Remarks by the President Honoring the 2011 National and State Teachers of the Year

By:  Barack Obama II
Date: May 3, 2011
Location: Washington, DC

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, everybody. Thank you. Thank you, everybody. Please have a seat, please have a seat.

What a beautiful day -- a wonderful day to celebrate teachers and teaching. I am honored to welcome this group of outstanding teachers behind me to the White House. (Applause.) They are the best of the best. And even though we can never really thank teachers enough, today is a chance to offer them a small token of our appreciation for the difference they make in the lives of our children and the future of our country.

I want to start by acknowledging somebody who I think will end up being one of the greatest Secretaries of Education we've ever had, could not be more passionate about making sure that our young people get a great start in life, and that's Arne Duncan. Give him a big round of applause. (Applause.)

I am very proud that we've got some wonderful members of Congress who are here from the great state of Maryland, who I think are pretty proud of you. (Laughter.)

As I've said before, it's not just the winners of the Super Bowl who deserve to be celebrated. And that's why I also want to welcome the teams from the National Science Bowl who are here with us today. Where are they? There you are, right back there. Good to see you. (Applause.) Secretary Chu told me that you all did a great job this year. So congratulations.

And finally, I want to congratulate our state and national Teachers of the Year.

Now, I'm not sure if you can tell, but it's been a while since I was in school. (Laughter.) I haven't had to ask for a hall pass in a few years. I think it is important to note -- this is off script, but the Teacher of the Year from Hawaii -- where is she? Wave -- teaches at the first school I ever went to, Noelani School up in Manoa in Hawaii. (Applause.) So I thought that was pretty cool. (Laughter.) I went there in first grade. (Laughter.) It's a wonderful school.

But even after all this time, I still remember the special teachers that touched my life. And we all do. We remember the way they challenged us, the way they made us feel, how they pushed us, the encouragement that they gave us, the values that they taught us, the way they helped us to understand the world and analyze it and ask questions. They helped us become the people that we are today.

For me, one of those people was my fifth-grade teacher, Ms. Mabel Hefty. When I walked into Ms. Hefty's classroom for the first time, I was a new kid who had been living overseas for a few years, had a funny name nobody could pronounce. But she didn't let me withdraw into myself. She helped me believe that I had something special to say. She made me feel special. She reinforced the sense of empathy and thoughtfulness that my mother and my grandparents had tried hard to instill in me -- and that's a lesson that I still carry with me as President.

Ms. Hefty is no longer with us, but I often think about her and how much of a difference she made in my life. And everybody has got a story like that, about that teacher who made the extra effort to shape our lives in important ways.

What people I think don't realize is just how much work and how much sacrifice it takes to make that connection. My sister is a teacher, and so I've had the occasion of just watching her preparing lesson plans and then going out of her way to call that student who she thinks has potential but is slipping away, and working with parents who maybe don't know how to support their kids. And it's tiring work, but how incredibly gratifying it must be.

Because in the end, the most effective teachers are the ones who are constantly striving to get better and help their students get better. Those teachers who stay up late grading papers. The teachers who give up their afternoons and free periods to give that student a little bit of extra one-on-one help, and spend evenings and weekends developing lesson plans and activities that don't just teach the material, but make it come alive. And the teachers who see the potential in students even when the students themselves don't see that potential.

And the teacher standing next to me, Michelle Shearer, I think is an example of that kind of teacher. Michelle teaches AP chemistry at Urbana High School in Maryland. Before that, she taught chemistry and math at the Maryland School for the Deaf. That's, in fact, how I just learned she got into teaching, was initially volunteering, working with deaf students.

Michelle's specialty is taking students who are normally underrepresented in science --- minorities, women, students with disabilities, even students who say equations and formulas are just not their thing --- and helping them discover the scientist within.

At the Maryland School for the Deaf, Michelle taught AP chemistry for the first time in the school's 135-year history, explaining concepts like kinetics and electrochemistry using only her hands. When she suggested her students also sign up for AP calculus, she was met with some questioning looks. "Why?" one student asked. And she said, "Because you can," she signed back. And for the next two years, she spent her planning period teaching calculus, probability, and statistics to students who never would have had the opportunity to take those classes otherwise.

When Michelle moved to Urbana in 2006, 11 students were enrolled in AP chemistry. This year, there are 92. Some of her former students have gone on to become science and math teachers themselves, applying the techniques they learned in the classroom to make a tough subject manageable and fun. One student wrote, "…you have not only shown me how to be the best chemistry student I can be, but also the best person I can be."

I should also mention, by the way, that Michelle's husband is an AP physics teacher and her dad and mom, who are here, your dad taught --

MS. SHEARER: Chemistry. He was a chemist.

THE PRESIDENT: -- chemistry. He was a chemist. So -- and her mom was a music teacher. So she had a little bit of a jump on this whole teaching thing -- (laughter) -- and this whole science thing. But what an incredible testament when a student tells you not only you made chemistry interesting, but you made them a better person.

America will only be as strong in this century as the education that we provide our students. And at a time when our success as a nation depends on our ability to out-educate other countries, we desperately need more Michelles out there.

And that's why we've set a goal of preparing 100,000 new teachers in the field of science, technology, engineering, and math over the next decade -- fields that will give students the skills they need to compete with their peers anywhere in the world. And to help those teachers succeed, I've called on Congress to move quickly to fix No Child Left Behind in a way that makes it less punitive, more focused, more flexible. That means doing a better job of preparing teachers, doing a better job of measuring their success in the classroom, helping them improve in providing professional development, and then holding them accountable. Because if we truly believe in the importance of teachers, then we've got to help teachers become more effective.

In the words of one of my favorite poets, William Butler Yeats, "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." Teachers here today, and thousands like them, are surrounded every day by young people who will shape our future. But it takes a special person to recognize that. It takes a special person to light that fire, to raise our children's expectations for themselves, and never give up on them no matter how challenging it might be.

All of us are here because at some point somebody did that for us. And so today, we are honored to recognize these outstanding men and women and all the teachers like them who have always had --- and will continue to have --- such an important impact on our lives.

So with that, I would like to present Michelle with her apple. (Applause.)

MS. SHEARER: Thank you, Mr. President, Secretary Duncan, distinguished guests, family and friends. What a privilege to be at the White House on National Teacher Day and to stand together with all the Teachers of the Year as we represent America's dedicated educators.

I am humbled to accept this honor. And as we celebrate the success we've achieved in our classrooms, I see the faces of students -- my 90 Advanced Placement chemistry students who took their AP exam yesterday. (Laughter.) Students I taught over a decade ago who now teach with me in the public schools. Deaf and hard-of-hearing students, and students with special needs who taught me always to see abilities, not disabilities. And students, like my 5-year-old daughter, young children full of promise and potential. (Laughter.)

As teachers we advocate for students, and as Teachers of the Year we represent our colleagues. There are millions of teachers in America and we could all be pursuing different careers, but we choose to use our gifts and talents to benefit students in the classroom.

Elementary school teachers lay the foundation for a child's academic success. Middle school teachers engage students with creative instruction and teach the skills students need to become self-sufficient learners. High school teachers empower students to take ownership of their education as they prepare for college and careers.

Collectively, we teach critical thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, communication, independence, adaptability, self-confidence, and resilience -- skills and habits of mind our students need to succeed in school and in life.

Our passions include the arts, world languages, English language arts, history, social sciences, physical education, business education, career education, and STEM -- science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. And whatever grade or subject we teach, it's a challenge to meet the individual needs of diverse learners in our classrooms.

And we're proud to share in our students' achievements. My classroom bulletin boards are covered with pictures of students I've taught over the past 14 years -- students who are my daily inspiration to continue my commitment to teaching, a profession that requires a tremendous investment of personal energy and time, one that calls for love, compassion, and dedication.

But commitment to education must extend beyond the walls of the classroom. Parents' support and community involvement are essential to ensure the success of our students. Resources and technology are essential to improve the quality of our schools. Our teachers -- I'm sorry -- our students need innovative teachers and visionary leaders to move public education forward by working together.

We thank you, President Obama and Secretary Duncan, for your leadership and for your focus on education as a national priority. We look forward to working with you to promote the success of our students and what's best for our schools.

My students will tell you that I love to give pep talks, and Friday was their last one before their AP chemistry exam. And among other things, I said, you are problem-solvers. No matter how challenging the questions, have confidence, forge ahead, and make progress toward solutions.

Likewise in education, no matter how challenging the issues, we must be problem-solvers. And as we continue to debate ideas, allocate resources, and implement change, we must make progress in a positive direction and always -- always -- see the faces of our students. Thank you. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: I think you can see why Michelle is Teacher of the Year. I think I'm going to send her up to Congress to give them a pep talk. (Laughter.)

Thank you, everybody. This ends the ceremony, but again, we are so grateful to Michelle, but we are also grateful to all the Teachers of the Year. Give them one more big round of applause.

Thank you. God bless you. God bless the United States of America. (Applause.)