WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden honored the nation’s best teachers Monday, saying they go above and beyond by providing food and supplies out of their own pockets and often find themselves “explaining the unexplainable, from banned books to duck-and-cover drills.”
“Teaching should not be a life-threatening profession,” Biden said, referencing deadly school shootings that plague the United States. “And educators should not need to be armed to feel safe in the classroom.”
He spoke at a Rose Garden event that honored the Council of Chief State School Officers’ 2023 teachers of the year from each state. Tulsa, Oklahoma, math teacher Rebecka Peterson was named overall teacher of the year.
Biden spoke of the challenges of the modern-day teacher, including gun violence and a growing movement from the right to ban books in classrooms, particularly those that reference gender and sexual identity. Attempted book bans hit an all-time high in 2022.
“I never thought, as a student of history, I’d be a president that’s fighting against elected officials banning books,” he said. “Empty shelves don’t help kids learn very much.” He said parents and teachers should stand up against ”politicians who try to score political points by banning books.”
Bills facilitating the restriction of books have been proposed or passed in Arizona, Iowa, Texas, Missouri and Oklahoma, among other states. In Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis has approved laws to review reading materials and limit classroom discussion of gender identity and race, books pulled indefinitely or temporarily include John Green’s “Looking for Alaska,” Colleen Hoover’s “Hopeless,” Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Grace Lin’s picture story “Dim Sum for Everyone!”
Peterson, the teacher of the year, spoke of how she works to lift up her students and how she hopes the profession can bring people together. At Tulsa’s Union High School, she runs the blog “One Good Thing,” where she posts something good from her classroom every day, hoping to inspire her students to reflect on joy.
“In the end, maybe we’re all — all of us — just walking each other home,” she said in a speech that referenced her Swedish and Iranian heritage. She became a U.S. citizen when she was 20 and said her immigrant view helps her see the beauty in the nation.
“I teach because it gives me life to offer the American Dream to the next generation,” she said.