Education Secretary Betsy DeVos loves to tell the story about a former teacher named “Jed.”
Here’s how it goes. Jed, a once-passionate public school teacher, was told to “keep it down” at school because his class was having too much fun learning. He left the profession, DeVos likes to suggest, because he didn’t have enough autonomy to teach as he wished. If only there were fewer federal mandates and more flexibility, DeVos often says before pushing for more school choice.
Politicians and public figures often trot out anecdotes about everyday people whose experiences illuminate a larger issue. But DeVos has referenced “Jed” quite regularly. She has used the Jed anecdote in three speeches since 2017, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal and when testifying before Congress. She most recently spoke of him on Monday in a speech she gave to the American School Boards Association.
But who is Jed? The real-life Jed, HuffPost discovered, is actually mortified by the attention.
“I hate knowing she is using my words to further push her agenda, which is the antithesis of me,” said Jed Dearybury, who was a finalist for South Carolina Teacher of the Year in 2014. “Honestly, it makes me mad as hell. It makes me want to fight harder.”
Dearybury met with DeVos, along with nine other former teachers, in July of 2017. DeVos wanted to chat with educators who had recently left the classroom to learn more about their experiences and why they switched jobs.
In truth, Dearybury, who spent over 13 years teaching at public elementary schools in South Carolina, didn’t leave the classroom over frustration with his district or state or federal mandates. He changed jobs so he could advocate for teachers on a larger scale, without fear of overstepping.
He now works for the Palmetto State Teachers Association as the director of professional development and communications. The organization “is as close as you’re going to get to a union in South Carolina,” said Dearybury. After publication he told HuffPost in another interview that while South Carolina is legally prohibited from having unions, PSTA “is a professional association that represents and unifies teachers across the state” in the absence of one.
“I love all these teachers striking across America. I wish every teacher in America would walk out on the same day,” said Dearybury, who left the classroom around three years ago. In the later interview with HuffPost, he clarified that “while we don’t want strikes, sometimes they do get people’s attention.”
He had no idea his words were going to be used in public speeches and congressional testimony. He was under the impression it was a casual, off-the-record conversation.
The anecdote he provided in the meeting, about being told to “keep it down,” was told as an example of how even sometimes fellow teachers have overly rigid views of pedagogy. Indeed, it was another teacher ― not a school administrator ― who had reprimanded him. Two other meeting attendees have confirmed this version of events to HuffPost.
Dearybury worries that leaders of his former district, which he loved, will hear one of DeVos’ speeches and interpret it as him criticizing them. He is also concerned his words will be interpreted as an endorsement of DeVos’ agenda.
A spokesperson for DeVos did not respond to a request for comment.
Secretary DeVos has referenced Jed when speaking before highly polarizing groups, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council.
“The frustration they expressed, I think, is indicative of a system that for too long has tried to control everything from above and has not respected and honored the needs of the individual students,” DeVos said of the teachers she met with, including Jed, when speaking before Congress in May.
Meanwhile, Dearybury says he is concerned about the treatment of LGBTQ students under the Trump administration and the unequal distribution of funds between schools in rich and poor areas.
“I want equal opportunities for all students. In this administration, when they say equal opportunity, they think you mean you want rich kids to go to private school and get a tax credit,” he said.
This story has been updated to include additional comments from Dearybury about PSTA.