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Inside the First-Ever White House State Dinner for Teachers

Teachers in ball gowns and tuxes dined alongside first lady Jill Biden and other national leaders at the first-ever White House state dinner for teachers on Thursday.

The ritzy black-tie affair was in honor of the 2024 state teachers of the year and Missy Testerman, an English-as-a-second-language teacher in rural Tennessee who received the national award. Typically, a state dinner is a diplomatic event reserved for visiting foreign leaders, but Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told attendees that by having such an event for teachers, the Biden administration “is honoring our teachers with a level of national respect that is long overdue.”

About half of teachers say they don’t feel respected by the general public, according to a 2023 EdWeek Research Center survey. But Biden, a long-time educator, told the state teachers of the year that tonight was about celebrating their work to make a better world. Teaching, she said, is an act of hope.

“You look at your students and don’t just see who they are today. You see all the possibility of tomorrow,” she told the teachers in the room. “You help them to find that light within themselves. And that light lives on in all of you. Tonight, as I look out at the glow of all these candles, you all shine so brightly. This room represents potential—that glittering hope ahead, what we give to the next generation.”

As the guests began eating their first course, President Joe Biden made a brief surprise appearance. He had just landed on the South Lawn via Marine One after a trip to North Carolina.

“I just want to say I appreciate all you do. You’re incredible,” he told the teachers. “You are the kite strings that lift our national ambitions aloft.”

Teachers and national leaders arrived in style

Typically, presidents host a springtime White House ceremony for the national and state teachers of the year. But the extra pomp and circumstance that came with a state dinner was a special honor for the profession, teachers said.

As the teachers and other guests arrived, dressed in their finest, they posed for photos in front of a wooden display of bookshelves that contained gold-painted apples, encyclopedias and volumes containing the papers of past presidents, and irises, which are the official state flower of Tennessee, the home state of the National Teacher of the Year. Two of the vases were made from pencils.

Zachary Arenz, an elementary music teacher at Flower City School No. 54 in Rochester, N.Y., and the 2024 state teacher of the year, said he felt like it was an “incredible opportunity for teachers” to have “our voice in this house.”

More than 200 guests were in attendance, including state teachers of the year from 49 states, the District of Columbia, several U.S. territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity. This year, Florida did not participate in the national program, which is organized by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Also in attendance were the presidents of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, members of Congress (including Rep. Jahana Hayes, a Democrat from Connecticut who was the 2016 National Teacher of the Year), and various Cabinet members. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was there with his husband Chasten, a former middle school drama and humanities teacher.

“It’s a special night for teachers, and I’m so glad the first lady is hosting this,” Chasten Buttigieg said, adding that it’s a great opportunity to recognize the work teachers do.

Two of the state teachers of the year—Beau McCastlain, a television production teacher at De Queen High School in De Queen, Ark., and Mark Lowrie, a broadcast journalism teacher at Gahanna Lincoln High School in Gahanna, Ohio—spotted some familiar faces in the press pool: their students. The White House had invited two students from each high school to cover the event.

McCastlain pulled his students out from behind the press rope to take a photo with him and his wife, high-fiving them. Lowrie appeared to be wiping away tears of pride as he greeted his students and took a picture with them.

Other state teachers of the year represented their students from afar. Kylie Atlier, a 1st grade teacher at McKinley Elementary School in Baton Rouge, La., wore a white dress adorned with her students’ drawings: “I have the best designers in the world: my class,” she said.

Taniece Thompson-Smith, a 5th grade science teacher at Stafford Elementary School outside of Houston, said she knew her students were “very proud to have Texas represented here.”

“We have worked really hard, and I’m so happy to walk through these doors with all the students in my mind,” she said.

Lobster ravioli and golden apples

Inside the East Room, guests were seated at tables adorned with flowers and candles. The seats of the state teachers of the year were marked by personalized gold-painted apples serving as their place card holders.

Also at their seats were personalized thank you notes from students and colleagues at their schools. (The Oregon Teacher of the Year’s card, for instance, said, “Why we love Mrs. Vance,” with an arrow pointing to a QR code—although this reporter didn’t get to see what was inside the link.)

The attendees were served a first course of apple, walnut, and celery root salad with fennel carpaccio and lemon lavender emulsion; a main course of lobster ravioli with shaved artichoke crisps and parsley sauce; and a dessert trio of strawberries and cream, honey-poached apple mousse, and coconut custard cake with nectarines.

The first lady was seated next to Testerman at a head table with irises in the floral arrangement. Across the room, NEA President Becky Pringle sat at a table with second gentleman Douglas Emhoff.

While the guests ate, they heard music from the U.S. Army and Air Force Strings. The U.S. Army Chorus also performed.

Biden applauds the legacy teachers leave behind

Each state teacher of the year received a brass bell from Biden, a tradition the first lady started in 2021 in honor of her grandmother, who taught in a one-room schoolhouse in southern New Jersey and used to call her students to class with a big brass bell. Biden, who teaches English at a community college in northern Virginia, said she still has that bell.

“Sometimes I think about the way her legacy resonated into the world like waves of sound, changing those who heard its ring,” Biden said. “I think of every student she taught and wonder what amazing things they grew up to do.”

Each teacher in the room has had an impact on every student they teach, she said: “Never forget that student by student, the lives you change go on to change the world.”

Multiple surveys over the past few years show that teachers are experiencing a great deal of work-related challenges and stress and that overall morale is low.

Testerman said she dreams of a well-funded school that has the resources that teachers and students need—one where every child feels welcome and every teacher sees the potential in each student.

“Sadly, that dream can sometimes feel like a fantasy,” said Testerman, who teaches at Rogersville City School. “Our reality often feels heavy due to the struggles that we watch our students endure. But in real life, we not only teach our students, we wrap our arms around them, advocate for them, help them feel secure, and help them create a better future for themselves.”

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