Jill Biden returns to college teaching role with appeal for unity

First presidential spouse with independent career hopes community college class will show middle ground on Covid

September 8, 2021
Washington DC, USA 11-06-2020 Armor plated Chevrolet Suburban with US presidential seal and 800 002 license plate used by presidential motorcade is cruising in Constitution Avenue near White House.
Source: iStock

US First Lady Jill Biden this week became the first presidential spouse to work an outside job, returning to her community college classroom with an explicit message to embrace in-person teaching with appropriate caution.

Dr Biden, a professional teacher since in 1976, began what will become a twice-a-week routine of taking a high-security motorcade on an 8-mile commute to her job at the 14,000-student Alexandria campus of Northern Virginia Community College.

At a time of great anxiety and political jousting in US higher education over policies and rules for coping with the ongoing Covid pandemic, Dr Biden also is providing a first-hand role model – advocating in-person teaching combined with respect for basic health guidelines.

The state of Virginia’s community college system has rejected any vaccination requirement, and Dr Biden is moving ahead with a strategy of wearing a mask in a room where her 18 students will have physically distanced seating.

That is similar to what is being seen in many US college classrooms, albeit amid partisan battling in some parts of the country over how much risk to take to resume in-person experiences and whether vaccines or masks should be required elements.

“As we return to our classrooms this fall,” the first lady wrote in Time magazine just ahead of the semester, “it will take all of us coming together to keep our schools safe and open. We must remember that our enemy is the virus, not one another.”

Dr Biden taught her English classes remotely during this past spring semester, and made clear she didn’t like that aspect of it. “I think it’s really hard,” she told New Hampshire school students in March.

Her writing classes this semester are listed by her college as possibly hybrid, although she has expressed an expectation that they will remain fully in-person.

The 70-year-old first lady took a break from teaching during the presidential campaign. She and her husband, Joe Biden, repeatedly cited her career as evidence of their understanding of students and their needs, and of their commitment to addressing them.

In office, however, the president has struggled to meet his campaign promise to dramatically reduce college costs and the nation’s $1.7 trillion (£1.2 trillion) accumulated student debt. The two-year community college sector, meanwhile, has been especially hard hit by pandemic-related enrolment declines.

Despite the first couple’s frequent public references to her job, Dr Biden and Northern Virginia Community College have put a priority on downplaying her fame on campus. Their decisions include agreeing to list her name in the course catalogue, but only after weighing various alternatives to deter celebrity-seeking enrolments in her class.

The college also devised a way to pay her $86,000 salary through a private foundation, to reduce the chances of legal battles over the first family receiving government pay beyond constitutionally authorised amounts.

Dr Biden also has endeavoured in the past – from the time when her husband was US vice-president – to ensure that her gun-toting Secret Service protectors dress as students and keep a low profile around her classroom.

The campus in recent days, however, has included hundreds of refugees from Afghanistan who have been temporarily housed there while awaiting longer-term arrangements following the Biden administration’s hasty and widely criticised military withdrawal from their country.

The beginning of a school year is often “messy and magical”, Dr Biden wrote in the Time commentary. “The anticipation and excitement of this time of year is one of the best parts of being a teacher.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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