Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by First Lady Jill Biden at the University of Tennessee
Thank you, Melisa. And congratulations on becoming Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year. I can see it’s an honor well-earned.
Mayor Kincannon, Dr. Schwinn—thank you for welcoming Secretary Cardona and me here today.
Hello University of Tennessee! I am so excited to be with you today. Where are our teaching students?!
I’ve always loved the start of a new school year. There’s a moment right before my new class files in, when I smell the scent of freshly waxed floors drifting in the air. I feel the fading glow of summer, still warm on my skin, and I hear a hum of possibility in that fragile quiet—just waiting to be pierced by the chatter and laughter of new students bursting through the door.
In that moment, the year seems to stretch out in front of me. I know that I’m about to meet students whose lives I hope to change—and who will change me in their own way. I know that we are going to grow and discover and learn together. And I feel as lucky as I did the day I signed my first teaching contract. I think many of you know that feeling too.
Because whether you’re just beginning your journey or you’re a seasoned educator, we’re all here for the same reason: We heard a calling—and we answered it.
We answered it because we are learners—never satisfied, always curious about our universe and the people in it.
We are sculptors—able to see the beauty hidden beneath the surface and help bring it out of hiding.
We are explorers—collecting all of the wisdom, and art, and insight that humanity has to offer.
And we are optimists—believing that when we give those things to the next generation, they will make our world a better place.
Teaching isn’t just what we do; it’s who we are. But for all of us who have answered this calling, there is someone who didn’t. Or someone who felt they had to walk away.
Why? It’s not because they don’t want to teach. It’s because so many obstacles have stood in their way: Student loans and low salaries. Class sizes and safety concerns.
If we want to add more bright, talented people into this field—if we want educators to be able to do what they do best—we have to give them the support they deserve.
We’ve all heard of the so-called three “R’s” of learning—reading, writing, and arithmetic. Well, now it’s time for the three R’s of teaching—some of you may have heard of them: Recruit, respect, and retain.
That’s what your President, Joe Biden, is doing. He’s worked hard to lift up educators:
• By opening schools and getting teachers vaccinated
• Making sure districts could hire more counselors and school psychologists
• Calling on states to boost teacher pay
• And cancelling billions in student debt.
In fact, here’s your homework, if you haven’t yet taken advantage of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, you should! You have until October 31 to apply with the waiver that allows more people to qualify. Don’t be like our students and put it off until the last minute!
And everything Joe has done is just the beginning. Because, like Secretary Cardona said, we’re continuing to invest in innovative ideas like the apprenticeship program you have here in Tennessee.
Joe was always going to be an Education President. I mean, he has to be because he comes home to me every night! But it’s also because he cares so deeply about this.
He will never stop working to recruit more people into this profession to support mentoring educators— and restore the dignity and respect that we deserve— and to give us the resources we need to keep doing this incredible job for years and years to come.
And educators like us—we have a role to play, too. We are the best recruiters out there.
We have to use that “teacher voice” we know makes people listen—and let the world know what this work means to us, how we change lives every day.
We have to say: To the student who knows deep inside you that you have a gift. To the artist or engineer who wants to spread the joy of creating something out of nothing. To that person who is ready for a change—longing for more purpose and light in your day to day:
You have a calling, too. Answer it. Become a teacher. And when you do, you’ll find a vocation that brings you joy and meaning.
You’ll know that someone out there is a better thinker because of you.
That someone is sitting a little taller because you gave him confidence.
Someone is working a little harder because you pushed her to try.
Someone is braver because you helped him find his courage.
And you’ll know this too: that your President and his Administration are working every day to make sure you have the support, respect, and pay you deserve.
Join us. Become a teacher. And we will change the world together, one student at a time.