Sometime next year, after the inauguration of Joe Biden as president, a community college student -- quite possibly an immigrant or a single mother, but no doubt someone whose life hadn’t been guided by bloodline to Harvard or Yale University, or who might not believe anyone at the White House will care about them -- will have their English paper graded by a professor.
The student and the others who will have their papers graded by the same person will be in many ways similar to those the professor’s grandmother taught in a single-room schoolhouse.
It’s true that in these crazy pandemic times, college instructors are reading their students’ papers in strange places. But this paper could be read in the stolen moments before the professor greets a prime minister at a gala at the White House. Or on Air Force One. Or in the office of the nation’s first lady.
While it’s unclear exactly how Jill Biden plans to teach her English classes at Northern Virginia Community College, where she will continue to be a professor when her husband, Joe Biden, takes office as president, she'll be doing plenty of work in the White House.
To be sure, previous first ladies have done more than host galas for visiting dignitaries. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a daily newspaper column.
“It’s a big deal that she’s continuing the profession she was trained for, separate from her identity as first lady,” said Myra Gutin, a Rider University communications professor who has written extensively about American first ladies. But Biden will also be hosting the galas. “It’s a big statement about the ability of women to multitask,” she said.
“Half believe first ladies should pour tea and stay home, while the other half see it as a podium and an opportunity and if you don’t use it, you’re wasting it,” Gutin said
And isn’t it interesting, she said, that the husband of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, Doug Emhoff, says he will stop working as a lawyer before inauguration day.
“So the first lady is going to work and the second gentleman isn’t,” Gutin said.
But as significant as that may be, Biden’s decision to continue teaching is meaningful to others, like the nation’s teachers, who will see someone in the White House who understand their struggles and their passion.
“You can see she has shared the experiences we’ve had,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers said on a Zoom call last week with members of her union; another teachers' union, the National Education Association; and Jill Biden. ”She’s been the instructor at the blackboard coaxing the answers out of our kids. She hears us. She feels us. She knows us,” Weingarten said.
For community colleges, a professor will be in the White House, and she will understand that they are trying to help students graduate as they deal with working full-time, raising children and facing hunger, poverty and whatever else life throws.
What Impact Will She Have?
“While it’s obviously too early to know how things will play out, campus leaders are understandably excited about having Dr. Biden in such a position, particularly since she has done so much to enhance understanding and appreciation of the colleges,” said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis for the American Association of Community Colleges.
A glimpse came last Monday, when Biden spoke at a symposium sponsored by an institute created by College Promise, a nonprofit organization that works to help more students go to college for free.
Biden, who had been the honorary co-chairwoman of the group’s advisory board at its founding five years ago, said at the symposium, “College Promise means so much to me. Five years ago, the idea was as simple as it was transparent. Every hardworking student should have the chance to go to community college for free. That promise has never been more important.” And she pledged, “Joe and I will stand by you in those efforts.”
Martha Kanter, College Promise’s CEO, who has worked with Biden at the group and during her time as the Obama administration’s under secretary of education, said to expect Biden to use the “bully pulpit” to give visibility to her causes.
As the wife of the vice president, Jill Biden crisscrossed the nation, drawing attention to community colleges. “When I’m not in the classroom teaching, I’m often on the road visiting community colleges,” she said at Broward College’s commencement ceremony in 2012.
“What I’ve seen at every community college along the way is the story of hope. Hope for workers, who have gone as far as they can go in their jobs … and are getting the skills they need to go to the next level. Hope for moms, juggling kids and a job, learning new skills for a new career. Hope for people in their 40s, 50s and even 60s -- who have been out of work so long they’ve nearly given up -- getting the second chance they deserve,” she continued.
“If the first lady selects an issue as something that’s important, it becomes part of our national conversation,” Gutin said.
And indeed, last Monday night, after speaking at the College Promise event, Biden spoke on the videoconferencing call with the teachers' union members. “Come Jan. 20, we’re going to have a teacher at the White House,” Biden, an NEA member, said. “Know this -- Joe and I will never forget what you did for us.”
The next morning, she spoke to a group dedicated to improving the education of children in military families.
To be sure, President Biden and his education secretary will determine his administration’s policies. But Jill Biden will no doubt amplify causes -- community colleges and supporting military families -- as other first ladies have.
“Eleanor Roosevelt oftentimes would walk into a room where the president was with a big stack of paper about whatever issue she wanted to bring to his attention,” said Katherine Jellison, chairwoman of Ohio University’s history department and an expert in the role first ladies have played.
“Betty Ford used to talk about pillow talk [with her husband, President Gerald R. Ford]. Rosalynn Carter used to have regular working dinners with Jimmy Carter to talk about what she was thinking,” Gutin said. And Jill Biden will likely have her husband’s ear.
In her memoir published last year, Where the Light Enters: Building a Family, Discovering Myself, Biden recalled fuming when Democratic leaders came to her house in 2004 trying to recruit Joe to run for president.
She marched through the meeting in her bikini. A sign on her stomach said, “No.”
Kanter, in an interview, recalled that Biden in 2010 convened a summit at the White House for community colleges.
She was sitting at her computer looking up the summit’s agenda for a reporter. That day, researchers presented papers on issues like transfer policies to four-year colleges, technology at community colleges and the role the institutions play in educating military families.
“That’s all her,” Kanter said of Biden. “It was her leadership to bring people together to take action.”
For community colleges, often viewed as second class in the higher ed world, to have the attention of the White House was a “red-letter day,” Baime, the lobbyist for community colleges, said.
Biden will also have a policy staff person who, during her time as second lady, was involved in White House policy discussions and communicated with officials of agencies to promote her causes. On Friday, Joe Biden’s transition team announced Mala Adiga, who had been director for higher education and military families at the Biden Foundation, will serve as the first lady’s policy director.
During her time at the Education Department, Kanter said, she often responded to questions from Biden’s policy director, who one time asked her, “‘If we move in this direction, what would be the impact on military families and their children?’ It pushed me to take the time to think more broadly about the potential impacts of our policy proposals.”
Biden’s experience teaching at community colleges, Kanter said, will bring a different set of experiences than most people in the White House.
“For the most part, people in the political world come from four-year colleges. Especially in policy, there’s very little understanding of the pipeline from two-year colleges to the workforce and to and through the university,” she said.
What’s Ahead for Biden?
Jill Biden's campaign spokesman declined to discuss how she plans to go about teaching. But there are clues because she has done it before. She continued to teach when her husband became vice president.
According to The Washington Post, she was known for constantly having a stack of papers to grade with her. Kanter recalled sitting next to her on a plane after visiting a community college and watching her grade papers the entire trip.
The Post reported that in a 2016 interview, former first lady Michelle Obama recalled, “Jill is always grading papers. Which is funny because I’d forget, ‘Oh yeah, you have a day job!’ And then she pulls out her papers and she’s so diligent and I’m like, ‘Look at you! You have a job!’”
Biden acknowledged, “there were times when it did seem ill-advised -- nights when I had to wedge myself into the tiny nook beneath the Seal of the Vice President of the United States in the forward cabin of Air Force Two so that I could grade papers as Joe and I flew home from some out-of-state event.” She remembered “scrambling into a cocktail dress and heels in the ladies’ room at NOVA [Northern Virginia Community College] to make it on time to a White House reception.”
But why do it? Biden was not available for an interview. But in interviews, speeches and her memoir, there are clues.
She’d had a difficult relationship with her grandmother, who objected to her son’s marriage to Jill Biden's mother. And she thought Jill’s birth sealed the deal.
But her grandmother had been a teacher, and her students influenced what the one-day first lady would devote her life to. “When I visited her as a little girl she would take me to her school -- an old-fashioned one-room schoolhouse where she taught kids of multiple grades,” Biden wrote in her memoir. “When she read to her kids, she was enchanting, and I saw how she pushed them to be their best. Many of her students were from poor homes, and every year, she’d collect coats to distribute, as well as knit gloves and scarves for those who needed them. I admired her generosity and the way she inspired her students. It was a lesson in teaching I’ve kept with me.”
Biden had been a teacher at a psychiatric hospital and at two high schools, but she found a deeper connection with her students when she became an instructor at Delaware Technical & Community College.
There, she wrote in her memoir, “I saw so much courage and determination in my students. Some of them were coming from families who had never dreamed they would have a child go to college. Some of them were looking for a second chance after making mistakes or dropping out of a four-year school. Some of them were older, having not been able to take that traditional path, having spent years working and saving and dreaming of the day they could get their degrees and make a better life for themselves.”
To have someone in the White House who understands the students community colleges serve means a lot, Baime said. And to understand why Biden would keep teaching, consider the moments that appear to have stayed with her.
One afternoon at NOVA, she wrote in her book, she told her students that she would not be in class the next day. Her sister was undergoing a medical procedure.
“I quickly faced the whiteboard so the students wouldn’t see the tears filling my eyes. When I turned back around, every single student was standing. They made a line and came up to hug me, one by one. At that moment, I knew just how much I needed them.”
But there seems to be more to her decision to break the view of the proper role of first ladies. She can be unorthodox. One time she crawled into the overhead rack of a bus and then jumped out to scare a White House staffer.
“I never did grow out of the stubborn determination I developed as a girl. I still hate being told I can’t do something,” she wrote. Even when Joe Biden was a senator in the 1970s, being his wife “came with a lot of societal expectations. I was expected to stay home with the kids full-time. But I knew from day one that I wouldn’t be able to just live his life.” Instead, she attended classes at night, and while it took 15 years, she earned master's degrees in becoming a reading specialist and in English. At 55, she also earned a doctorate in education leadership from the University of Delaware.
When she went to work at NOVA after her husband became vice president, she wrote, “some saw it as a sign that I was a modern woman, while others said I didn’t take the role of second lady seriously enough. But I never intended to make a statement. I just wanted to do the thing I love best.”
Speaking at NOVA’s commencement ceremony in 2016, Biden explained her decision to continue teaching even as the second lady.
“As a lifelong educator, I couldn’t leave that behind,” she said. “I couldn’t just move to Washington and only live Joe’s life.”
According to her reviews on Rate My Professor, Biden is generally liked by her students. But she is a tough grader, which has made her unpopular with some.
Since trying to juggle her duties as second lady and being a professor, the pandemic has changed colleges and teaching.
She probably won’t have to carry stacks of papers to grade -- just a laptop, said Ohio University’s Jellison. Jellison has been prerecording lectures she shows to students before leading them in a discussion.
Biden could do the same, she said, “Say Jill Biden is supposed to go visit China. It might be difficult to do a lecture for students because of the time difference. She could prerecord classes and say, ‘Listen or watch me, and we’ll talk about it when I’m back in the U.S.’”
“If I were her and had the opportunity to go around the globe, I’d incorporate my experiences in my teaching,” Jellison said. ‘Here I am at the Great Wall. Work on an essay about the pictures I’m sending and email them to me.’”