First lady Dr. Jill Biden to AFT members: ‘Thank you for being the heroes we needed’

Dr. Jill Biden and AFT President Randi Weingarten toured Payne Elementary School in Washington, D.C., on July 7, to get a firsthand look at how students and educators are benefiting from the American Rescue Plan. The first lady, an educator, had a chance to visit classrooms where teachers and students are enjoying a mix of authentic learning and summer fun. She also addressed TEACH attendees.

Dr. Biden and Randi Weingarten

As she welcomed Dr. Biden, Weingarten noted what a difference it makes to have an administration that truly respects educators’ voices as the professionals in the classroom. She also highlighted that the summer program at Payne is “the American Rescue Plan funding at work.” “We’re seeing a turning point as we have fought the virus, and now we’re turning the corner for public education, to help nurture and nourish our students and our families,” Weingarten said. Now, we “can move forward with powerful instruction, with project-based learning, with meaningful professional development—like we’re doing this week—and with social-emotional supports for students and their families.” Weingarten expressed gratitude for President Joe Biden and Dr. Biden and for the administration’s work to safely and equitably reopen all public schools for in-person learning.

Confirming the administration’s focus on safe reopening, Dr. Biden began by emphasizing the AFT’s efforts. “All the way back in April of 2020, AFT released a plan to safely reopen schools. And since then, this organization has been as bold and tenacious about fighting for our nation’s students and their families.” 

A teacher to the core, Dr. Biden was energized by the classroom atmosphere. “Here in a classroom in Washington, D.C., you can feel the optimism amid the worn books and the clean whiteboards, the sense of possibility as educators,” said Dr. Biden. “I believe that with patience and care, we can shape the next generation to help them build on everything that’s come before it to make our world better.”

Last year when questions swirled in communities across the country about when students would return, how online or hybrid learning would work, or how we would serve our students, educators didn’t falter, Dr. Biden said. “You carried families through the darkest year in modern history with patience, compassion and care. America’s students and families need champions like never before. And they found their champions in you. With all of my heart, thank you for being the heroes we needed.”

Dr. Biden at Payne Elementary

Dr. Biden said that when teachers talked about what they needed and the challenges they faced, the administration listened. “We heard you. And we made sure that the first major piece of legislation from our administration, the American Rescue Plan, addressed those needs,” she said. “We’ve provided critical funds to help you meet the academic, social and emotional needs of your students who have been affected by COVID-19.”

Beyond recovery, Dr. Biden looked ahead with hope. “We have the chance to move forward, to build on the opportunities ahead. It’s time, not just to return to schools as they were, but rather, as Randi said to you in May, for a renaissance. The Biden-Harris administration told you we were going to build back better!”

Dr. Biden said that educators and students will continue to be one of the administration’s top priorities, “not just in one legislative bill, but in everything we do, because we believe that education matters and that no one knows how to serve our students better than the people who work with them every day.”

“To some people, a classroom like this may not look like much—the fluorescent lights, the felt walls, the ordinariness of it all. They don’t know that what happens here is anything but ordinary,” said the first lady. “We know that this is what it’s all about: the connections that we build here, the communities we create. And Joe knows that too. He knows that it’s our job to take away the obstacles you face and give you the support you need, so you can do what you do best—teach, guide, inspire, create—here in your classrooms surrounded by the students who need you so much and where educators change lives and change our future.”

 [Adrienne Coles]