As one educator pointed out, having Jill Biden in the White House will bring “respect to the teaching profession again.”
When Dr. Jill Biden becomes first lady in January, she’ll undoubtedly be the first of her kind. Unlike her predecessors, the longtime educator plans to keep her day job after her husband Joe is sworn in as president.
Biden will continue teaching English at Northern Virginia Community College, where she also taught as second lady—even making Secret Service members dress like students to dial down any potential awkwardness. And while a woman who chooses to work outside of the home isn’t revolutionary in itself, a first lady who’s part of the professional workforce is nothing short of groundbreaking—especially for teachers in America.
“I like working,” Biden told Vogue in September. “Like so many of your readers, I’m a working woman. [Teaching is] my passion. That’s what I love doing. That has been my career and really a major focus in my life, so I feel like I could handle it and do everything else that first ladies want to do.”
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Biden, 69, has four degrees, including a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Delaware. She’s also a member of the National Education Association. Her position as a community college professor and education advocate sends an important message to fellow teachers and students as well as institutions of higher education across the country: You matter.
“I am so excited that Dr. Jill Biden will be in the White House, and I hope that she is able to bring a lot of focus on educational issues,” A. Baker, an English teacher in North Carolina and college adjunct professor in Virginia, told COURIER. Baker hopes Biden will influence decisions when it comes to equal distribution of public education funding, and, after four years of the Trump administration, bring “respect to the teaching profession again.”
How Public Education Has Suffered Under Betsy DeVos
Under the current administration, gaps in education grew wide—and those disparities, both educational and financial, have become more apparent throughout the pandemic. In July, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos slammed public school efforts to offer online learning and threatened to withhold federal funds from schools that chose not to physically reopen in the fall. This came after President Donald Trump similarly threatened to cut federal funding from schools and pressured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to change its guidelines, which he called “very tough” and “expensive,” to downplay the severity of the virus so schools would reopen.
Despite calling the CDC’s pandemic guidelines for schools “impractical,” the Trump administration never released a federal plan for schools to reopen safely for students, teachers, and staff.
As the coronavirus crisis worsened, teachers were suddenly tasked with navigating the jarring shift from regular, in-person learning to going fully virtual for the last quarter of the 2019-2020 school year. Out-of-pocket costs for 2020-21 classroom supplies now include virtual learning aids, PPE, and bulk amounts of hand sanitizer.
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In other words, being a teacher has been especially tough this year.
“Online learning has been around, but on this mass scale, to have it up and running and working for the vast majority of the US … I am in awe of my fellow teachers,” Baker said.
That’s why Biden’s decision to continue teaching while first lady, especially right now, is so meaningful, she continued. “The country is short on teachers, and she’s teaching in my state, and she’s an English teacher like me. The experiences and knowledge she will be able to bring to her classroom will be invaluable.”
Amy Bagwell is a full-time community college English instructor in North Carolina. She believes respecting and supporting educators has fallen to the wayside under the current administration.
She points out that the workload for teachers everywhere has increased dramatically. “It never stops, and the students are depending on us,” she told COURIER. “And we don’t have the thing that sustains us, which is ongoing contact with them, that give-and-take of the classroom that absolutely makes this profession. I’m very worried about us all. Many of my friends in education—all great teachers—are not okay.”
“There’s a lot of damage to be undone before we can move forward for the sake of students and families—and teachers,” she continued. “Too often the reins of educational leadership are put in the hands of business people who may mean well, but who are not right for the job because they do not have substantial educational experience with students. Education can’t be treated like a business.”
Since she was named education secretary in 2017, DeVos—a longtime GOP donor—demonstrated how little she actually knew or cared about public education. Long before the pandemic, she made it clear she planned to take $50 billion from K-12 public schools over the course of 10 years to distribute to private schools through a federal voucher bill.
Together, DeVos and President Trump proposed cutting education spending by $8.5 billion in 2020 by eliminating several programs that offer support to public schools and teachers. She consistently prioritized private education, even relaxing rules that barred the Department of Education from giving private schools and religious organizations taxpayer funding for educational services.
Having an Educator in the White House Matters
Clearly, the Bidens are advocates for public education, and the president-elect has already vowed to bolster public schools and reverse harmful decisions made by DeVos. The Biden administration plans to dramatically increase resources for public schools, expand civil rights advocacy for marginalized students, and retool guidelines for school operations and relief funding as the pandemic rages on.
Sylvia Vera León, a Cuban American who teaches first grade in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, feels a sense of relief and renewed value as a teacher now that an education advocate will soon be such a major part of the White House.
“I think it is wonderful that Jill Biden, a lifelong educator, will have the ear of our president. She will be an advocate for public school teachers,” Vera León told The Americano. She added that her goal as an educator is to develop and nurture in her students “a love of learning that endures”—not unlike Biden.
During the Democratic National Committee held virtually in August, Biden delivered a speech from the empty classroom where she used to teach, sympathizing with teachers across the US who have been overwhelmed with anxiety since March.
“The rooms are dark as the bright young faces that should fill them are now confined to boxes on a computer screen,” Biden said in her speech. “I hear it from so many of you—the frustration of parents juggling work while they support their children’s learning, afraid that their kids might get sick from school. The concern of every person working without enough protection.”
The concerns Biden highlighted have been well addressed by the community college where Bagwell works. But that doesn’t diminish the reality of the pandemic. “This year has been cataclysmic for so many of my students,” she said.
Biden keeping her job while her husband takes the reins as the president of the United States in January is significant for women everywhere. She’s not abandoning her career even if her husband will become, arguably, the most powerful man in the world. It’s a lesson for us all, from the most famous teacher in America right now: women’s careers matter.
For her part, Bagwell is thrilled to have a teacher’s voice in the White House. “Having Dr. Biden in the White House could mean the world to public education in this country, including community colleges,” she said. “Jill Biden spoke at a graduation ceremony I attended a few years ago. Honestly, she was radiant. She congratulated the graduates in a way that was so earnest and real because she knew what their accomplishments had entailed. She recognizes the nonstop, cyclical lives of faculty and staff. She gets it.”