Nazila Jamshidi had just moved to the United States from Afghanistan when she met Jill Biden at the women’s center of Northern Virginia Community College, where Biden teaches and Jamshidi had just enrolled. Jamshidi says she realized that the school had many women Afghan students who weren’t able to finish their degrees and proposed an Afghan women’s summit to help them.
“Dr. Biden welcomed that idea,” Jamshidi says. “She said we should do everything we can do to help every kind of student at our school.” The summit was a success, and soon after an Afghan student council was launched.
With a 40-year career teaching public high school and community college, Biden understands students are from every race, country, economic class, and age group, and sees firsthand the challenges they face, Jamshidi says. That means she’ll know what needs to be done to help students—and that could have a big impact on kids and their families.
This past year has brought incredible challenges for students, their parents, and their teachers. Educators hope that as first lady, Biden—who has two master’s degrees in education and arts, as well as a doctorate in education—will bring new attention to education by using her office, her closeness to President Joe Biden, and her ability to conduct old-fashioned politics to advocate for education reform.
“How many presidents said they’re the education president but in reality didn’t meet the rhetoric?” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Here hopefully reality will meet the rhetoric, because you actually have a teacher in the White House.”
But regardless of what education issues Biden brings to the forefront, Weingarten says her biggest priority is that Biden makes “children a very big deal.”
“I really do hope that children take a front seat in this administration,” she says.
Biden’s role as first lady
First ladies typically choose a few issues to focus on. Barbara Bush and Laura Bush—a second-grade teacher and librarian—focused on literacy; Michelle Obama championed kids’ nutrition and exercise, and Melania Trump worked on cyberbullying. So it would make sense for Biden to focus on education, says Myra Gutin, the author of The President's Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century.
“We didn’t see this as much with Melania Trump, so we may have forgotten that when the first lady talks about something, it becomes part of the national conversation and draws tremendous publicity to whatever that area is,” Gutin says.
Katherine Jellison, a professor at Ohio University and an expert on women’s history, also expects Biden to use her new office to draw attention to education.
“She could use the White House in a way that Jackie Kennedy intended it to be,” Jellison says. “She wanted it to be a living classroom, so Dr. Biden might continue that,” perhaps by holding occasional classes for her students in the White House.
Or, says Kate Brower, author of First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies and the children’s book Exploring the White House, she could host virtual tours for kids who aren’t able to travel to Washington, D.C., similar to Jackie Kennedy’s televised tour of the White House. “She could be teaching them about American history in a safe way,” Brower says.
And in much the same way Obama used her position to showcase African-American artists, Brower says Biden could potentially bring in work by students. “That’s one way to make the physical stamp that a first lady can have,” she says.
Jellison added that she could see Biden doing something similar to Michelle Obama bantering or dancing with talk show hosts like Ellen DeGeneres and Jimmy Fallon.
“She might not do the education dance, whatever that is, but she could talk about issues in an appealing, lighthearted manner and get across the message of how important education is for individuals’ futures and the future of the nation,” Jellison says.
Impact on education
The specifics of that message are hard to predict. But the fact that there will be a teacher as one of the president’s closest advisers is important, Gutin says.
“She’s been a political advisor to her husband the entire time of their marriage,” Gutin says. “I expect her to be very involved. She’s going to be an active advocate.”
As second lady, Biden would have weighed in on education policy “but wasn’t given that responsibility,” Brower says. Now, she expects Biden to act as a sounding board for her husband and potentially call members of Congress to use long-standing political relationships to advocate for legislation.
Based on Biden’s history teaching special education, as well as the issues important to the teachers unions that supported Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, that could mean more focus on boosting school funding, increasing special education programs, and pushing for teacher retention.
Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, says she’s spoken to the Bidens about education issues repeatedly and is confident they’ll push for things such as tripling the funding for students in poverty through the federal Title I program and increasing teacher pay. The NEA also pushed for the education secretary to have teaching experience—Biden’s pick, Miguel Cardona, is a former fourth-grade teacher. Jill Biden has also spoken about initiatives close to her heart, including debt-free community college, training teachers to work with military children, and increasing the number of counselors in schools.
The first lady could also have a children’s coordinator or czar who crosses different agencies to keep a focus on children’s needs, or convene a kid’s cabinet in the White House to call attention to children’s issues, Weingarten says.
But don’t expect Biden to be like Hillary Clinton heading the Health Care Task Force when her husband was president.
“Every first lady since has learned that the public doesn’t want a first lady weighing in that directly on policy,” Brower says. “They’re not elected. People were even mad that Michelle Obama wanted people eating healthier.”
Being a visual symbol
Regardless of her influence on legislation, Biden’s presence in the White House as a teacher will be an important visual symbol.
“It’s very powerful for kids—especially young girls—to see a teacher who is first lady,” says Andrea Darby, an elementary school teacher in Massachusetts. “That role model aspect … that does affect us, does affect children to see a teacher who’s in the White House.”
She’ll also be a visible reminder of the after-hours work that teachers do, Weingarten says.
“I love that she’s been the person at night who helped her kids finish an assignment, coaxed answers out of unwilling participants,” she says. “And people teased that while Joe Biden was vice president, there was a person literally grading papers in the residence.”
Pringle says teachers, students, and their families should have good reason to be optimistic about a teacher living in the White House, and that Biden is enthusiastic about her ability to make changes, too.
“She's talking about these issues from a place of experience, as an educator," Pringle says. "It's exciting for her to be embracing this moment to bring her lived experience to a new role."