At a long-delayed White House ceremony Monday celebrating educators around the country, President Joe Biden delivered two glass apples to the 2020 and 2021 National Teachers of the Year.
“What you do really matters. And it matters in a way that I think you all don’t fully realize,” he told the 100 teachers gathered on the South Lawn. “Don’t underestimate what you do. ... You make a gigantic difference.”
The ceremony was a moment of appreciation and levity for the profession during a time when many teachers say their jobs feel tougher than ever. Teachers are working to catch students up academically and tend to their social-emotional needs, all while trying to stay healthy as the pandemic rages on. And significant staffing shortages at schools across the country have added to teachers’ workloads.
Biden made an unannounced appearance at the event, which was hosted by first lady Jill Biden, who teaches English at a community college in Virginia. Tabatha Rosproy, the 2020 honoree who taught preschool in Kansas, and Juliana Urtubey, the 2021 winner who teaches elementary special education in Las Vegas, were recognized alongside the other state teachers of the year.
Because of the pandemic, last year was the first year since 1952 the national winner and other state teachers of the year weren’t honored at the White House. President Donald Trump made headlines in 2019 for his initial decision not to attend the White House ceremony, but he ultimately invited the teachers into the Oval Office for a surprise meeting.
The 2021 White House ceremony was also delayed from the spring. But this week, the award-winning teachers from across the country came to the nation’s capital to meet with members of Congress and celebrate their selection as state teachers of the year. (The Council of Chief State School Officers, which runs the National Teacher of the Year program, organizes the week’s activities, including the White House ceremony.)
“The only upside to last year’s canceled ceremony is that we get a two-for-one deal this year,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona as he welcomed the top teachers to the White House. The two presidents of the national teachers’ unions, the National Education Association’s Becky Pringle and the American Federation of Teachers’ Randi Weingarten, were also at the ceremony.
Rosproy, who is now an early-childhood coach, wore a dress with a cape that featured the drawings of her young students and other members of her community. The first early-childhood educator to be named National Teacher of the Year, Rosproy had taught in a public preschool that’s housed in a local retirement community and nursing home. The community members would visit her classroom as “grandparent” volunteers.
The National Teacher of the Year receives a yearlong sabbatical to advocate for an issue of their choice. In a speech, Rosproy spoke about how she spent her year as the National Teacher of the Year emphasizing the importance of early-childhood education and social-emotional learning. Teachers, she said, also need support after carrying the emotional weight of their students’ trauma during the pandemic.
(“The 2020 Teacher of the Year whose focus is on the social-emotional well-being of our students—go figure, right?” Cardona quipped.)
Then, Urtubey, who is the first Latinx teacher to win the national title since at least 2005, spoke about how educators must work to create a “joyous and just” education system that lifts all students up.
“As a special education teacher, my job is to make sure my students see themselves the way I see them, with all their possibilities and abilities to improve their school community,” she said.
At one point, Urtubey became choked up while speaking—and Jill Biden rushed over to give her a hug. The first lady applauded the state and national teachers of the year, saying they represent the “small miracles that teachers across the country perform in their classroom every single day.”
“Through uncertainty and unknowns, through a computer screen or at a distance in the classroom, teachers found new and innovative ways to connect,” she said. “You met students where they were. You worked long hours, you reworked those lesson plans—I swear—overnight. And you reimagined what a classroom could be. ... We’re still wrestling with the challenges of this pandemic, but you and teachers like you across the country found the courage and the strength to keep going.”
When the president took the stage, he called teachers the “single most consequential people in the world beyond our parents.”
But “the rest of the world is starting to figure this out,” he said. “The rest of the world is starting to out-educate us.”
For example, he said, early education is more prevalent in European countries, and the United States ranks No. 34 out of 37 among industrial nations in terms of people getting a degree beyond high school. The U.S. Department of Education is hosting an international summit on the teaching profession this week, where officials from 14 high-performing countries will come together to discuss how to strengthen education and elevate the teaching profession.
Katheryn Pourcho, the 2020 Indiana Teacher of the Year, who teaches art, wore a dress, shoes, and purse all covered in her students’ drawings to the ceremony. The back of the dress said, “If you can learn, someday you can Treasure Explore Advocate Create Help.”
In an interview after the ceremony, Pourcho said she told Jill Biden how meaningful it is for her students to know the first lady saw their artwork.
“As an elementary art teacher, I tell them that their small hands can make a big impact, and so I became a working art gallery where my clothing is the canvas,” she said.
While teachers snapped selfies on the South Lawn in the background, Pourcho said it was “surreal and magical .... to have something that was postponed for so long finally come to fruition.”