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Jill Biden and nation's top educators discuss teaching during COVID pandemic: "We should just be fighting the virus, not one another"

First lady on challenges teachers face today
First lady Jill Biden on challenges teachers face today 08:52

This fall, thousands of teachers across the United States returned to the classrooms after instructing students virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic

Among those teachers was Jill Biden who is an instructor at Northern Virginia Community College. The first lady hosted the 2020 and 2021 teachers of the year awards at the White House on Monday, which honored the nation's top teachers, including Juliana Urtubey, Tabatha Rosproy, John Arthur and Chris Dier. 

Arthur told "CBS Mornings" co-host Gayle King that right now is a scary time to be a teacher. "It's not only dangerous in terms of our health. It's a little bit precarious due to the political situation we find ourselves in, where you have folks showing up at school board meetings very upset," said Arthur. "And as a teacher and as a parent myself and as just a member of my community, I feel all these mixed emotions because I see folks who are upset. I just want to embrace them and say, 'We're all in this together.'"

The COVID-19 pandemic devastated school districts across the country — including Chalmette High School where Dier teaches. 

"My school was hit particularly hard. I teach in New Orleans and the Delta variant there really ravaged the city. In many ways, it did show just how much a community can come together and persevere. We did see that transition into the classroom as well," Dier said. "We saw a lot of students do everything that they can during the pandemic to stay afloat." 

The pandemic showed a divide within the country on many COVID-19 topics. Several states have issued mask mandate bans, which some school districts have challenged in court.  

Urtubey told King that teachers create communities within the classrooms and "with that, comes collective wellness." 

"I'm a better student if the person next to me is learning and is having their needs fulfilled and they know how to advocate for their needs," she said.  

"And I remember when one little boy told me, 'Yeah, I wear my mask to keep my friends safe,'" Urtubey said. She said that kids "get it" and feel "proud" to do their part. 

"I think that we underestimate the importance of acknowledging people doing their part," said Urtubey. 

Arthur said for him, it's about empathizing without compromising. "As long as we can humanize our conversations and our dialogues as much as possible, make sure that we're bringing them back to reminding everyone this is a human issue and we're just trying to take care of people," he said. "We're trying to teach your kids, trying to give them a brighter future, while also protecting them today. I haven't had a parent yet who didn't understand that." 

"Yeah, we should just be fighting the virus, not one another, right?" Biden said.  

Rosproy said that the pandemic has made teachers' jobs political. "The conditions of our workplace are directly affected by decisions that happen near the White House. And so I think that teachers get really frustrated when new things pop up. But I always say to them, 'We can handle this because we've always been handling it,'" she said. 

Biden said that the president understands what teachers go through because of what he's seen her go through. She said she knew her husband would be a "great education president." 

"I think I go home every single day and tell him about my students, about teachers, about what we're facing in our classrooms and the thing I love about Joe is he listens. He has listened. And look at the American Rescue Plan. And look at all the money he gave to schools and for social development and mental health, things that are really important to teachers," the first lady said. 

The teachers said some of their frustrations include inadequate access to proper equipment, supplies, mental health and other services. 

Arthur described to King how he often feels "teachers guilt."

"That feeling like I'm not doing enough," Arthur said. "We are carrying all of the pre-pandemic weight on our shoulders, and then all of this new stuff. And, you know, in a lot of ways, we're stronger. We can bear more weight than we could before." 

Biden said she was frustrated that she could not be in the classroom to see her students in person during the pandemic, adding it would be helpful to have "broadband across America so that all students have access to technology." 

Despite the struggles and frustrations, all the teachers, including the first lady, said that they love their jobs. 

"I love teaching because I'm able to give students confidence. If I can give them the confidence to believe in themselves, then you know, I hopefully have given them a gift," Biden said.  

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