First lady Michelle Obama set out Monday on a listening tour through the federal bureaucracy, stopping first at the Department of Education to thank employees for their service and rally them for the tough work ahead.

“So many of you have been here struggling and pushing for decades and Barack and I want to say ‘thank you’ for what you’ve done and ‘thank you’ for what you will continue to do,” she told 350 employees who filled a department auditorium to capacity. “But we also know that there are new faces coming into this work and we want to welcome you and thank you for the hard work that you’re going to put in.”

Mrs. Obama said the department will “be at the forefront of many of the things that we have to do in this administration” before she ticked off such agenda items as renovating and modernizing schools, increasing Pell Grants and providing tuition tax credits to college students.

Watch A Report on Michelle’s Trip

Money in the economic stimulus bill being debated in the Senate will help prevent teacher layoffs and preserve early childhood education, she said. Investments from the stimulus also will help fund innovative approaches to teaching, such as teacher quality initiatives, school turnaround programs and charter schools, she said.

“There’s a lot of work to do and we’re going to need you,” Mrs. Obama said. “The children of this country are counting on all of us.”

In thanking the workers, she told them: “I am a product of your work.”

“I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the public schools that nurtured me and helped me along,” said Mrs. Obama, a Chicago native who attended its public schools as a child. Her two daughters attend private school in Washington, as they did in Chicago.

Monday’s trip followed a lunch meeting Mrs. Obama had last week with D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, his wife and Jill Biden, Vice President Joe Biden’s wife. Mrs. Obama’s first solo public event after the inauguration was a White House reception, also last week, for Lilly Ledbetter, an Alabama retiree whose name is on a pay equity bill President Obama signed into law.

Some observers had not expected Mrs. Obama to be so publicly active so soon in her husband’s presidency.

“It really does surprise me because I had gotten the opposite impression from those statements about being first mom-in-chief,” said Myra Gutin, a first lady historian and professor at Rider University in New Jersey.

Mrs. Obama said Monday’s visit to the Department of Education would be the first of many to government departments and agencies in the coming weeks and months “to say ‘hello,’ to learn, to listen, to take info back where possible.”

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