Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady at the Presentation of the School Counselor of the Year Award

January 30, 2015

MRS. OBAMA: Thank you guys so much. (Applause.) Thank you, everyone. Welcome to the White House! Here we are!

(Child cries.)

MRS. OBAMA: I know. (Laughter.) Let him run free, it's the White House! (Laughter.) We've done worse in this room. I am so thrilled to be here with all of you today.

And I want to start by thanking the one and only Connie Britton for that wonderful introduction. Yes. (Applause.) But more importantly, I want to thank her for bringing us Tami Taylor. Now, Tami might be a fictional character, but she showed us the extraordinary compassion and commitment that school counselors bring to the students every day in real life, and for that we're really grateful. And she's also been just a tremendous friend and advocate, and she's very cool and funny and all that good stuff. (Laughter.) So we're thrilled to have her shed some light on all of you guys.

I also want to thank the American School Counselor Association and its Executive Director, Richard Wong, for sponsoring the School Counselor of the Year award. And I want to recognize our semi-finalists and finalists who are up here on stage with me today. And I want to give a special shoutout to our School Counselor of the Year, Mr. Cory Notestine. (Applause.) Hey, mom. (Laughter.)

My husband and I, we're so proud of all of you –- all of you. And we are so excited to host the first-ever White House School Counselor of the Year Award Ceremony at the White House. Yes! (Applause.) This is good. You're a lively bunch. (Laughter.) I don't know what that says about the school counselors, but I like your spirit. (Laughter.)

Now, as you all know, for decades, we've held the National Teacher of the Year Award Ceremony here at the White House, and we do this to send a clear message that we value our teachers. And we do it because we believe that good teaching is the key to achieving our national goals. It's how we prepare our kids for good jobs and fulfilling lives. It's how we ensure that our workers can compete in a global marketplace. And it's also how we create a new generation of informed, engaged citizens and leaders.

But as I started working on my Reach Higher initiative to inspire young people to complete their education beyond high school, I got to know another group of school professionals who are also critical for achieving these national goals.

See, one of the very first meetings that we held about Reach Higher was with a group of school counselors. And they told us how they're working hard to keep kids from falling through the cracks, and how they're supporting overwhelmed parents. They told us how they track students down who don't think they're college material, or who don't think they can afford it, and they shake them up and they tell them, you have what it takes, I believe in you, now fill out those FAFSA forms and sign up for those AP classes, get started on those college essays. (Laughter.)

And the more that I learned about our school counselors, the more I realized that often, America's school counselors are truly the deciding factor in whether our young people attend college or not. And in today's global economy, higher education is essential for good jobs with good wages. You all know that. That is why my husband has set a goal that America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. That's what we're working for.

So we know that higher education isn't just critical for our students' future, it's also critical for the future of this country. And that's why we thought it was about time we started giving our school counselors the support and recognition they deserve. (Applause.) And not just with words, but with meaningful action –- with resources, programs and partners to help them do their jobs. That's why we issued a challenge to universities, foundations, school districts, nonprofits and others to step up. And in the past year alone, they've answered our call with tens of millions of dollars of new efforts to support school counselors and the students they serve.

Universities are creating college and career-readiness centers in their masters programs for school counselors. Nonprofits are working to improve student-to-counselor ratios and to provide more professional development opportunities. With the help of the U.S. Department of Education, over half the states in this country are giving school counselors new tools to help students fill out those FAFSA forms and college applications. And then we finally moved the School Counselor of the Year ceremony to where it truly belongs -- right here in the White House. (Applause.)

So we're raising the bar for you guys. And while we still have a long way to go, we're beginning to make some real progress on this issue, and that's due in large part to the passion and dedication of school counselors across this country -– folks like this year's School Counselor of the Year Award recipient, Cory Notestine. I'm going to take a few moments just to tell you a little bit about Cory. I'm sure many of you know him, but let me give you just a taste of what's happened in the Alamosa High School counseling department under Cory's leadership.

Over the past couple of years, Cory's department has more than doubled the amount of financial aid that seniors receive, growing from $500,000 to more than $1.3 million in money that's going to seniors. (Applause.) They've raised the graduation rate by targeting students most at risk for falling behind. They've expanded access to college courses, and students have earned nearly 1,200 college credits in just one school year.

They brought together community leaders to create the Alamosa Parent Academy to provide skills and support to parents. They helped train student mediators to resolve school conflicts. They created a mentoring program for underserved freshmen. They helped start a gay-straight alliance. And then in his ample spare time –- (laughter) -- Cory also manages to mentor interns, to serve on the board of the Colorado School Counselor Association, and –- yes -– (applause) -- and also to participate in an array of trainings and conferences throughout the year.

But as impressive as all these achievements are, they don't even begin to show the impact that Cory has had during his career. And for that, you need to hear directly from the people whose lives Cory has transformed –- his students. And here is just a small sampling of the kind of praise that Alamosa students have for Cory.

One said that Cory -- and this is a quote -- "served as a true inspiration for me in all endeavors." That was one of his students. Another called Cory "a man of great integrity." Another said that -– and this is another quote – said, Cory "inspires me to become a better student and overall person."

Now, I could do this for hours –- (laughter) –- because as -- my staff found that there were so many kids who were singing Cory's praises that we could do this all day. But despite all of these accomplishments and all these accolades, Cory, I have learned, is one of the most humble, unassuming, down-to-earth people that you will ever meet. The man is so modest that in the School Counselor of the Year application video, he spends most of his time on that video talking about how wonderful his colleagues are, and he hardly mentions any of his own achievements.

He does, however, allow himself a brief moment of reflection on what it means to be a school counselor. And he says that the most important part of his job –- and this is his quote, his words –- "being able to make an impact on students' lives and have them be successful and finally get to the place where they want to be in their lives."

And I really can't think of a better description of the mission of our school counselors, because that's really what they, all of you, do every single day –- they help our young people get to where they want to be in their lives. And they do it with patience and compassion, and sometimes even a little tough love. Our school counselors convince students that they have something special, each of them, to offer, and they push those students to dig deep and fulfill every last bit of their potential.

So really, every day, our school counselors help young people become the people they're meant to be and achieve what they were put on this earth to achieve. And that is truly an awesome responsibility –- and it's also a tremendous privilege.

So today, on behalf of myself and my husband and a grateful country, I want to just say thank you. I want to share in Connie's thanks -- thank you guys. Thank you! (Laughter and applause.) The work you do is extraordinary. Thank you for all that you do to support our kids and our country. We are proud. We're incredibly grateful. And we look forward to continuing our work together to support all of you in the months and years ahead.

So it is now my great pleasure and my great honor to introduce this year's National School Counselor of the Year, Cory Notestine! (Applause.)

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady at the Presentation of the School Counselor of the Year Award Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/321802

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