Jill Biden Says Her Grandmother, Who Taught in One-Room Schoolhouse, Inspired Her to Teach

"She opened up new worlds," the first lady said at a White House ceremony to honor the National Teachers of the Year

Jill Biden
Photo: Susan Walsh/AP/Shutterstock

First Lady Jill Biden told her fellow educators about the spark of inspiration that ignited her passion for teaching.

"We all have a moment when our story began — or a person who set us on this path," Dr. Biden said Monday at the White House during a speech for the 2020 and 2021 State and National Teacher of the Year Ceremony. "Mine is my grandmother."

In addition to her duties as first lady, Dr. Biden is a professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College but her interest in standing at the front of a classroom began as a girl observing her grandmother.

"She taught at an old-fashioned, one-room schoolhouse, crammed with three grades of students," Biden, 70, said. "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."

About 100 teachers were honored at the White House event on Monday, including the 2021 National Teacher of the Year Juliana Urtubey, who teaches at Kermit R. Booker, Sr. Innovative Elementary School in Nevada, and 2020 National Teacher of the Year Tabatha Rosproy, who teaches at Winfield Early Learning Center in Kansas.

"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," Biden said, before telling those receiving honors about her grandmother.

"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," Biden recalled.

Spending time in her grandmother's classroom, Biden said she wanted to follow in her footsteps. "I wanted to help kids see their world in a different way," she said. "I wanted to help them find their own voices through writing."

Biden said she still has the bell her grandmother rang to call students to their lessons. "When my grandmother died, she didn't leave behind a giant estate," she said. "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."

Though teachers may not always know how their hard work and dedication affects the students in their classrooms, the first lady assured teachers they are making a difference in the lives of the kids who may grow up to influence others or make the world a better place.

"I think of every student [my grandmother] 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," she said. "And of course, there's at least one teacher."

"Someone inspired you, too. Someone helped you find your path," Dr. Biden added. "And I know that they would be proud to know how far you've come."

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