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Jane S. Bray column: Dr. Jill Biden — next first lady and educator
Public Education and the White House

Jane S. Bray column: Dr. Jill Biden — next first lady and educator

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“American educators — It is a great day for y’all.” I was struck by this sentiment that was shared by President-elect Joe Biden in his speech to the nation on the evening of Nov. 7. Biden was referring to his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, a community college professor in Virginia. Dr. Biden spent her career as an educator and, now as first lady, will bring the focus of education directly into the White House. It indeed was a welcomed sentiment, particularly for public education, including pre-K-12 schools and higher education.

However, this is not the first time former educators have occupied the White House. Ten former presidents had some type of teaching experience in their backgrounds. For example, President Lyndon B. Johnson was a dedicated history teacher. Many first ladies also had teaching experience in their pasts, including Laura Bush, who was a teacher and a librarian.

But somehow, this feels quite different with Dr. Biden. Perhaps one can attribute the difference to the serious issue the pandemic has caused for educators across the nation. Young children to college-age students have felt the impact of online teaching and the disruption of what once was considered normal schooling for them.

Educators relied on their experience and teaching skills in the classroom before the pandemic. Without warning, many educators across the nation were forced to immediately shift their skills to teaching online with virtual sessions. Those educators who eventually returned to face-to-face teaching environments had to enforce and maintain health standards, lower class sizes, teach virtually and in person at the same time, all while worrying about staying healthy themselves.

This does not include the pre-existing difficulties all schools faced and continue to face with meeting technology needs for all students. According to USAFacts, 4.4 million households with children don’t have consistent access to computers for online learning during this pandemic. Layered on top of these educational hardships are the many parents, caregivers and guardians who suddenly were thrust into the role of home schooling their children.

Higher education institutions — both four-year institutions and community colleges — were not immune to these difficulties. They, too, scrambled to ensure that their students had the access to the internet and also had the technological equipment needed to continue their classes.

It is indisputable that students from all levels of education, geographic areas, ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds and learning attributes gravely have been impacted in their education. It is not yet known if they will fall behind in their learning development, or perhaps even leave school, and what exactly will be needed to assist schools in the future.

Research has yet to determine the effects these disruptions and difficulties caused. Legitimate longitudinal research is many years or decades away. This is the reason it is so very important to have Dr. Biden in the White House right now.

Dr. Biden is in a position to champion public education, and recognize the needs of children and educators. Educators and education organizations would be wise to look to Dr. Biden to advise the president on the selection of the next U.S. secretary of education. It is imperative that this position be filled with a strong and knowledgeable educator to guide our educational systems in life after COVID-19. It is even more critical that the next secretary of education support public education and it is essential to our future challenges that this person have prior teaching experience.

Educators from all levels must work closely with their national organizations and state agencies to help shape the future of schools after COVID-19, and effectively communicate their needs to the next administration. Finally, there could not be a more opportune time for community colleges and community college systems such as in the commonwealth of Virginia to look to our new first lady for support in advancing their extremely critical mission in our educational system.

President-elect Biden praised Dr. Biden and shared that “teaching isn’t just what she does but who she is.” This could not be more promising for the future of our children, of our schools and for public education. Educators across the nation, join me in welcoming our new first lady and educator, Dr. Jill Biden.

Jane S. Bray is the former dean of the Darden College of Education & Professional Studies at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. Now retired, she also is professor and dean emeritus of Millersville University of Pennsylvania, and the former chair of the board of directors for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, headquartered in Washington, D.C. Contact her at: jsbray@odu.edu

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