(WASHINGTON) — It was a toast to teaching at the White House Thursday night as more than 50 of the nation’s top educators gathered for the first-ever Teachers of the Year State Dinner.

“How can we be the most powerful country in the world without having the best education system in the world?” President Joe Biden — who made a surprise appearance — said, drawing applause during the dinner event honoring America’s Teacher of the Year. In prior years, the teacher would be awarded a golden apple at a less formal White House ceremony.

Biden spoke to a packed room filled with dozens of educators and their families. Union leaders, lawmakers and cabinet secretaries also attended.

“You all are the reason why we — we have hope about the future,” Biden said during his brief remarks.

National Teacher of the Year for 2024, Missy Testerman, was honored by the president, first lady Jill Biden and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

Under the National Teacher of the Year program, run by the Council of Chief State School Officers, one teacher is chosen to be the National Teacher of the Year annually from the State Teachers of the Year pool, according to the council’s website.

“Teachers are the ultimate facilitators of justice, fairness, equity and democracy,” Testerman said in her speech.

“No profession in American history is as pivotal as ours,” she continued. “We make democracy possible both by educating the generation in front of us, but we also make all professions — every single one of them — possible.”

Testerman, a veteran English as a Second Language teacher serving students from all over the world, stood with pride and joy for public education.

“Hearing the experiences of my students and their families reminds me daily what a privilege it is to be an American and what a privilege it is to attend a public school in this country,” Testerman said.

The Tennessee teacher is part of the 2024 State Teachers of the Year, comprised of 55 educators from Alaska to the American Samoa. After paying tribute to her fellow teachers in the room, Testerman highlighted her greatest joy: her family.

“While most people in Rogersville, Tennessee, know me as Mrs. Testerman from RCS, my greatest title will always be being David’s wife and Andrew and Caroline’s mom,” she said.

Before introducing Testerman, career educator and first lady Jill Biden choked up when describing President Biden’s record.

“I always knew that — now I get emotional — that Joe would be the best education president,” the first lady said.

The education secretary echoed her remarks.

“As a lifelong teacher, I’m proud — I’m proud and humbled to work for a president and an administration that puts the voices of teachers front and center in education where it belongs,” Cardona said.

And when toasting Testerman’s accomplishments, the first lady quoted the Tennessee teacher’s students.

“As her students say, she makes everyone feel important, ‘She helps us feel more welcome’; ‘She makes sure I was taken care of’; ‘She makes me smile all the time’; ‘She’s the best,"” the first lady said.

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