East St. Louis teacher recognized among nation’s best at White House state dinner

Since being honored as the 2023 Illinois Teacher of the Year, Briana Morales has spent the accompanying one-year sabbatical starting her own nonprofit, continuing working toward her doctorate and traveling the state and country to speak to fellow educators.

Most recently, those travels included the White House.

Morales, who teaches English at the Gordon Bush Alternative Center in East St. Louis School District 189, was among the teachers of the year from across the nation who attended the first-ever state dinner honoring educators at the White House hosted May 2 by First Lady Jill Biden, a longtime educator herself. President Joe Biden made an unannounced appearance, Morales said.

“Something that he said that I think really resonated with all of us is that having a state dinner for teachers shows teachers a level of respect that’s long overdue in our country,” Morales said.

“Widespread, teachers across the nation are feeling overworked and unappreciated,” she added. “I wish that every teacher could be celebrated in the way that we were that night.”

Morales said the teachers were surprised with something from their schools on their seats when they arrived in the dining room.

On her seat, she had a letter saying congratulations from her students and fellow staff at the Gordon Bush Alternative Center.

“I like to think that despite the fact that many of my students haven’t been outside of East St. Louis prior to then, they made it to the White House that night too,” she said.

Advocating for mental health services, after-school programs

During their week-long D.C. trip, which was coordinated by the Council of Chief State School Officers, the teachers of the year also met with legislators on Capitol Hill as well as leaders like Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

Morales said that in her discussions, including with U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, she advocated for more federal funding to provide mental health services for students to ensure they have access to those resources regardless of if their school can afford it or if there’s a shortage of mental health workers in their community.

Federal funding is also needed to support teachers’ mental health, she said.

“We need to ensure that teachers feel safe in the work that they’re doing and also supported psychologically and emotionally to be able to keep pouring into young people the way that they are every single day,” Morales said.

Another thing she discussed with legislators and education leaders was how to develop and bolster after-school programming in an effort to keep kids and communities safe.

While there was federal funding recently for this purpose, it’s not enough, Morales said.

In East St. Louis 189, there are about 4,600 students but only 2,000 after-school program spots. “That’s a fraction of the kids who need them,” she said.

“Federal funding for those are especially important, not just for kids in East St. Louis, but for kids everywhere because all kids deserve a program that is built for them and the needs that they have,” she added.

Briana Morales, the 2023 Illinois Teacher of the Year from East St. Louis School District 189, poses alongside U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth on the stairs of the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Briana Morales, the 2023 Illinois Teacher of the Year from East St. Louis School District 189, poses alongside U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth on the stairs of the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

School bell ringing

Morales recounted how at the state dinner, Jill Biden spoke about her grandmother who was also a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in south New Jersey. She had to ring a large bell to bring the kids back to class after recess.

Biden made an analogy that all teachers have this bell that resounds through the world, and the sound it makes touches all the kids they’ve ever taught, Morales said. Because of teachers, their students stand a little taller, are a little braver, know a little more and feel a little more courageous.

There are 55 teachers of the year in Morales’ cohort, representing all 50 U.S. states and territories. “These are teachers who have done incredible things for various grade levels, kids in different communities, that oftentimes never get the glory that they deserve for showing up for kids every single day,” she said.

Morales herself is the first Illinois Teacher of the Year from East St. Louis and only the second teacher representing alternative schools.

“I work with kids at the margins of the margins, who sometimes feel like they are invisible and that they have been cast aside,” Morales said. “And this was … the First Lady saying the work that you do with these kids matters because their life matters.

“And also teachers help to show kids that their life matters every single day just by showing up, being who they are, bringing their authentic selves into spaces so that our kids then can learn how to do the same.”