Dr. Jill Biden (and others)

Paul Tritter, Tommy Chang, Dr. Jill Biden, Deb Delisle

The opening general session at ASCD’s Empower18 was Dr. Jill Biden.

I’m going to indulge myself and share again how I met her in 2014 during teacher appreciation week at the White House and Old Executive Office Building. This picture was taken in her office. It was an absolutely inspiring opportunity.

Hearing her speak to thousands of educators was also inspiring. What followed, however, was even better. She sat down for a conversation with Deb Delisle, the executive director of ASCD, Tommy Chang, the superintendent of Boston Public Schools, and Paul Tritter, the director of professional learning at the Boston Teachers Union (at least I think that’s his title). The talk between the four of them was thoughtful, thought-provoking, and quite fun for the audience.

When I met Dr. Biden back in 2014 she told that group of educators that people often asked her why she continued to teach while she served as second lady. She said that people find it surprising. She looked around the table, making eye contact with each of us, and said, “You all know why I do it.”

During this conversation she said several things that took me back to that moment, several things that reminded me of how passionate she is about teaching and how much it matters in our society.

“We all struggle to find balance in our lives, but it is especially hard for educators. We don’t clock out at the end of the day. If you are anything like me, you never really leave the classroom behind. We carry our students with us everywhere.”

She clearly did and still does many things beyond teaching, but she is always a teacher. Her students are always a part of her life. Seeing her balance that, whether she thinks she’s doing it well or not, is wonderful.

“What inspires me about educators is their ability to use every talent, every skill, every tool that you have to make a difference. You see every opportunity as a gift.”

This is one of the most amazing things I have watched in twenty years in education. Teachers waste nothing, no materials, no ideas, no moments.

“There is nothing like this job. There is nowhere else we’d rather be. But I know it can be easy to lose sight of that on a day to day basis. So let me remind you what you already know: your work changes lives.”

The way she actually said that should probably have periods after each of the last four words. It felt so much like that moment when she made eye contact with each of us at that table four years ago. She believes so strongly in the power of teachers to improve students’ lives and, through that, our world.

Paul Tritter had several comments during the conversation that stuck with me.

“You can’t build a relationship with students if you don’t bring your authentic self. Your identities matter.”

Teaching is a political act. It doesn’t have to be a partisan act, but it will always be a political act. Too often teachers feel they need to sanitize who they are in the classroom. I don’t buy it. Building relationships with our students is one of the most critical things we can do for them for many reasons and that can’t be done without allowing them to know us.

“No two classrooms should look the same. There should be things in common. Just like no two students or teachers are the same.”

This goes along with Paul’s first quote. If we knew the one exact way that all students will learn best we could do that one thing. All of us, exactly the same way. But we don’t. Students are different and learn in different ways and teachers are different too. We need to respect that, encourage that, and use it well.

If you’re interested in reading more about Dr. Biden’s talk, check out this short piece from ASCD.


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