Everyone is here today for a reason. A teacher who pushed you to dream you could make a difference. A child who inspired you to make the world work a little better for her. A time when you realized no one else was going to do the hard work of changing things if you didn’t answer the call.
We all have a moment when our story began—or a person who set us on this path.
Mine is my grandmother. She taught at an old-fashioned, one-room schoolhouse, crammed with three grades of students. Some days, she would take me with her, and when I was lucky, I got to ring the brass bell that called her students to class.
She was a good teacher. She loved it. And her students could tell. She didn’t just teach letters and arithmetic, she opened up new worlds. When she read to us—from “Charlotte’s Web,” or my favorite, “Mary Poppins” —she was spellbinding. And every child who passed through the walls of her little classroom became enchanted. Including me.
I wanted to do that. I wanted to help kids see their world in a different way. I wanted to help them find their own voices through writing. I thought if I could do what she did — if I could set just one student on a better path — that would be really special.
Someone inspired you, too. Someone helped you find your path. And I know that they would be proud to know how far you’ve come.
The National and State Teachers of the Year Program is the most prestigious teacher recognition program in our country. So many teachers were submitted for consideration. And in a crowd of some of the most innovative, talented, compassionate, effective teachers in our country, you stood out. Just look at who is here today.
Juliana and Tabatha—you are innovators and inspirations. In fact, all of you represent the best of our profession. And yet, you also represent the small miracles that teachers across the country perform in their classrooms every day.
Seeing the boy who feels like he’s fading away and helping him express himself through music or art. Helping the girl who thinks she’s not smart enough find the intelligence that’s always been there. Holding the mom’s hand when you tell her that, despite her fears and stress, she’s doing a great job. Understanding that sometimes “I’m fine” means that everything is wrong.
Through uncertainty and unknowns, through a computer screen or at a distance in the classroom, teachers found new, innovative ways to connect. You met students where they were. You worked long hours, reworked lesson plans, and reimagined what a classroom could be. It was difficult. And we’re still wrestling with the challenges of this pandemic. But you and teachers just like you across the country have found the courage and strength to keep going.
With all of my heart, and on behalf of millions of families: Thank you for being the heroes that we needed.
We don’t do this job because it’s easy. We don’t do it because it brings us fame and fortune—that’s for sure!
We do it because it’s more than a job; it’s a calling. It’s a part of who we are. And what I want to say to you today is this: Never, ever, underestimate the power of what you do every day.
When my grandmother died, she didn’t leave behind a giant estate. But what I inherited from her—what I still have to this day—is the simple brass school bell that she used to let me ring.
And when I think about that bell, I think about the way her legacy—her love of learning, her patience and compassion—resonated into the world like waves of sound, changing those who heard its ring.
I think of every student she taught, and wonder what amazing things they grew up to do. Perhaps they are public servants working to make our communities a little stronger, a little fairer. Perhaps they are doctors saving lives, or architects building our cities, or scientists working to solve global challenges. And of course, there’s at least one teacher.
We’re all here today because someone, sometime taught us…inspired us…showed us who we could be.
And today, you ring your own bell—pulling each person you teach into a harmony that never ends.
Right now, someone out there is a better thinker because of you. Someone is standing a little taller because you helped her find the confidence she needed. Someone is working a little harder because you pushed him to try. Someone is kinder because you showed her what that meant. Someone is braver because you helped him find his courage.
Never stop ringing that bell. Never forget that the lives you change go on to change the world.
Student by student, you—teachers everywhere—are performing miracles every day.