Navajo Nation teacher joins first lady Jill Biden in talk about education during COVID-19

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

HUNTERS POINT, Arizona — A Navajo Preparatory School teacher received a unique experience on April 23 when she moderated a discussion between first lady Jill Biden and students from the Navajo Nation.

Lesley Tohtsoni, U.S. History instructor for the school's International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, was one of two teachers who joined Biden and five high school-aged students to talk about education during the coronavirus pandemic.

The talk at Hunters Point Boarding School kicked off the first lady's second day on the Navajo Nation.

"It was a pretty exhilarating experience. It's a great honor to be in her presence. As an educator herself, she's very interested in how the students across the reservation dealt with the pandemic and virtual learning in their situations and in their communities," Tohtsoni said in a telephone interview after the discussion, which was closed to reporters.

More from the trip:Jill Biden tours the Navajo capital as leaders push for a recovery from the pandemic

First lady Jill Biden visited on April 23 Hunters Point Boarding School near St. Michaels, Arizona as part of her two-day visit to the Navajo Nation.

Biden is a professor of writing at Northern Virginia Community College.

"I try to visit schools and teachers and students wherever I go because I want to learn your journey. I want to learn more about you and what you are doing and your hopes and aspirations and where you'll go from here," the first lady said before the discussion.

Tohtsoni explained that Biden put the students at ease, and they were candid when talking about difficulties in learning during the pandemic, including feelings of isolation, being away from friends and relying on poor internet service on the reservation.

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The pandemic has exposed the inequity of internet access in communities across the country, Tohtsoni said.

"On days like this, with the wind, it plays havoc with a student's ability to connect with their peers and with their teacher," she said.

Photos:Navajo Nation officials welcome first lady Jill Biden

According to Tohtsoni, Biden talked about improving internet accessibility as part of a proposal by the Biden administration to rebuild the country's infrastructure and reshape the economy.

The first lady also learned about the students' outlook after high school. Three seniors participated in the discussion, and all are college bound.

First lady Jill Biden arrives at Hunters Point Boarding School near St. Michaels, Arizona on April 23.

"Their goals and what they hope for was pretty amazing. The pandemic – sure it set them back – but they weren't hiding in their rooms. They were going to move forward with their education," Tohtsoni said.

Biden met with students and teachers for an hour and a half. Before the discussion, she told the group that she was texting with her students that morning because they have final exams.

Her students, like those in the room, have seen their personal lives and education affected by the pandemic.

First lady Jill Biden, center, leaves the motorcade on April 23 carrying boxes of cookies for front-line workers at Tséhootsoí Medical Center in Fort Defiance, Arizona.

"It's been different learning over Zoom and trying to connect and feel that sense of community that, I think, teachers create in classrooms," Biden said.

Her trip wrapped up with a visit to Tséhootsooí Medical Center in Fort Defiance, Arizona, where she learned about the hospital's response to COVID-19 and commended the work of front-line workers.

Biden exited the motorcade carrying two boxes of cookies for the group of employees gathered in front of the facility.

"Thank you to all the front-line workers," she said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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