An Act of Love and a Lifeline to Our Students

“You are my people,” lifelong educator and former Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden told the crowd of thousands of educators at her ASCD Empower18 opening general session. No matter our role, she told them, we’ve all dedicated ourselves to enriching the lives of others through education. “That’s a club I’m extremely proud to be a part of.”

For Biden, teaching was the family business. She recalled the one-room schoolhouse where her grandmother enchanted students with storytelling and the prized brass bell her grandmother sometimes let her ring to begin class.

Biden acknowledged that her path to teaching was not as direct as her grandmother’s. Like most educators today, she juggled her career with raising a family and pursuing professional degrees. “Teaching is not a 9 to 5 job,” she said. Yet even in your busy life, she went on, “there’s always a part of you thinking about your students. You carry them with you in everything you do.”

“We don’t do this because it’s easy; we do it because we love it,” Biden declared.

A love of teaching has infused Biden’s life’s work, from teaching and advocating for students at community colleges, to developing curriculum so that schools could better support military families. Teaching came naturally, and she remembers that even during the Obama-Biden administration, she would seek out a quiet nook on Air Force 2 where she could grade papers.

Biden’s time in the classroom also prepared her to think on her feet when she took on the role as Second Lady. “Educators always find a way to lead through chaos,” she reflected, and that resilience and resourcefulness proved well-suited to the turbulence of political life.

“What inspires me about educators is their ability to use every talent, every skill, as a tool to help students,” Biden said. To illustrate, she told the story of Maha Al Ashqar, principal of a girls’ school in Jordan. With the incoming Syrian refugees, Maha’s classes were becoming overcrowded, and she knew the school didn’t have the resources to take on any new girls. When a sobbing mother begged for her daughter to be able to attend the school, Maha came up with a plan: send your daughter to school with a chair—any chair you can find—and she can enroll. The next day, Maha opened the doors of the school to find a line of girls holding chairs. Because of her ingenuity, the school was able enroll 65 new refugee students.

Educators have a special perspective that allows them to see opportunity where others see a wall. “Every teacher here sees the potential in every student in their classroom,” Biden said. “I think that’s why we’re teachers; we see the potential in everyone.”

That’s not just a way of seeing the world, it’s a way of changing it, too. “Because of you, someone is a better thinker, kinder, braver, and able to bring a paycheck home to their family,” Biden emphasized. “You gave them a life raft, a lantern in the darkness, a key to unlock their potential because you gave them an education.”

Laura Varlas is an ASCD project manager in publishing, and a graduate student in the secondary education: English/language arts program at George Washington University.