The Sunday Conversation
4:47 am
Sun September 1, 2013

In The Classroom, Jill Biden Is A Teacher First

Originally published on Sun September 1, 2013 6:48 pm

Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.

Jill Biden's most visible role is wife to Vice President Joe Biden. But she has also had her own career as a teacher for more than three decades. Even now, she's a full-time professor at Northern Virginia Community College.

Biden says she never talks about her other life when she's in the classroom. Though students sometimes ask her whether she's married to the vice president, she deflects their questions.

"I think I have a separate role there as an English teacher, and that's who I want to be," she tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "And I think they like that, quite frankly."

She has had her challenges as an educator. In one class, she had a student who was being pushed by parents into an arranged marriage, and she's had women who have written class assignments about being abused. "Those are challenging in that you kind of have to tiptoe around," Biden says. "But you need to provide help and support to your students."

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Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WADE GOODWYN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Wade Goodwyn.

JILL BIDEN: Being a teacher is who I am. And I did not feel that I could live Joe's life, and he understood that. And I think that's one of the things I think he probably likes about me, that I am independent, I do have my own career.

GOODWYN: That's Professor Jill Biden, and the Joe she's talking about is the vice president of the United States. In addition to he public role as the second lady, she teaches full-time at Northern Virginia Community College. Jill Biden has taught for most of Joe Biden's political career, more than three decades, while raising three kids and at times going to school herself. She has three graduate degrees. WEEKEND EDITION's Rachel Martin sat down with her at her office in the White House complex. Jill Biden is this week's Sunday Conversation.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I understand you just started a new school year.

BIDEN: Yes. So I was excited to be back. You know, as an educator. I think we all have butterflies in her stomach and can't sleep the night before. But it was a good day.

MARTIN: You have been teaching at Northern Virginia for how many years now?

BIDEN: Well, since we were elected in - so 2009, I started four days after inauguration I was in the classroom.

MARTIN: So you're teaching English. You're teaching writing at Northern Virginia Community College. What's the background of your students? Who are they?

BIDEN: I have students from all over the world. I have such diversity. It makes it so interesting. But in addition to that, I have high school students. I have, you know, moms who are returning to college. I have veterans. So my classroom every day is just interesting to me.

MARTIN: I remember my own English class - composition in particular.

BIDEN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: You have to draw on your own life often times?

BIDEN: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: That's where you find inspiration for writing. I imagine that's how you give out assignments. And in English class, you kind of learn things about one another.

BIDEN: Absolutely.

MARTIN: How much do you divulge about who you are and your role as the second lady, and these other parts of your personality and identity?

BIDEN: You know, I never mention second lady. I do get ask once in a while, you know, hey, you know, are you Joe Biden's wife? And I'll say he's one of my relatives.

MARTIN: Really?

BIDEN: Yes. Or if I get pushed I say, you know, I'm your English teacher. And they'll look at me of those say, OK. We don't talk about politics. We don't talk about second lady. I never mention it.

MARTIN: Why not?

BIDEN: Well, because I think I have a separate role that are as an English teacher and that's who I want to be. I want to be Dr. B., their English teacher and I think they like that, quite frankly.

MARTIN: I read in a profile of you that you gave instructions to give your security staff?

(LAUGHTER)

BIDEN: Yes, to dress down. They have to look like college students - so no suits ever and they blend in. Because you have to remember, at the community college, there are all ages. The average age is 28 years old. And they have, you know, backpacks just like the rest of the students and I don't think you could probably pick them out.

MARTIN: Can you tell us about a moment that was really challenging for you as an educator - whether that was a student you couldn't reach, or had trouble reaching, or situation that was hard to navigate for you?

BIDEN: You know, as an English teacher, I feel that I get to know my students pretty well through their writings. Last semester, I had a young woman in my class who her parents were pushing her into an arranged marriage because she was from a different culture that believed in that. And she was pretty depressed. I think I've helped women who have been abused who have written to me in their journals that they're being abused, and I've been able to find help for them.

Those are challenging in that you kind of have to tiptoe around, but you need to provide help and support to your students.

MARTIN: And trying to figure out what is the line...

BIDEN: Yes. Yes.

MARTIN: ...because you admit, there has to be some compartmentalization as an English teacher.

BIDEN: Exactly, I'm their teacher. I'm not, you know, really their friend but yet they need to reach out to somebody who can help them. And a lot of times they may not have that person in their lives.

MARTIN: Do you have a success story of someone you taught who exceeded your own expectations?

BIDEN: You know, I have - something that happened to me last week at her home in Delaware, we had birds in the chimney.

(LAUGHTER)

BIDEN: So I called a chimney sweep to come out.

MARTIN: As you do.

BIDEN: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

BIDEN: And so this man came out and he said to me, You know, you taught my daughter several years ago. And I said I did? And he said, yes. And I told her I was coming to your house. And she said dad, tell her that I loved her class and that now I too am a professor. And he handed me her card. And then they me feel great all day.

MARTIN: Lastly, a lot of families are sending their kids back to school last week and again this week, teachers getting up many of them for the first time in front of a classroom. As someone who has done this for a long time, what is your advice?

BIDEN: Well, what I would say that the teachers is it's, you know, it's, you know, it's more important that you give your students the confidence, the confidence to learn to believe in themselves than sometimes with the actual subject matters is.

MARTIN: Any plans to stay in Northern Virginia beyond 2016?

BIDEN: Well, we'll see.

MARTIN: Dr. Jill Biden, thank you so much for taking the time.

BIDEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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