At a White House ceremony celebrating the top teachers in the country, President Joe Biden spoke for nearly a half hour about the difference teachers have made in his life, and the lives of others, before reiterating his commitment to teacher-friendly federal policies.
“We should stand up for you. We should have your back,” he told the state teachers of the year gathered in the East Room of the White House. “Teaching is one of the hardest jobs in this country to be able to do it well and one of the most important.”
But these days, teachers are at the center of divisive political and cultural debates, as some politicians and influential media figures criticize—and seek to restrict—the way race, racism, and gender and sexuality are taught in K-12 schools. Biden decried the “book burning and banning books” that’s happening across the country, saying, “We’ve got to stop making [teachers] the target of the culture wars.”
At the ceremony, Biden and first lady Jill Biden applauded the work of Kurt Russell, a high school history teacher from Ohio who was named the National Teacher of the Year. Russell plans to use his platform to advocate for teacher diversity and culturally responsive teaching.
In his remarks, Russell spoke of the importance of an inclusive curriculum that represents all students. His own classes—including one he created called Race, Gender, and Oppression—focus on women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and Black history.
“It’s important that my students see themselves as I see them—with unlimited potential and full of gifts,” he said.
The award-winning teachers from across the country are spending the week in the nation’s capital to meet with policymakers and elected officials. 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.
Before the ceremony, Sarah Painter, the Florida teacher of the year, said she was looking forward to a celebration of teaching after a grueling few years. The pandemic has taken a toll on the profession, with one national survey showing teacher job satisfaction reaching what appears to be an all-time low. Teachers say they’re exhausted and stretched thin, with increasing demands on their time and attention.
“I’m just grateful for any time the spotlight is on teachers and the things we’re doing right,” Painter said. She added: “We are doing things right—there are good things coming out of this, and there will be good things going forward from it as well.”
Welcomed back to the White House
The springtime ceremony was a return to form for the annual teacher recognition. Because of the pandemic, 2020 was the first year since 1952 that the national winner and other teachers weren’t honored at the White House. The 2021 ceremony was also delayed, but in October, the president and the first lady honored both the 2020 and the 2021 National Teachers of the Year on the South Lawn.
This year’s ceremony came a week before the official Teacher Appreciation Week—but U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona told the gathered educators that he wanted to make this “teacher appreciation year.” He spoke of the Biden administration’s goals for education, which include teacher pay raises and more pipeline programs to recruit diverse candidates into the profession.
“We must also lift teacher voice as we reimagine education in this country,” Cardona said, as teachers cheered and called out, “Thank you!”
National surveys show that nearly half of teachers are considering leaving the profession earlier than they had planned, in part because of the stresses of the pandemic and what they feel is societal disrespect.
But in her remarks, Jill Biden, who teaches English at a community college in Virginia, urged people to go into teaching to make a difference.
“We need more teachers,” she said, emphasizing each word. “I can’t promise that it will be an easy job—right? But I can promise that it will fill your life with meaning and purpose and joy.”
The first lady got choked up as she said: “Never forget that student by student, the lives you change go on to change the world.”
In his speech, Biden touted his administration’s fiscal 2023 budget proposal, which features a spending increase that would more than double funding for the Title I program, which sends money to school districts to serve high-need students.
The budget proposal also includes an additional $3 billion in Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act funding; $350 million to improve school staff recruitment and retention; $1 billion to double the number of school counselors, psychologists, and social workers; and $438 million in new funding for community schools with wraparound services for students.
Words of appreciation
Amy Carter, the South Carolina teacher of the year, said before the ceremony that she planned to thank Biden for listening to teachers—including the first lady.
“It’s incredibly fortunate that we have a teacher in the White House,” she said. “I’m sure that that has been part of his own consciousness with decisions and priorities and things like that.”
Carter, who teaches English/language arts at Chapin High School near Columbia, was also hoping to give the president a little gold star, versions of which she has been handing out to teachers across her state.
The stars, she said, are a way to remind people about the “gold-star” moments teachers have with students—moments of connection and relationship-building that lay the foundation for teaching and learning.
“We have to keep connecting with students before we teach them anything,” she said.
Those relationships matter, Biden said in his speech: “I look back on my life and beyond my family ... the people who made a difference in my life in a fundamental way were teachers.”