Jill Biden would scramble into cocktail dresses in a bathroom at Northern Virginia Community College before rushing to White House receptions when her husband was vice president. She graded papers at night in a tiny nook on Air Force Two. Her Secret Service agents dressed like college students and carried backpacks to blend in when she was on campus.
Now “Dr. B,” as her students call her, plans to continue teaching English and writing at the college when she moves into the White House in January. She will be the first president’s wife to continue her professional career as first lady, after becoming the first second lady to do so. She will also be part of a small group of union members to hold the title, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Nancy Reagan.
For Biden, 69, roles as a top White House figure and an educator will be intertwined, just as they were during her time as second lady, as she recalled in her memoir. A member of the National Education Association, she is a natural emissary to the teachers unions that aggressively supported President-elect Joe Biden’s bid for president after four years of battling the Trump administration and prior tension with the Obama administration over academic standards, charter schools and testing.
She plans to keep pushing two years of tuition-free community college, just as she did during and after the Obama administration, along with her work on initiatives to support military families and fight cancer. New plans include addressing food insecurity issues created by the pandemic, as well as tackling unequal access to technology and broadband for students, according to the campaign.
“It would be a real modernizing of the first ladyship … to have the president’s spouse live the kind of life that the majority of women live, which is working outside the home professionally,” said Ohio University professor Katherine Jellison, who studies first ladies.
Jill Biden has assured union members that teachers will have a “seat at the table” in a Biden administration, and she said her husband will want to appoint an Education secretary who is an educator with public school experience and who will fight for the right to organize and collectively bargain.
“Joe knows that the best policies don’t come from … politics,” she said during an October fundraiser with NEA members. “They come from educators like us.”
Jill Biden held several events with teachers unions during the campaign, and NEA President Becky Pringle said she fully expects those conversations to continue, with the first lady working directly with educators and discussing developments throughout the administration.
“With Joe we get Jill,” Pringle said in an interview before the election. “She understands how we, as a profession, have to have that professional authority and respect to actually do the jobs that we were professionally trained to do.”
A likely GOP-led Senate and Republican gains in the House will make it harder for Joe Biden to fulfill his labor agenda. “I am concerned about it,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers.
Even so, Jill Biden’s ascent is a lift to educators who promoted the campaign, from AFT’s multistate, get-out-the-vote bus tour to NEA’s digital organizing, phone banking, texting, virtual rallies and car caravans.
“Imagine, just imagine someone living in the White House, who has been where we are, and completely understands our needs and concerns,” said Stephanie Ingram, a fourth grade teacher and president of the Delaware State Education Association, during the NEA fundraiser.
Biden has spent more than three decades teaching — in community colleges, high schools and at an adolescent psychiatric hospital. She delivered her Democratic National Convention speech in August from a classroom at Brandywine High School in Wilmington where she taught English in the early 1990s.
“For American educators, this is a great day for you all,” Joe Biden said during his victory speech Saturday. “You’re going to have one of your own in the White House.”
Jill Biden wrote that she never intended to make a statement as the first second lady to continue her career with a full-time job. Her advisers thought it would be too much. One asked if she was crazy. “I just wanted to do the thing I love best,” she wrote in her 2019 memoir, “Where the Light Enters.” Her husband’s response: “Of course you should.”
She describes living a “double life" in her memoir, “caught between State receptions and midterm exams.” Biden told NEA members during the fundraiser that she found her “niche” teaching at a community college, with students from “all different walks of life.” But she was never interested in letting them know her identity.
When students asked if she was Joe Biden’s wife, she would tell them that he’s a relative. “Or if I get pushed I say, ‘you know, I’m your English teacher,’” she told NPR in 2013, adding that she has a separate role as a professor. “That’s who I want to be. I want to be Dr. B, their English teacher, and I think they like that, quite frankly.”
According to her top tags on RateMyProfessors.com, Biden gives her students “good feedback” and is “respected” and “inspirational,” but she’s also a “tough grader” who gives “lots of homework.”
While financial disclosures show Biden continued taking a paycheck while serving as second lady, the campaign did not respond when asked if she would take one come January.
At the White House, former President Barack Obama tapped her to help promote community colleges, traveling the country to different campuses and job training and completion programs.
“The only reason she’s here is because her college president gave her permission to miss class,” Obama said a decade ago at a White House Summit on Community Colleges. “And this morning, between appearing on the Today Show, receiving briefings from her staff and hosting the summit, she was actually grading papers in her White House office.”
Biden in 2015 became the chair of the independent College Promise Advisory Board, which promotes at least two years of free community college. She continued that work until the spring of last year, when her husband launched his 2020 bid.
When the nonpartisan College Promise campaign kicked off, it identified 53 College Promise programs across the nation. Today there are programs across 47 states, including 30 that are statewide, said Martha Kanter, CEO of the nonprofit.
“She was visionary about it,” said Kanter, a former undersecretary of Education during the Obama administration. “She knew that without an education beyond high school, this country would not be prosperous.”
Obama’s push for federal legislation to offer two years of tuition-free community college never made it through Congress, but Joe Biden plans to revive that effort. His plan also calls for eliminating tuition at four-year public universities for students from families making $125,000 or less.
Having Jill Biden as first lady ensures the administration won’t lose sight of the importance of community colleges and the need to ensure that they’re affordable and adequately funded, said Debbie Cochrane, executive vice president of The Institute for College Access & Success.
“As we enter what could end up being a devastating recession, that’s hugely important,” she said. “Community colleges are one of the single biggest levers we have for economic mobility in the country. So supporting them adequately is what will help us recover from this time.”
Jill Biden has different ways of getting a message across, from Post-it notes to her husband on the bathroom mirror to a more creative approach. She describes in her memoir how she angrily marched through her living room in a bikini with the word “No” penned on her stomach as party leaders tried to get her husband to run for president in 2003. The family had already decided against it.
He didn’t run.
Teachers expect her to be influential on their behalf in the White House. “She’s in his ear,” Pringle said. “Anyone that has a spouse knows how influential that is. … Any spouse of a teacher experiences that because they live that life, because teachers bring it home.”
Her opinions on education will have “some heft,” but Joe Biden is more likely to rely on his team of advisers for education policy decisions, said Jeffrey Henig, director of the politics and education program for the Teachers College at Columbia University.
“I think her influence would be more as an informed sounding board whom he trusts completely rather than as a policy maven,” he said.
Former Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat from her home state, said governors heard most from Jill Biden as second lady about policies to ease burdens on military families. Markell described her as a "policy expert" but said, "I think what is most remarkable about her is that she brings to every conversation the very practical, what is going to be the effect on this family, this person, and what is it that we as public servants can do to make it easier for these families?”
During the campaign, Biden earned a reputation as her husband’s bouncer after twice helping eject protesters from rallies.“You can take the girl out of Philly…,” she tweeted after one of the incidents.
Biden grew up mostly in the Philadelphia suburbs — roots she played up often during the campaign. “My summers were spent watching the Phillies with my dad and waitressing at the shore,” she said at a rally with teachers unions outside Upper Moreland High School, her alma mater. She arrived at the school wearing a blazer, but she ditched it for an Upper Moreland hoodie the school gave her with “Dr. Jill” written on the back, Pringle said.
Biden has two master’s degrees, one as an education reading specialist and another in English, according to her memoir. Her doctorate in educational leadership is from the University of Delaware in 2007, and her dissertation focused on maximizing student retention in community colleges.
But she is also known for her pranks. One notable maneuver involved cramming herself inside an overhead bin on Air Force Two, just to give someone a scare. It apparently worked.
“She’s not your average grandmother,” Naomi Biden, one of Biden’s grandchildren, said in Jill Biden’s convention introduction video. “She’s the grandmother who wakes you up at, like, what was it? 5 a.m. on Christmas Eve to go SoulCycling. … When she goes on a run, sometimes she’ll find, like, a dead snake and she’ll pick it up and put it in a bag and she’ll use it to scare someone.”
For Biden, April 25, 2019, started with her husband announcing he was running for president. Then, she was off to teach class and collect research papers, she wrote on her Instagram account.
Biden took a leave of absence from the Northern Virginia Community College in January because of the campaign, but she kept an eye on returning next year, completing online-teaching training and certification.
“I’m still trying to figure things out,” she told Vogue in September. “I have a lot more sympathy for [my students] when I get back into the classroom, knowing just how tough it is.”
Rebecca Rainey and Eleanor Mueller contributed to this report.
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