work that teachers do should be political,” Hayes said. “I worry that it will make people who are nominated for or would be amazing teacher-leaders say they don’t even want to participate in the process because it feels so uncomfortable and antithetical to what teachers actually do.”
The Council of Chief State School Officers, which runs the contest, declined to comment.
Despite the negative experiences, Carver and other teachers of the year have also found the program gives them a platform for advocacy.
During his tenure, Carver joined a group of 13 former Kentucky teachers of the year to speak out against new antitrans laws in the state that banned gender-affirming care for youths and prohibited schools from mandating teachers use students’ preferred pronouns.
Five former teachers of the year, including Dier of Louisiana, are currently fellows with the National Network of State Teachers of the Year’s “Voices for Honest Education” program. The group is spending the year advocating for the teaching of “truth in classrooms” as well as inclusion in education. They see their awards as an opportunity to push back against policies they believe are harmful to teachers and students, according to three members who spoke with the Globe.
Dier himself has experienced the attacks and threats on his outspoken pro-inclusion social media profile. In one case, Dier tweeted after an anti-LGBTQ+ shooting at a nightclub in Colorado Springs in 2022 that such violence is why teachers shouldn’t avoid LGBTQ+ issues in classrooms; an account replied he should be “slayed like these ppl today.”
In an interview, he and the other fellows argued that the majority of parents and teachers get along well, but that some politicians and a few loud voices on the right are manufacturing opposition between the groups. That, they say, has created a culture of fear, even among current teachers of the year.
“Speaking out can not just get you fired, but also death threats, which we’ve all received,” Dier said. “So I think the polarization at the local level has definitely impacted the Teacher of the Year program.”
Support from the teacher’s local school — or the lack of it — can make a huge difference. Renee Jones found out she was Nebraska’s 2023 Teacher of the Year at 8:15 in the morning, when the state commissioner of education surprised her with the news at the high school in Lincoln where she teaches English and college skills. By the time she got home 13 hours later, a member of the state board of education had unearthed a post on her personal Facebook page and began criticizing her online.
The board member, Kirk Penner, had homed in on a post in which she said she attended a drag queen story hour at an education conference and intended to buy some inclusive children’s books, which she later specified were for her own children. He continued to criticize her over the post over the next few months. The community in Lincoln rallied around her and eventually she pushed back, accusing Penner of a campaign of bullying for something she did on her own time and money, garnering the support of other members of the board.
“I had people who said, ‘If you be quiet, he’ll be quiet,’ ” Jones said. “I thought about the actual trans kids that are sitting in my classroom and their actual parents, and it becomes personal because they’re your kids, and I thought, I have to help protect these kids.”
The experience has emboldened Jones to more forcefully advocate for teachers, she said, and she is hoping to build a mentorship program for educators in her district as well as try to get policy makers to visit classrooms.
Still, all the teachers of the year interviewed were worried about the ongoing effects of the political wars on students and educators, who are already struggling. Jones described meeting with prospective educators as part of her year of service, and they asked her if the attacks against her were part of the job and questioned whether it’s the right fit for them.
Lauritzen hopes that in her new role teaching prospective teachers, she can prepare them to advocate for themselves. She feels the political climate is making teachers feel that their expertise and professional training are not taken seriously.
“I think that’s a big part of why teachers are leaving — they don’t feel valued,” Lauritzen said. “And if you can’t pay them well, they at least need to feel that you value their judgment, they’re doing good things, and [they] have children’s best interest at heart. And when you take all that away — what’s left?”