Jill Biden Hosts Gala, With Teachers as the Honored Dignitaries

The hallmarks of a state dinner were there: lavish floral displays festooning the White House, the first lady arriving in a floor-length sequined gown, and members of Congress and cabinet secretaries mingling with attendees. But the honored guest was not the president of France or the prime minister of Japan.

It was Missy Testerman of Rogersville City School in rural Tennessee.

Jill Biden, the first lady, kicked off a new format for delivering the National Teacher of the Year award on Thursday by hosting this year’s winner, Ms. Testerman, and dozens of other teachers from across the country at the White House with a ceremony emulating the pomp normally reserved for foreign dignitaries.

Dr. Biden, who has kept her day job as an English professor while serving as first lady and has worked to support community colleges from the White House, spoke in support of teachers’ unions in her opening remarks and stressed the need of helping educators after the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Tonight we celebrate you because teaching isn’t just a job, it’s a calling,” Dr. Biden said, adding, “To answer this call of service is in itself an act of hope.”

Ms. Testerman, an English as a second language teacher who had worked as a first and second grade teacher for 30 years, also spoke, discussing the importance of her profession.

“As an English as a second language teacher, my students are all either immigrants to our country, or first-generation Americans having been born to immigrant parents,” Ms. Testerman said. “Hearing the experiences of my students and their families reminds me daily what a privilege it is to be an American and what a privilege it is to attend a public school in this country.”

The Council of Chief State School Officers, which oversees the award program, has honored finalists and a winner at the White House nearly every year since 1952, according to the council’s website. Dr. Biden has presided over the award ceremony every year of President Biden’s term. (Mr. Biden, who was returning from a trip to North Carolina, dropped in briefly, reflecting on his days teaching law classes and telling the teachers, “You are the kite strings that lift our national ambitions aloft.”)

The evolution of the ceremony this year came complete with floral arrangements incorporating irises — the Tennessee state flower — and classroom-themed décor. The guests dined on a menu including lobster ravioli and honey-poached apple mousse, and were entertained by the U.S. Army Chorus with the Army and Air Force Strings.

Miguel A. Cardona, the secretary of education, told attendees that the event was meant to bestow “our teachers with a level of national respect that is long overdue.”

In all, 57 teachers, including past winners of the award, attended on Thursday, according to a guest list released by the White House. Apart from the honor, selected teachers are also invited into a yearlong professional development program.

Before the event, the White House announced new measures aimed at encouraging higher pay for teachers and highlighted changes to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, a centerpiece of Mr. Biden’s effort to slash student debt, which allows public servants such as teachers to have their federal student loan debt forgiven after 10 years.

Dr. Biden, a teacher for over 30 years and a member of the National Education Association, has often waded into education policy, particularly during the transition back to in-person learning as the Covid crisis waned. She also led a push to make community colleges tuition free, though legislation she helped draft did not survive in Congress.

Mr. Biden renewed the call for free community college as a policy priority in his budget for next fiscal year, but the proposal has little chance of becoming law with Republicans in control of the House.

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