There are 77 Christmas trees in the White House. And hanging on some of the branches are the self-portraits of more than 400 students—and a few of their teachers.
The office of first lady Jill Biden—herself a teacher at a community college in northern Virginia—asked the state teachers of the year to have their students draw a self-portrait that would then be turned into an ornament and hung on Christmas trees in the White House. About half of the state teachers of the year participated, and on Sunday, 22 of them gathered in the White House to see their students’ artwork in person.
Having their artwork on display “means being a part of something that in some ways will last forever,” said Willie Carver, the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year. “When you talk about the White House Christmas, you’re talking about a tradition that goes back so long, and it’s going to keep going with us. ... It’s an opportunity for [students] to be lifted up, which has been my platform—an opportunity for them to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”
The theme of this year’s holiday decorations at the White House is “We the People.” The displays feature a tree that includes each state’s official bird, dozens of recipe cards to recognize holiday traditions, a room devoted to the National Parks, assortments of bells, and cardinals to signify the presence of lost loved ones.
“The values that unite us can be found all around you: a belief in possibility and optimism and unity,” Biden said late last month when she unveiled this year’s holiday decorations. “In the State Dining Room, we honor the promise of the next generation and see the holidays through the eyes of the children.”
The state teachers of the year weren’t able to be at the White House during the official unveiling—most were in the classroom that Monday. But on Sunday, the teachers, who hailed from as far away as South Korea and Hawaii to just around the corner in the District of Columbia, finally got to see the decorations in person and take photos to bring back to their students.
“Now that we get to go back and show them pictures of their ornaments on the tree, that’s going to be special,” said Dominique Foster, the 2022 D.C. Teacher of the Year, who teaches pre-K at Blow Pierce Elementary, a charter school. “Their parents will [be excited], too. That means something.”
The ornaments reflect the diversity of the nation’s schools
The students chose how to draw themselves. Some included pets or symbols of their hobbies. One student drew himself in a hammock, reading a book. Some drew themselves as who they want to be when they grow up: One student drew himself as an astronaut.
“We talked about representation in the White House. ... What do you want people to know about American students—who you are, where you’re going, how you identify?” said Lisa Garcia, the Rhode Island 2022 Teacher of the Year. “It’s so cool to see their work on the trees. I’m so proud of them—just seeing them as they see themselves, and how they hope to see themselves as they grow and mature and learn more.”
The diversity of the nation’s schools was reflected, too.
“To have representation across the ethnicities is really powerful,” said Whitney Aragaki, the 2022 Hawaii Teacher of the Year. One of her students with a self-portrait on the Christmas trees is Filipino, and another is Samoan. “Those are two ethnicities that don’t really get represented in the greater scheme of the United States,” she said.
Deanne Moyle-Hicks, the 2022 Nevada Teacher of the Year, teaches 5th grade at Natchez Elementary School on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation. (She loops with her students and has been with them since 1st grade.)
Fifteen of her students submitted self-portraits, as did Moyle-Hicks and her instructional assistant. Several of them included Native imagery and details of life on the reservation.
“It’s who they are—the representation of who they are, and what their culture and what their diversity means to them,” Moyle-Hicks said. “We did a lot of pre-work, too, to talk about [how] this is an opportunity for you to represent not only who you are as an individual, but where you come from, what is your diversity, what does your culture do, and what does that mean, in an effort to help other people understand who you are.”
The self-portraits were a confidence-booster for many
Garcia, who teaches math at North Kingstown High School in North Kingstown, R.I., noted that the self-portraits were an entirely optional activity for students.
“This isn’t an activity we were graded on,” she said. “They did this because they wanted to, and they felt it was important to them.”
After all, having artwork displayed at the White House is an opportunity few people get, said Theresa Maughan, the 2021-22 New Jersey Teacher of the Year. She added that the exhibit boosted the confidence of her students at the East Orange STEM Academy.
“Especially this child,” she said, pointing to a self-portrait of Samara, one of her high school seniors. “She’s very quiet, she’s very reserved, and I think it just is a way for her to gain more self-confidence and believe in herself and her ability in what she can produce.”
Carver, the Kentucky teacher of the year, resigned from teaching earlier this year, citing discrimination he’s faced for being openly gay. He told EdWeek in May that he was afraid to return to the classroom given the anti-LGBTQ legislation introduced across the country.
It has been a difficult year, he said, but seeing his former students’ self-portraits displayed alongside others from across the country felt like a symbol of unity and togetherness. And seeing his own self-portrait in the room was “a reminder that ‘teacher’ is a very big word that transcends the classroom,” Carver said.
“We’re at a complicated time in our culture’s history,” he said. “If we all thought of ourselves as teachers, all thought of ourselves as people who need to learn, then we could probably feel the warmth that we’re all feeling right now every day.”