Dr. Jill Biden on the importance of teaching

Excitement ran high as AFT President Randi Weingarten escorted first lady Dr. Jill Biden to the stage at the AFT convention in Boston.

Dr. Jill Biden
Photo by Pamela Wolfe

In introducing Dr. Biden to the delegates on July 15, the AFT president noted that the first lady, a community college educator, has attended our conventions before, including one held in Detroit in 2012 when Joe Biden was vice president. With regard to public education, there is no more crucial person in this administration than the first lady, Weingarten said, because she sees and cares about the work lives of educators and healthcare workers.

“We’re big fans of your husband,” Weingarten said, “But can I be really honest here? We’re really, really, really big fans of you.” And to students in her English and writing courses at Northern Virginia Community College, “she’s Dr. B.”

During the Bidens’ very first week in the White House, Jill Biden invited both Weingarten and National Education Association President Becky Pringle to come visit, sending the nation a message about the importance of public education. And during President Biden’s State of the Union address, Jill Biden asked an AFT nurse to sit with her.

Unlike so many others during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jill Biden understood that schools needed mitigation strategies before they could safely reopen.

To honor Jill Biden’s love of and support for educators, Weingarten bestowed on the first lady an honorary membership in the AFT. Thanking Weingarten, Biden exclaimed how wonderful it was to be back in Boston, in person, with fellow educators.

She said she had just received an email from the community college asking her to sign a contract for the upcoming fall semester, which brought back memories of signing her first contract 38 years ago. “It’s hard to believe anyone could be that excited to scribble their name on a line,” Biden said, but it’s true: “It felt like I was becoming the person I was meant to be.”

Biden asked AFT members to reflect on their own experiences and how much they mean. In her case, the impetus to teach sprang from a love of books and the fact that she could teach someone else to read. She bet that all educators have a similar story—that desire to smile and help students find the confidence they need to thrive.

Dr. Jill Biden
Photo by Michael Campbell

“To answer this call to service is in itself an act of hope,” Biden said. “And we need that hope now more than ever.”

Answering this call means showing up with snacks because you know one of your students will be hungry. Answering the call means staying calm while explaining the active shooter drills that are so troubling to many students. It means telling kids that anything is possible for them, even when you know the odds are stacked against them. “There is so much weight on all of you, but you carry it,” she said.

As for AFT members who work in healthcare, Biden quoted her husband, saying, “If there are any angels in heaven, they are all nurses.”

She ran down a list of the Biden administration’s accomplishments so far, including new laws on infrastructure and gun violence prevention, as well as fixing the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

She also listed the issues on which this administration has taken a stand: that AR-15s do not belong in our streets, that the right to make choices about women’s bodies and pregnancies is theirs alone; and that child care should be affordable, and community college should be free.

All of us need to vote in elections at all levels of government, Biden said. But we can’t stop at voting—that’s the “bare minimum.” She exhorted AFT members to get involved in local politics and to use their teacher voices “when things go off the rails.”

Dr. Jill Biden closed by reminding the AFT delegates that we do this work because we believe a better world is possible, and that our opponents should not underestimate us. “That’s who we are—optimists, true believers, fighters. … We change the world, so let’s get to work.”

[Annette Licitra]