‘Heroes we needed’: Jill Biden congratulates 2020, 2021 Teachers of the Year at White House

Dr. Jill Biden hosted the 2020 and 2021 State and National Teachers of the Year at the White House on Monday in a months-long delayed event to celebrate their talents and commitment to education. 

The first lady, who is a teacher herself and resumed in-person instruction last month at Northern Virginia Community College, welcomed all the winners of the Council of Chief State School Officers’ National Teacher of the Year program — considered to be the most prestigious teacher recognition program in the country. 

"So why are you here? I don’t mean here on the south lawn, I mean why are you here? You’re here because you are among the finest group of educators in our country. What I mean is, what started you on the path that led you here? Why did you choose to be a teacher? Why have you dedicated your life to teaching? Everyone here today is here for a reason. Maybe it was a teacher who pushed you to dream that you could make a difference. A child who inspired you to make the world work a little better for her. A time that, when you realize, that no one was going to do the hard work of changing things if you didn’t answer the call. We all have our moment when our story began or a person who set us on this path," the first lady said. 

Dr. Biden went on to talk about how her grandmother, who was also a teacher, inspired her to get into education. 

"She taught in an old-fashioned, one-room schoolhouse crammed with three grades of students. And some days, when I was a little girl, she would take me with her. And if I was lucky, I got to ring the brass bell, literally, that called her students to class. And she was a great teacher. She loved it and her students could tell. She didn’t just teach letters and arithmetic, she, like you, opened up new worlds. When she read to us from ‘Charlotte’s Web’ or my favorite, ‘Mary Poppins,’ she was spellbinding. And every child who walked through the walls of her classroom became enchanted, including me. I wanted to do that. I wanted to help kids see their world in a different way. I wanted to help them find their own voice through writing. I thought, if I could do what she did, if I could set just one student on a better path, that would be really special," Biden continued. 

"All of you represent the best of our profession. And yet, you also represent the small miracles that teachers across this country perform in their classrooms every single day," Biden added. 

The first lady went on to commend teachers who went above and beyond for their students amid the COVID-19 pandemic and created innovative ways to connect and educate their students. 

"With all of my heart and on behalf of millions of American families, thank you for being the heroes we needed," she said. "Never, ever underestimate the power of what you do every day." 

State Teachers of the Year are announced from all 50 states, and one teacher is selected to be National Teacher of the Year. 

Juliana Urtubey, received the 2021 honor, who works as a special education teacher for elementary students in Las Vegas. She is a first-generation, bilingual immigrant, who "loved school," according to the CCSSO

Urtubey, who has been an educator for 11 years, individualized lessons to match her students’ academic, emotional and behavioral needs. That can put her everywhere in a school, from spending hours with struggling pre-K students to helping a fifth-grader with science class and strategizing with teachers on how to work with their special-needs students.

She is also known as "Ms. Earth" for her efforts to beautify the school grounds, having helped to raise funds for garden programs at two Las Vegas schools.

The 2020 winner was Tabatha Rosproy, a preschool teacher in Kansas who established an early childhood program inside a retirement community and nursing home. Rosproy was awarded the honor for her work in bridging the worlds of her community’s oldest and youngest.

One year into the partnership, the program boasted the highest preschool literacy and math scores in the district. Rosproy also said her students were "well connected and well-loved" and the residents engaged as they snuggled with children while reading stories to them. 

"Many of them don’t live near their own grandchildren or don’t have grandchildren," Rosproy said last year. "They felt so fortunate to be near the joy and livelihood of children."

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Becoming Teacher of the Year means taking on a year-long advocacy role, speaking at events across the country to "share wisdom, advocate for students, elevate issues teachers face, and inspire others to join the profession," the CCSSO states on its website.

The winner of the National Teachers of the Year award is usually recognized by the president at a White House ceremony each spring, but the events were postponed for both the 2020 and 2021 years due to the pandemic. 

As a teacher herself, the first lady has a special connection to the program. Biden, now 70, started teaching English at a Roman Catholic high school in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1976, a year after she met and began dating then-U.S. Sen. Biden. She later taught at a psychiatric hospital and at Delaware Technical Community College.


FILE - First lady Jill Biden speaks with a student as she visits the Christa McAuliffe School in Concord, New Hampshire, on March 17, 2021. ( (Photo by SUSAN WALSH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

She earned two master’s degrees and a doctorate in educational leadership during those years.

After Joe Biden became vice president in 2009, she joined the faculty at Northern Virginia Community College. She continued to teach at the college after he left office and throughout his 2020 presidential campaign, including virtually after the pandemic hit.

Her virtual teaching continued as the first lady, from her office in the White House East Wing or hotel rooms when she traveled to promote administration policies. In early September, she resumed teaching in person on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

She is the first first lady to leave the White House to log hours at a full-time job.

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This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.