At a time when it has become almost a national sport to bash teachers, second lady Jill Biden, took a different, and welcome, tact yesterday by hosting the 2010 State Teachers of the Year--and making sure that her husband, Vice President Joe Biden, showed up.
It may have looked like just another afternoon tea in the vice presidential residence, but, a number of the guests said it was a genuine measure of respect, and a sorely needed one at that.
“We’re just not used to this kind of attention,” said Leah Lechleiter-Luke, Wisconsin’s Teacher of the Year.
With state and federal officials moving to link standardized test scores to teacher pay, and as state budget woes threaten the layoffs of hundreds of thousands of teachers around the country, first Jill Biden, and then Vice President Joe Biden, spent more than an hour talking with their visitors and thanking them for their hard work and passion.
The National Teacher of the Year Program is the oldest and most prestigious national honors program that focuses public attention on excellence in teaching. The winners from the 50 states, the District of Columbia and overseas schools and districts are being treated to a trip to Washington this week. President Obama will name the National Teacher of the Year on Thursday.
The vice president yesterday made it clear how important the teachers were to his wife, explaining in detail how he moved a scheduled meeting of government officials about nuclear weapons so that he could show up. “When Jill said this morning, ‘Could you be here this afternoon?' " he started saying, but stopped as teachers began to laugh.
Jill Biden, a longtime educator who teaches at Northern Virginia Community College, was clearly in her element at the event, said to be one of her favorite of the year.
Both Bidens spent time talking to the teachers and taking pictures with them, but the vice president, in his address, broached some tough education issues.
At one point, he told teachers they had to police their own profession. At another, he said the Obama administration is trying to find funding to keep hundreds of thousands of teachers in classes next fall. Some 300,000 teachers are in classrooms today because of the administration's federal stimulus program, he said, but now new funding must be found.
“Teachers are receiving notices saying they may not be back next year,” he said.
If hundreds of thousands of teachers are laid off, class sizes will increase, and some school schedules may change; Hawaii, he said, has already gone to a four-day a week school schedule. Biden told the teachers that the administration may call on them them to persuade their congressional representatives to approve new jobs funding.
I asked a number of the award-winning teachers what they want the administration to make a top priority as it moves to rewrite the No Child Left Behind law, which ushered in an era of high-stakes standardized testing.
All of the teachers I asked said they were concerned about linking standardized tests to teacher evaluations, and they stressed the importance of helping teachers develop and work together.
“It’s go to be about training and support of teachers after they get into the classroom,” said Stephanie Day, Washington D.C.’s Teacher of the Year, from Friendship Public Charter.
“I would like to see some of the current focus on high stakes testing and consequences reduced,” said Jennifer Burdock Rankin, Maryland’s Teacher of the Year, from Northern Middle School in Garrett County.
“I would like them to remember that we are a country based on equality of education for all,” said Catherine S. Webb, Virginia’s Teacher of the Year, from Narrows Elementary/Middle School in the town of Narrows.
You can see all of the state winners at http://www.ccsso.org/projects/national_teacher_of_the_year/state_teachers/2010/13905.cfm
On Thursday, the group will go to the Rose Garden at the White House, where Obama will name the Teacher of the Year from these four finalists:
* Kelly A. Kovacic—2010 California Teacher of the Year: Kovacic is an 11th and 12th-grade social studies teacher at the Preuss School in La Jolla, Calif. She has taught a total of eight years, all at Preuss, a school of 819 students.
* Megan Marie Allen—2010 Florida Teacher of the Year: Allen is a fourth-grade teacher at Cleveland Elementary School in Tampa, Fla. She has taught for five years, the last four at Cleveland Elementary, which has 343 students.
* Sarah Brown Wessling—2010 Iowa Teacher of the Year: Wessling is a 10th through 12th grade English teacher at Johnston High School in Johnston, Iowa. She has taught at this school of 1,250 students for 10 of her 11 years in the education profession.
* Robert L. Stephenson—2010 Michigan Teacher of the Year: Stephenson is a third-grade teacher at Wardcliff Elementary School in the Okemos Public Schools of East Lansing, Mich. He has been an educator at Wardcliff, a school of 240 students, for all 15 of his years as a teacher.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan did not attend the gathering but sent regrets and several high-ranking department officials.
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