As she campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren frequently mentions a past job that takes up just one year on her resume.
“You know, I think I’m the only person on this stage who has been a public school teacher,” Warren declared during a discussion of education policy at last month’s debate among 10 of the Democratic candidates.
She surfaces her time as a K-12 teacher in stump speeches, often before reiterating her pledge to appoint a teacher as U.S. Secretary of Education to applause from gathered supporters.
But recent reports have fueled critics of Warren who question her statements in past speeches that she left the classroom because she was “visibly pregnant” and that her principal “showed me the door.” In response, Warren has stood by her story, saying that it was an experience that “millions of women will recognize.”
And the candidate who mentions her time in the classroom and brands herself as one who “has a plan for that” on every subject has not yet released a broad K-12 education plan.
In a crowded primary that finds candidates making bold education pledges, putting teachers at the center of their campaign commercials, and jockeying for endorsements from powerful teachers’ unions, it remains to be seen how much Warren’s brief K-12 teaching experience will matter to actual teachers—and to voters in general.
Reasons for Leaving
If she wins both her party’s nomination and the general election, Warren would be the first president since Lyndon B. Johnson to have K-12 classroom teaching experience.
After studying speech pathology in college, Warren worked as a speech pathologist under an “emergency certificate” at an elementary school in Riverdale, N.J., fulfilling a childhood dream of becoming an educator, she has said. On the campaign trail and in her 2013 book, A Fighting Chance, she has told the story of being forced out of that job as a pregnant woman.
In a recently resurfaced 2007 interview, Warren doesn’t mention her principal when she discusses leaving K-12 schools to become a mother and, eventually, a professor at Harvard Law School.
And in a Monday story, the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative newspaper, shared minutes from an April 1971 meeting of the Riverdale school board showing that Warren was offered a part-time teaching contract for the following year. Minutes from a June 1971 meeting of the board showed that Warren’s resignation was “accepted with regret.”
The Free Beacon characterized this as a contradiction of Warren’s own story that she was forced out.
Some political commentators have used these recent news stories to question Warren’s credentials and to revive previous concerns about how she presents her personal history to the public. Conservatives including President Donald Trump, for example, have long criticized Warren for identifying as Native American during her time as a law professor, a claim she has since apologized for.
“Everybody can work in a school, but if you give it up after a few years, you don’t get to say, ‘Well, I was a teacher,’” said Michele Kerr, a Republican who teaches at a high school in Fremont, Calif. “I think she says she’s a teacher just like she said she’s a Native American. It doesn’t matter much to me.”
Among progressives, some supporters of Warren’s primary opponents have circulated the recent stories about her time as a teacher on social media.
However, others quickly jumped to Warren’s defense, saying that the New Jersey school board’s minutes did not disprove Warren’s statement that her principal forced her out. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, for example, questioned why Warren was being singled out, saying that “This happened to women ALL the time,” and that women would leave their jobs “knowing that they would be fired.”
On Tuesday, Warren doubled down.
“When I was 22 and finishing my first year of teaching, I had an experience millions of women will recognize. By June I was visibly pregnant—and the principal told me the job I’d already been promised for the next year would go to someone else,” Warren said in a tweet. “This was 1971, years before Congress outlawed pregnancy discrimination—but we know it still happens in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. We can fight back by telling our stories. I tell mine on the campaign trail, and I hope to hear yours.”
Issues of Bias
Allegations of pregnancy discrimination—and discrimination in general—may be a more frequent topic of discussion on the presidential campaign trail as more women and people of color pursue the presidency.
Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978, amending Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to prohibit workplace discrimination on the basis of “pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” And it passed the Family and Medical Leave Act, requiring employers to provide unpaid leave for maternity and other conditions, in 1993.
Even today, laws, policies, and evaluation systems don’t necessarily tell the whole story in these situations, said Ryan Balch, a senior lecturer in education policy at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development.
When it comes to pregnancy or a variety of other issues, Balch said, “Principals do have the ability to influence whether a teacher comes back or not in ways that are outside the formal system.”
Megan DiSciscio, who teaches elementary school music in Waltham, Mass., said she’s not troubled by the recent stories about why Warren left her teaching job.
“It was the ’70s and women were often pressured to leave their jobs for myriad reasons,” she said. “It’s not surprising to me that on paper it said she resigned.”
Some teachers in today’s classrooms still struggle to keep up with their workload after having a child, and some principals are less accommodating of the needs of new parents, teachers told Education Week.
Just a few states, including Washington state and New Jersey, as well as the District of Columbia, provide paid parental leave for teachers. And the combination of a packed schedule, unsupportive school leaders, and aging school facilities can make it difficult for new mothers to pump breast milk after they return to the classroom.
Teachers in 2020 Campaigns
Warren’s references to her education career come after waves of activism on the state and local levels have driven public attention, and sympathy, to the concerns of teachers. In a December 2018 Gallup poll, 60 percent of respondents said they had “high or very high” levels of confidence in the honesty and ethics of high school teachers, among the highest of any profession in the poll.
Other 2020 Democratic contenders have also sought to tie themselves to teachers. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, for example, released a video linking his campaign to protesting West Virginia teachers. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg released an ad targeting U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a divisive figure among teachers who question her support for public education. And former Vice President Joe Biden has also pledged to appoint an education secretary with teaching experience.
Warren’s appeals to teachers are personal. In an April interview, she recalled the moment she decided to become a teacher after helping her 2nd-grade classmates sound out words during reading time, watching “that flash, that spark,” when it finally made sense.
“It’s enormously intimate,” she said.
I wanted to be a teacher since 2nd grade. Here I am with my doll collection—I used to line them up and play “school.” Later, I had the chance to be a special education teacher and a law professor because America invested in kids like me. We need to invest in kids again. #TBT pic.twitter.com/eNvEO6GMu1
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) April 25, 2019
For DiSciscio, Warren’s frequent mentions of her K-12 teaching past are meaningful.
“Teaching is one of those weird things where everybody thinks they understand it because everybody was a student at some point, but actually doing it is different,” DiScicio said. “I am really tired of having people making all of the decisions in education reform and education funding who just fundamentally don’t understand what we do every day.”
While one year in the classroom might not give Warren enough experience to guide her education policy, DiSciscio is heartened by the senator’s pledge to appoint a teacher as U.S. education secretary. “It is enough experience to know the importance of choosing the right person to make those [education policy] decisions,” she said.
Yet Balch, the Vanderbilt professor, questioned whether any attempt by Warren to turn the story about teaching and her pregnancy to her advantage would have a major impact on teachers. “It’s like a secondary justification,” he said. “I think they’re going to form their opinion based on a lot of other things.”
A Missed Opportunity?
Warren’s lack of a bullet-point vision for K-12 education has caused consternation in some left-of-center quarters. But it’s by no means certain that Warren’s lack of a sweeping plan is hurting her candidacy, which is riding high in the polls. (Warren’s campaign did not respond to a question about any such comprehensive plan.) As a senator, Warren has spoken out against policies such as private school vouchers and for-profit charter schools.
President Barack Obama’s proactive K-12 policy, which focused on struggling schools, charters, teacher evaluations, and content standards, created sharp divisions among Democrats. In 2015, a Pew Research Center survey found that just a bare majority of Democrats and those who lean Democrat had a favorable view of Obama’s Education Department. Both national teachers’ unions called on Arne Duncan to resign as Obama’s education secretary.
And ultimately, this dissatisfaction helped drive liberals and conservatives to work together to recast the main federal K-12 law that in several ways rebuked the Obama administration’s work.
As a result, many Democratic base voters might be at least uninterested or even wary of candidates promising big things from Washington about public schools. This may be why other 2020 contenders are pledging boosts in federal education funding but steering clear of more controversial education issues among Democrats.
“On a more philosophical level, I feel like when politicians tinker too much with education, it resets things, and that can do more harm than good,” said Jared Beloff, who teaches AP English at a New York City public high school. “What I’m looking for with education is less meddling.”
DiSciscio, the Massachusetts teacher, says she wants a candidate to address the inequity between wealthy school districts and the poorer ones next door, which is tied largely to disparities in local property taxes. But she’s not itching for Warren to unveil proposals related to issues like accountability or testing.
“I think our education system is kind of an exquisite corpse of people coming in for a few years and trying the newest fad then leaving us to pick up the pieces of the damage it causes,” she said.
Even before the recent discussions about why she left the classroom, Warren’s teaching experience didn’t matter a great deal to teachers like Chris Green, an English/language arts teacher in the San Antonio Independent district. He said that while it might mean something for a candidate to have that background, being a teacher today “has never been more demanding.” What matters more than a basic background in teaching or how she left teaching, Green said, is what expertise or leadership Warren can demonstrate that’s rooted in her classroom experience.
“It’s a different game now,” said Green, who said the 2020 candidates who interest him the most are Warren, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. “For anyone to say, ‘I taught one year,’ I question how much you understand my current day-to-day experience.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 23, 2019 edition of Education Week as Election Wild Card: Elizabeth Warren’s Year as a Teacher