Minnesota's 2019 and 2020 Teachers of the Year, Jess Davis and Qorsho Hassan, were honored in a White House ceremony Monday. Credit: Courtesy Jess Davis and Qorsho Hassan

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Qorsho Hassan’s second graders at Echo Park Elementary, in Burnsville, had a message for the President of the United States.

They want to know when COVID-19 will end. They want him to work hard to stop racism. And they want to know when vaccines will be available for children.

So Qorsho, Minnesota’s 2020 Teacher of the Year and the first Somali American to win the prestigious honor, wrote their message in pink marker on butcher paper. The children signed their names. And Qorsho carried it with her to the White House.

“I am coming to D.C. with the goal to amplify my students’ voices and their worries and their anxieties, but also their hopes and dreams,” she said.

Every year since the 1960s, the White House has hosted a presidential ceremony to honor Teachers of the Year from across the country, said Doug Dooher, the Minnesota Teacher of the Year coordinator for Education Minnesota. That tradition, like so many others, was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020. But after a year-and-a-half hiatus, Dr. Jill Biden invited two groups of top teachers from every state, territory, and the Department of Defense to the White House. Monday’s event marked the culmination of a long-delayed promise—and a welcome recognition for teachers in a turbulent time for education. 

Qorsho and Jess Davis, the 2019 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, who works as a racial equity instructional coach in St. Louis Park, arrived in the nation’s capital Saturday for a week of professional development and celebration. (If the schedule returns to normal, Minnesota’s 2021 teacher of the year, Natalia Benjamin, will attend a White House ceremony in the spring.)

Qorsho spent the weekend visiting a former Burnsville student who now attends Howard University. On Sunday night, she hardly slept. Some of her students had been absent last week, and though she had taken a COVID test before she left, she worried she might test positive in the morning. And the weight of bringing her students’ stories to the White House made her feel anxious. 

The White House holds particular symbolic meaning for immigrant groups and communities of color, she said.

“For my family, it means success and it means bridging gaps and getting to a place where your voice is heard and acknowledged and appreciated and valued,” she said. “It’s navigating a space that wasn’t designed for me to navigate, as a woman of color, as a Black Muslim woman, as a Somali person.” Nonetheless, Qorsho said, “It’s where I’m supposed to be.”

In the morning, her rapid COVID test came back negative. But the program coordinators had told them not to expect the president, which Qorsho found “really disheartening.” She had a message to deliver. “I was looking forward to meeting the president and sharing words and really making sure that he got that letter from my students,” she said.

‘I wonder what’s going to happen’ 

Davis, who had heard stories from previous teachers of the year about meeting the president, was skeptical about his supposed absence from the ceremony. While waiting for her COVID test result to come back, she looked up his official public schedule. “He conspicuously had nothing listed at 2:30,” she said. “So we were like, Hmm, I wonder what’s going to happen.”

They headed to the White House at noon, and followed an airport-like security process to enter the East Wing. They’d been warned not to bring anything with them, but Qorsho carried the letter from her students.

As she traveled to D.C., Qorsho reflected on how enslaved people built the White House. Waiting to go through security, she noticed some young African American men dancing nearby. “It was just really beautiful to see that Black culture in a space where, sadly, white supremacy is still the foundation,” she said.

The teachers were escorted through the East Wing and out to the South Lawn, to see the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden and the Rose Garden. Dr. Biden took photos with the teachers. The United States Marine Band oompahed under a large tree, and a hundred teachers took their seats.

Miguel Cardona, the Secretary of Education, opened the ceremony.

“Your contributions to our children’s success, and our nation’s future can’t be overstated,” Cardona told the teachers. “You are our country’s greatest child advocates.”

Cardona introduced the last two National Teachers of the Year—Tabitha Rosproy, a preschool teacher from Kansas; and Juliana Urtubey, a special education teacher from Nevada—as well as Dr. Biden.

Urtubey, the first Latina teacher to become the National Teacher of the Year, spoke through tears as she addressed her colleagues.

“I am in awe because each teacher here proudly represents their states and their communities,” she said. “We embody the hope and the advocacy needed in our times to forge a new path forward towards an education that ensures all can thrive.”

‘You reimagined what a classroom could be’ 

Jill Biden, a community college educator, told the crowd she’d been looking forward to hosting them.

“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,” she said. “Through uncertainty and unknowns, through a computer screen or at a distance in the classroom, teachers found new and innovative ways to connect. You met students where they were. You worked long hours.” 

She joked that she could see their heads nodding at that point. “Yes, you worked long hours. You reworked those lesson plans, I swear, overnight, and you reimagined what a classroom could be. It was difficult, wasn’t it? And we’re still wrestling with the challenges of this pandemic. But you and teachers like you across this country have found the courage and strength to keep going. With all of my heart, and on behalf of millions of American families, thank you for being the heroes we needed. I’m going to clap for you,” she concluded, starting a round of applause from behind the White House lectern.

“There’s one more person that I want you to speak to today, and that person should be coming out momentarily,” she said. “Is he late?” she joked.

Behind her, the White House doors opened. Flanked by a military escort, President Joe Biden emerged onto the red carpet as the U.S. Marine Band played “Hail to the Chief.” He took off his mask and jogged toward the ceremony to cheers and applause.

“It was like an SNL skit,” Davis said. “He had the aviator glasses on, navy blue suit, he’s all gangly and he runs up to the stage.”

President Biden goes off script

“There is nowhere we’d rather be than with educators,” the president told the country’s top teachers. “The single most consequential people in the world, beyond our parents, God willing, if we have them, is our teachers. You are the kite strings, and lift our national ambitions aloft.”

When he was 28, he was trying to recruit a candidate to run for Senate in Delaware, he told them. At a state convention, a group of powerful Delaware politicians approached him—while he was shaving and clad in a towel in a hotel room—and told him he should run. Young Biden was not convinced. He asked one of his college professors for advice. The professor told him to run.

“​​He had enough confidence in me that he gave me confidence in myself,” Biden said. As a kid who grew up stuttering and with no money, he didn’t see himself as a politician, he said. Without that professor’s faith in him, Biden said, he wouldn’t have run for office.

It was an intimate, off-script story, Davis said. She could see the first lady gesturing to him to hurry it along, which she found cute.

Qorsho appreciated his candid manner. “It felt like we were in his living room,” she said. “We just really appreciated being seen as valuable guests, and then also the respect that he is not only showing the teachers that were present, but the teaching force.” 

Teachers need that validation now, she said: Morale is low. “All of the struggles and tribulations that educators are facing right now kind of seem impossible,” she said. “So that little hope of the president not only acknowledging the State Teachers of the Year, but all educators, is really meaningful.”

Asking the president for a selfie

After the ceremony, Qorsho thanked Urtubey, the National Teacher of the Year, for her speech. The president happened to be nearby; Qorsho managed a selfie. Then, she had a few minutes to speak with him. “I got a chance to have a really gracious conversation with him,” she said. “It lasted for like two minutes, but it was something.”

She told him she felt delighted he had come to address the teachers and speak so candidly. “Getting a chance to say that and share my gratitude was really important,” she said. 

Both Qorsho and Davis would have liked more time to have deeper discussions with the president and first lady about racial equity and critical race theory, they said. But the meet-and-greet nature of the event made that impractical. So they each expressed their gratitude—Qorsho to the president, and Davis to the first lady.

But Qorsho handed off the letter to the first lady’s security detail, who promised to give it to the president. “I’m hoping the letter requires him to really think deeply about what not only teachers need, but really our kids and our kids of color need in schools,” she said.

Qorsho and Davis will spend the rest of the week in the nation’s capital with their colleagues from across the country. Their professional development activities will include a private visit to the Smithsonian and a lobbying visit with their Congressional representatives.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.