As First Teacher, Jill Biden will be a voice for schools. We need a champion too
Jill Biden spent eight years serving as the Second Lady during the Obama administration, but her highly personal nine-minute live address at the Democratic Convention in August, from an empty classroom at the high school where she used to teach, was her first formal introduction to most of the American public.
A self-professed introvert, Dr Biden has always been reticent about entering the political spotlight, although she is often described as Joe Biden’s biggest defender and one of his best assets. She is also said to be one of his most trusted political advisers, reportedly playing a pivotal role in helping Mr Biden narrow down his list of potential running mates.
“Are you ready?” she tweeted Kamala Harris’s husband Douglas Emhoff, in a message of support after the California senator was named as the Democratic vice presidential candidate.
She knows better than anyone the importance of a strong bond between the First and Second spouse: the fast friendship between herself and Michelle Obama was said to be as strong as their husbands’ famed “bromance”, leading them to team up on education initiatives and the Joining Forces programme to support military families.
“Jill is not just brilliant, but she is kind. She is very funny, and she is one of the strongest people I know,” Mrs Obama said during their final joint event in office. “And I love and admire her with all my heart.”
Before Dr Biden’s convention address, Mrs Obama paid tribute to her “partner-in-crime” in an Instagram post, saying: “There’s not a doubt in my mind that Jill will make a wonderful First Lady.”
Jill Biden will not be the first teacher to stand by her husband as First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS) next year. She follows in the footsteps of Lucretia Garfield, Rose Cleveland, Eleanor Roosevelt and most recently primary school teacher Laura Bush.
Other First Ladies have been passionate about education as well. Harriet Lane Johnston founded the prestigious independent St Albans School in Washington DC through a bequest in her will. Barbara Bush supported childhood literacy projects.
But Dr Biden, a full-time English teacher at Northern Virginia Community College, in Washington DC, with a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Delaware, will still be different. As she’s made clear, she may be First Lady but she wants to be First Teacher more. “It’s important,” Dr Biden said last August, “and I want people to value teachers and know their contributions, and lift up the profession.”
Happily, if she does accompany her husband Joe on a few foreign tours, Dr Biden will find a supportive community of international educators. Fernanda Maria Gonçalves Tadeu, wife of Portuguese prime minister António Costa, is a teacher. As was Brigitte Macron who taught French and Latin in Amiens — and of course, Emmanuel Macron, her future husband and the current President. (Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, taught for several years before entering politics.)
On the other hand, no British PM can boast a teacher as a spouse. In recent times, we’ve seen a barrister and fashion designer, an antenatal dietitian, a brace of businessmen and, currently, a PR/lobbyist.
Perhaps that explains the often strained relationship between Government and teachers in Britain with no frazzled fifth-form teacher whispering choice opinions direct from the staff room to the PM via the pillow?
Not to mention the way our national achievements remain so disappointing on the international education charts. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2018, the UK ranks 14th in the world in reading, 14th in science and 18th in maths. I mean, it’s “fine” isn’t it, a solid B+ — but not exactly the kind of report you’d frame on the wall at home.
Perhaps there is a connection to how few former school teachers are serving in Westminster: in 2015, there were just 16. At the same time, the House of Commons was host to 51 former barristers and 107 MPs whose previous careers were just in politics or political organising according to a recent HoC briefing paper.
This gap between theory and practice feels quite stark. Ministers are quick to draw on their own background at school as pupils but most do not share the actual experience of teaching a child to read, disciplining a class of revolting 16-year-olds, or hearing a partner’s account of surviving another week in Covid-enabled classrooms, windows wide open, radiators off and children distracted and falling behind in their studies.
So depending on whether school was your bag or a grind that wore one down like the North Sea chipping away at the north Norfolk coast, most of us have prejudices set at a time when we know least of the world.
Fighting for others
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If grammar-style school got you out of a disadvantaged background and allowed you to flourish, why wouldn’t you fight for others to get a parallel experience? Then again, if you failed to get into a selective school by a few points and attended a comprehensive school which also allowed you to flourish, a natural bias points in the opposite direction.
If MPs do base their educational enthusiasms on their pasts, then 41 per cent of current Conservatives and 14 per cent of Labour MPs according to data collected by the Sutton Trust will be moved to bend schooling towards the pain or glory of their independent education. Eleven of this cohort will be specifically influenced by their days at Eton.
Meanwhile, 54 per cent of the House as a whole went to comprehensives and will be basing their theories on school discipline, meals and science labs on their mutual experiences in slightly less glamorous surroundings.
Then there are the parental ideals. Two-thirds of MPs have children, says the Political Studies Association, with each determined no doubt to make sure that their offspring (at the very least) have proper meaningful schooling, skewing — it’s human nature — how they see that by what they experience first hand. But all well and good saying you believe in state schools, don’t then send your own precious ones off to the independent sector lickety-spit. It doesn’t suggest confidence in your own government or party’s decision-making ability.
Does that mean the views of non-parent MPs are likely to be less partial? It would be convenient to think so. But, sorry, unlikely — they will be the ones most wedded to personal experiences, most of which (given the ages of senior MPs) are unlikely to bear any resemblance to modern schooling as it is in 2020.
Based on my own school days, I would be the first to pronounce that children should not be allowed to bring food — cheese straws, let’s say — created in Home Economics into the Chemistry lab and then be left unsupervised with gas-fired bunsen burners lending the opportunity for said straws to be “toasted”. As I say, personal experience in the 1970s and 1980s isn’t always an accurate guide to schools in this century.
Raising the value of teachers
Surely the answer lies in making politics a worthwhile career after or alongside teaching; not something teachers themselves feel isolated from and often in conflict with (rightly or wrongly). That would also mean raising the value of teachers in society — something other countries from Japan to American seem to understand instinctively — and not constantly running them down so as to infuriate the teaching unions.
Or is the reason so few make the switch down to something more fundamental: that both teaching and politics are to a large extent vocational. In which case it wouldn’t hurt to encourage more cross-fertilisation between the two professions anyway.
We can’t expect to have the good fortune to have a First Spouse as well qualified to influence educational policy through experience as JiIl Biden. But is it too much to hope that a future PM might have once stood in front of a class and inspired a few dreams themselves?
The US has beaten us to it, of course, here too. Lyndon B Johnson taught to pay his way through college and later was employed at a Texas High School to teach public speaking before he moved into politics.
LBJ was inspired by his personal experience, saying “I shall never forget the faces of the boys and the girls in that little Welhausen Mexican School, and I remember even yet the pain of realizing and knowing then that college was closed to practically every one of those children because they were too poor. And I think it was then that I made up my mind that this nation could never rest while the door to knowledge remained closed to any American.”
Could Mr/Mrs/Ms Chips be out there right now, marking Year Seven’s History homework but wishing they could mark the homework of the Opposition? It would be nice to think so. It might just give Global Britain back our educational edge in the world too.