Teaching Profession

‘One of Your Own in the White House': A History of Teacher First Ladies and Presidents

By Madeline Will — November 18, 2020 10 min read
Jill Biden, wife of President-elect Joe Biden, in a classroom at the Evan G. Shortlidge Academy in Wilmington, Del., during the 2020 presidential campaign.
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There will be a teacher in the White House come January—the latest in a long line of presidents and first ladies with classroom experience.

Jill Biden, who holds a doctorate degree in education, has taught for more than three decades at a public high school, a psychiatric hospital for adolescents, and community colleges. (She delivered her speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention from her former high school classroom in Delaware.)

Biden—or as she’s known to her students, “Dr. B"—has taught English and writing at Northern Virginia Community College since 2009, when she became second lady. She plans to continue teaching after her husband is sworn in as president, making her the only first lady so far to continue her professional career.

“Teaching isn’t just what she does,” President-elect Joe Biden said in his victory speech on Nov. 7. “It’s who she is. For American educators, this is a great day for you all. You’re going to have one of your own in the White House.”

Many teachers cheered his comments. “I’m thrilled there’s going to be an educator in the White House,” said Tabatha Rosproy, the 2020 National Teacher of the Year. “That representation is really important.”

Rosproy said she’s hopeful that Biden, who’s a member of the National Education Association, will use her platform to champion issues related to education and elevate teacher voice.

“That’s the power of [the role]: You can bring attention to all kinds of things that are important to you,” said Michelle Gullion, the director of collections and research at the National First Ladies’ Library, an Ohio-based nonprofit dedicated to researching and preserving the contributions of first ladies throughout history.

And first ladies have the ear of the president: “You’re telling him about your concerns—those are going to be his concerns,” Gullion said. “It just goes to reason that they’re going to be listening to what you have to say.”

Jill Biden won’t be the first educator to live in the White House, though. With help from the National First Ladies’ Library and the White House Historical Association, Education Week reviewed the other 19 teachers who lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

First Ladies Who Were Teachers

Biden will be at least the 10th first lady to have classroom experience, according to the National First Ladies’ Library. More than 47 women have held the role over the course of history.

“Most first ladies grew up in a time where if they were going to enter the paid workforce, it would be as a teacher,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian at the University of Pennsylvania. “Teaching is [now] a much more explicit choice for an American woman than it would have been in earlier eras when it would have been essentially the choice if you were going to work outside the home.”

Much of the following information is from the National First Ladies’ Library, as well as presidential libraries:

Abigail Fillmore (in the White House from 1850-53): Fillmore was a teacher for more than a decade before getting married. She taught at a public school but supplemented her income by teaching at a private school nearby. There, she met Millard Fillmore, who had enrolled in the school as a teenager. “She helped him learn with precision, and on subjects where they both lacked knowledge, they studied together,” the National First Ladies’ Library states. They eventually fell in love.

After they married, Abigail Fillmore continued to teach for more than a year, which was unusual for a married woman at the time. She stopped when she became pregnant with her first child.

Lucretia Garfield (1881): Garfield taught in several different schools before marriage. Over the years, she taught French, Latin, algebra, reading, and art.

Caroline Harrison (1889-92): Harrison taught music, home economics, and painting in Ohio and Kentucky before she was married.

Helen Taft (1909-13): Before Taft was married, she worked as a part-time French teacher at a private school and then taught at a school for boys in Cincinnati. After she married William Taft, she worked as a kindergarten teacher for year, focusing on art instruction, such as drawing, using clay, and sewing. She did not take a salary that year, inspired by the work of her mother-in-law, who formed the Cincinnati Free Kindergarten Association to provide for poor children in the city. Taft left teaching after she became pregnant.

Grace Coolidge (1923-29): For about three years, Coolidge worked as a teacher at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Massachusetts. She was a proponent of teaching students to communicate by lip-reading instead of using sign language. (This is a debate that has gone on for decades, with many people who are deaf and hard of hearing advocating for children to learn sign language.)

Coolidge stopped teaching once she was married, but she was a lifelong supporter of the Clarke School and remained interested in deaf education. She was careful not to become a national advocate for lip-reading, however, given the controversial nature of the debate, said Gullion of the National First Ladies’ Library.

Still, the library states that the “mere presence of the former teacher of deaf children in the White House” put a national spotlight on deaf education.

Lou Hoover (1929-33): Hoover earned her teaching certificate in 1893 and worked briefly as a substitute teacher before marriage. Later, Hoover was active with the Girl Scouts.

Eleanor Roosevelt (1933-45): With two other women, Roosevelt bought and helped run a private girls’ school in New York City in 1927. She taught courses in American history, literature, and current events. According to the National First Ladies’ Library, Roosevelt continued to teach after Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected New York governor, spending her commute time from New York City to Albany grading her students’ exams and papers.

She stopped teaching once her husband became president because that was the societal expectation of the time, but she didn’t want to, Gullion said. Roosevelt loved her work at the school, telling a reporter in 1932, “I like it better than anything I do.”

Pat Nixon (1969-74): For about five years, Nixon taught typing, bookkeeping, business principles, and stenography at a high school in California. According to the National First Ladies’ Library, Nixon served as the faculty adviser to the school’s pep committee, helped organize student rallies, attended all high school sports games, and was a director for school plays.

Laura Bush (2001-09): Bush taught second grade for a few years, then worked as a school librarian for about five years until she was married. She then worked on George W. Bush’s political campaigns and raised her two children. As First Lady of Texas, Bush focused on literacy and early-childhood development, lobbying the state legislature for funding. In the White House, Bush continued to promote the importance of reading aloud to young children and early childhood education. She also supported programs to build the teacher pipeline, including Troops to Teachers, and advocated for the No Child Left Behind Act, which the president signed into law in 2002.

“I feel very comfortable in schools, and I like to visit schools a lot,” Bush told Education Week in 2001. “I haven’t had that much of a role in the actual creating of actual policy. But all my life I’ve worked on issues that have to do with education.”

Presidents Who Were Teachers

At least 10 presidents were K-12 teachers, according to research by the White House Historical Association. Several more taught at colleges or universities or had informal connections to education, the association says, such as serving as the president of a university or lecturing post-presidency.

For these presidents, teaching was mostly in preparation for something else, said Zimmerman, the education historian: “In the 19th century, teaching [for men] was a waystation to other professions.”

But K-12 teaching experience is less common for presidents to have now, he said, adding that many recent presidents “went to elite schools that prepare people for elite professions, and teaching is not that.”

Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton were both law professors before presidency, while President George H.W. Bush taught part-time at Rice Business School.
Much of the following information is from the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, the White House, the White House Historical Association, and presidential libraries:

John Adams (in the White House from 1797-1801): Adams’ first job was as a teacher in Worcester, Mass. He taught for only a couple years to earn money to become a lawyer. According to the John Adams Historical Society, which is run by the Boston University Graduate History Club, Adams disliked teaching, finding it “uninspiring and boring.”

Andrew Jackson (1829-37): Jackson briefly worked as a teacher before deciding to become a lawyer. He also disliked teaching, finding it to be difficult, Zimmerman said.

Millard Fillmore (1850-53): Fillmore did not receive much formal education as a child but was eager to learn. As a teenager, he enrolled in school and was taught by Abigail Powers, who would later become his wife. Fillmore began teaching school to support himself and continued teaching until he became a lawyer.

Franklin Pierce (1853-57): Pierce taught briefly in Maine while finishing his degree at Bowdoin College. He went on to become a lawyer.

James A. Garfield (1881): Garfield supported himself through his own schooling by working as a part-time teacher and a school janitor, according to the Miller Center. After he graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts, he worked as an instructor in classical languages at the Eclectic Institute in Ohio. He also taught English, history, geology, and math. Garfield later served as the school’s principal, although the Miller Center noted that he “found the faculty bickering intolerable.”

Chester A. Arthur (1881-85): After graduating college, Arthur worked as a teacher while studying law. He later became a principal of a school before becoming a lawyer.

Grover Cleveland (1885-89 and 1893-97): Cleveland worked as a teacher at the New York Institution for the Blind (which is now the New York Institute for Special Education) for two years before he became a lawyer. The institute says that during this time, Cleveland developed “an interest in the welfare of persons with blindness that he never lost.”

William McKinley (1897-1901): McKinley was working as a teacher when the Civil War started. He left his job as a teacher to enlist in the Union Army and then became a lawyer.

Warren G. Harding (1921-23): Harding briefly worked as a teacher before purchasing a newspaper in Ohio.

Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-69): Johnson earned his teaching certificate at Southwest Texas State Teachers College (now known as Texas State University-San Marcos). He got a teaching job in Cotulla, Texas, a small town on the Mexican border. Many of Johnson’s students didn’t speak English, and Johnson didn’t speak Spanish. According to the U.S. National Archives, however, Johnson “quickly and enthusiastically began teaching and encouraging the children to speak English by holding speech and debate tournaments.” He also organized a literacy society, an athletic club, and field trips so his students could compete against neighboring schools. Johnson bought playground equipment for the school with his first paycheck.

Johnson only taught briefly, but his experiences inspired several of his education policies as president. He created Head Start for preschool-aged children from low-income families and supported bilingual education and child nutrition. He also signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which significantly expanded the federal role in K-12 education. (It was last reauthorized as the Every Student Succeeds Act.)

“As a former teacher—and, I hope, a future one—I have great expectations of what this law will mean for our young people,” Johnson said as he signed the federal education law.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.
A version of this article appeared in the December 09, 2020 edition of Education Week as ‘One of Your Own in the White House’: A History of Teacher First Ladies and Presidents


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