Six Teachers-Turned-Politicians You Need to Know

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: those who teach can do just about anything. That is, if you can engage a roomful of kids — and help them learn in the process — who’s to say you can’t take over the world?

Still, we could all use a reminder of the great things teachers can accomplish beyond the classroom.

Behold: six former teachers who made their name in politics. They include a prime minister, a president and a first lady who happens to be my personal hero.

1. Justin Trudeau

It’s true: the recently elected prime minister of Canada has “just” a bachelor’s in education and literature. (Hooray for English/education majors!) Trudeau taught elementary math as well as high school French, humanities and drama for three years at a private school, and also substitute taught at a public school. He’s said he became a teacher to have “a positive influence on the world,” and based on the new gig, that goal still stands. Among his first accomplishments as prime minister: selecting Canada’s first cabinet with an equal number of men and women and welcoming Syrian refugees to the country.

2. Elizabeth Warren

You might know that U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren used to be a Harvard law professor, but did you know her first job after college was teaching special needs students at a public elementary school? Warren has called teaching her “first love,” and said her time in the classroom makes her “appalled at the frequent attacks on public schoolteachers in this country.” As a senator, Warren has championed the middle class, earning the nickname “Sheriff of Wall Street” for her efforts to protect consumers from corrupt financial practices.

Warren teaching at Harvard

3. Mark Takano

Representative Mark Takano (D-California) is a former public high school teacher who taught British literature for more than 20 years (Another huzzah for English teachers!). He became Congress’s first openly gay person of color when he was elected to office in 2012. Takano serves on the House’s Education Workforce committee as well as its Veterans Affairs committee and Science, Space and Technology committee — but he’s probably most famous for his teacher humor: In 2013, Takano’s red-penned remarks on draft legislation went viral. Check out his Tumblr page for more witty political commentary.

4. Mary McLeod Bethune

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mary McLeod Bethune was an influential educator and civil rights activist. As a key figure in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet” and founding president of the National Council of Negro Women, Bethune helped advance education and employment for African Americans. But Bethune began her career as a teacher. The daughter of former slaves — and the only one of 17 children her parents could afford to send to school — knew the barriers facing African Americans acutely. Her many accomplishments include founding a school for girls from poor black families, which started with just five students but quickly expanded through Bethune’s leadership. That school eventually became what is now Bethune-Cookman University. In her last will and testament, Bethune wrote, “Knowledge is the prime need of the hour.”

Bethune with Bethune-Cookman students

5. Lyndon B. Johnson

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights ActMedicare and Medicaid were all signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson. His vision for a “Great Society” also included landmark legislation promoting education for all — most notably, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher Education Act, which continue to provide federal financial support for the nation’s poorest students. Johnson’s teaching experience helped inspire his devotion to progressive ideals. As he explained in a 1965 speech:

“My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican-American school…. My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast, hungry…. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams [then] that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country…. But now I do have that chance… [and] I mean to use it.”

Lyndon Johnson, the teacher, and his students in 1928

6. Eleanor Roosevelt

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Had to save my favorite for last!

I’ve collected books about “ER,” visited the national historic site devoted to her and FDR, and devoured the recent Ken Burns seven-part documentary, “The Roosevelts” (catch it on Netflix!).

I admire Eleanor for her lifelong activism on behalf of underrepresented groups, including African Americans (she considered Mary McLeod Bethune a good friend). And I love that, before serving as First Lady, ER was a teacher! For six years, ER taught history, literature and public affairs at the Todhunter School for Girls in New York City.

Eleanor Roosevelt (fourth from left) with Todhunter students

Eleanor Roosevelt (fourth from left) with Todhunter students

Eleanor was so devoted to teaching, in fact, that she kept at it throughout FDR’s two terms as governor of New York. This meant grading papers and lesson planning on the long commutes between Albany and NYC. Read more of my gushing about ER’s work as an educator here.

Know of any other inspiring teachers-turned-politicians? Please share their stories below!

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Happy Birthday to Eleanor Roosevelt, Boss Lady and Badass Teacher!

Eleanor Roosevelt was an awesome woman. Though she was born into wealth and privilege, she fought tirelessly for the rights of everyday people. She also encouraged women to become “political bosses” – yes – “women bosses who [could] talk as equals” and “play the [political] game as men do.”

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In fact, “the Lady” wielded much more political and personal power than history has given her credit for. According to Blanche Wiesen Cook (author of the twovolume ER biography I’m reading), ER essentially ran a parallel administration during FDR’s twelve-year presidency. Whenever she disagreed with his administration’s treatment of women, the poor, African Americans and other marginalized groups — which was quite often —  she would openly oppose her husband in public speeches, newspaper articles and other efforts to effect the changes she wanted.

As much as ER loved the political game, she was just as passionate about education. She had loved being a student, and loved being a teacher of history, literature and public affairs at the Todhunter School for Girls in New York City.

In honor of what would have been her 129th birthday today, here are 5 things that made Eleanor Roosevelt an excellent educator:

1. She championed women’s education in word and deed.

In a 1930 essay for Redbook, and in many other publications thereafter, ER encouraged women to educate themselves in order to gain real political power. They had to “take the pains to study history, economics, political methods [and] get out among human beings.”

And she was confident in the social change that would come as a result: “In my youth I knew women who hid their college degrees as if they were one of the seven deadly sins. But all that is passing, and so will pass many other prejudices that have their origin in the ancient tradition that women are a by-product of creation.”

ER put her beliefs into practice when she bought the Todhunter School for Girls at 66 East 80th Street in 1927. There, she served as vice principal, teacher and participated in all aspects of school life – including writing for school magazines and newsletters, raising money and seeking prospective students.

Todhunter School

2. She was a tough teacher who wanted her students to be informed, critical and active citizens.

ER held her students accountable for their work, and felt disappointed when they performed poorly. She believed that “the girls will have to take certain hurdles in life and that hurdles in school are an important preparation.” ER assigned research projects to promote critical thinking, wrote exams to assess her students’ political literacy (sample question: “Do you know of any way in which the Government protects women and children?”), and organized school trips to courthouses and tenements so her girls (who all came from privileged backgrounds as well) could learn about and be inspired to improve their communities.

She believed that good teaching began with students’ own interests, and that lifelong learning was imperative, saying often: “Education only ends with death.”

3. She loved her job, worked hard at it, and it paid off.

ER described teaching as the “one thing that belongs to me” and also said, “I like it better than anything else I do.”

On her commutes to and from New York’s Grand Central Station, she would grade papers, and read “voraciously” to prepare for the week’s lessons and lectures.

Blanche Wiesen Cook calls ER’s success as a teacher “rapid” and “intense.” Student Patricia Vaill said, “I never forgot a damn thing she ever taught me.”

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ER (in dark coat) with Todhunter students and principal Marion Dickerman (third from left)

4. As much as she could, ER remained a dedicated teacher despite FDR’s growing political career.

Throughout FDR’s two terms as governor of New York, from 1929 to 1932, ER made weekly train trips from Albany to Todhunter rather than give up her teaching duties. At the time, this refusal to give up her work was rather unusual for a political wife – and unusual, actually, for any wife of a financially secure husband.

ER juggled teaching, family and business engagements. After teaching all morning, she would attend political events in the evening. On Wednesdays, she returned to Albany and to her roles as First Lady of New York and mother to five children.

Only when FDR was elected President in 1933 did ER finally, reluctantly, leave her teaching career.

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5. She never forgot the teacher who inspired her.

ER modeled her teaching on Marie Souvestre, a radical, feminist educator and founder of Allenswood, the school Eleanor attended from ages 15 to 18.

Roosevelt admired Souvestre’s brilliant mind, formidable presence and commitment to creativity and intellectual rigor. ER recalled being “expected to do a good deal of independent reading and research” and working hard on her papers though she had seen Souvestre “take a girl’s paper and tear it in half in her disgust and anger at poor or shoddy work.”

Allenswood was where the adolescent Eleanor began to express her opinions, feel confident in her abilities and take on leadership roles. “For the first time in all my life all my fears left me,” she said.

ER's Allenswood school portrait

ER at 15

Souvestre and Roosevelt became lifelong friends.

After Souvestre’s death in 1905, ER kept her beloved teacher’s picture on her desk, and carried her teacher’s letters with her always.

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Marie Souvestre, also a badass teacher

Today also happens to be the International Day of the Girl. What a perfect pairing of women’s education advocates!

Let’s Hear it for the Heroines

The past week has been an education in the civil rights movement for me.

As I was researching my post on teacher/activist Septima Clark, I began reading about the March on Washington, too. For all of her work towards equality and jobs for African Americans; for all of the inspiration she offered speakers at the March like John Lewis and Martin Luther King, Jr., I thought: Surely Septima must have been invited to speak, too!

But I couldn’t find any record of that happening, and discovered that women’s voices were not well represented at the March overall.  Here’s what I learned from The Root , Teaching Tolerance, and Democracy Now:

– There was a “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom,” but Septima Clark was not among those honored.

– Medgar Evers’s widow, Myrlie Evers, was scheduled as the speaker for the tribute to women, but got stuck in traffic and didn’t get to speak at all  had a prior speaking engagement in Boston.

Daisy Bates was tapped to speak in Evers’s place . Her remarks were about a minute long, and she was the only woman to address the crowd during the official program.

– There were two separate marches: the men walked down Pennsylvania Avenue, and the women — including Daisy Bates and Rosa Parks — walked down Independence Avenue.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

Septima Clark, and all the unsung heroines of the civil rights movement, deserve better. (Where’s Clark’s comic book??)

As a small celebration of Clark, I made two education-themed “posters” of her. Please share and enjoy!

septimaClarkrichlyalive

septimastudyinquire

10 Reasons Septima Clark was a Badass Teacher

Septima Clark was an educator and activist who made enormous contributions to the civil rights movement. Here’s why she deserves just as much fame as Dr. King (and why he thought so, too):

1. She rose from humble beginnings — and the legacy of slavery — to start teaching at age 18.

Septima Clark was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1898. Her father was born into slavery and didn’t learn to read and write until he was an adult. Her mother was a washerwoman though she was educated as a child in Haiti.

Clark was the second of eight children. Because she couldn’t afford to attend college, she got her teacher’s license after graduating high school in 1916. It was the start of a 40-year career as a public school teacher.

2. She was deeply committed to professional development.

After her husband died in 1925, Clark moved to Columbia, South Carolina, and sent her son to North Carolina to live with his grandparents. Though it was a painful separation, it allowed her to keep teaching and pursue a college degree.

In the summers, she studied at Columbia University in New York, and at Atlanta University. She earned a bachelor’s from Benedict College in 1942, and a master’s from Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in 1945.

3. She never let racism dampen her commitment to teaching and social justice.

In 1916, when she realized she couldn’t work in Charleston because black teachers weren’t allowed to teach there, Clark left the city and began teaching in John’s Island, South Carolina.

When a 1956 state law demanded that she give up membership in the NAACP or lose her job, she moved to Tennessee, where she became the director of education at Highlander Folk School and remained an active member of the NAACP.

4. She fought tirelessly for the fair treatment of black teachers in her home state.

Clark campaigned for a law allowing black teachers to work in Charleston’s public schools, which was passed in 1920.

She also worked with Thurgood Marshall on legislation that gave black teachers equal pay in Columbia, South Carolina.

5. Clark helped thousands combat racism through education.

With a loan from the Highlander Folk School, Clark helped found the first Citizenship School on John’s Island in 1957. In addition to providing social justice training to civil rights activists, Citizenship Schools taught literacy as a means to civic freedom for poor blacks who had never received schooling. They learned practical skills, like how to fill out driver’s license forms, read the newspaper, and open a bank account.

Clark with a student in Wilcox County, Alabama thislittlelight1965.wordpress.com

Clark with a student in Wilcox County, Alabama
http://thislittlelight1965.wordpress.com/tag/septima-clark/

By 1970, there were Citizenship Schools all over the South — nearly 10,000 teachers and 200 schools in all.

6. She paved the way for the (recently gutted) Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Through the workshops she led at Highlander, and the curriculum she designed for Citizenship Schools, Clark helped thousands learn to sign their own names and read the Constitution so they could pass literacy tests designed to exclude blacks from voting. She also taught them to read and understand the voting laws in their state.

Clark at one of her Citizenship Schools in South Carolina. http://www.crmvet.org/images/imgeyes.htm

Clark (center) at one of her Citizenship Schools in South Carolina.
http://www.crmvet.org/images/imgeyes.htm

7. Threats of violence and jail time couldn’t stop her.

Though she experienced troubling incidents — including being physically threatened by the KKK in Natchez, Mississippi in 1965, and getting arrested for teaching integrated classes in 1959 — Clark pressed on.

“None of those things discouraged me,” she said.

8. Her teaching inspired Rosa Parks, John Lewis, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Four months after attending one of Clark’s workshops at Highlander, Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her bus seat to a white man — and sparked the Montgomery bus boycott. Parks said of Clark, “I wanted to have the courage to accomplish the kinds of things that she had been doing for years.”

Clark (left) with Rosa Parks at the Highlander Folk School in 1955, right before the Montgomery bus boycott. http://www.crmvet.org/images/imgeyes.htm

Clark (left) with Rosa Parks at the Highlander Folk School in 1955, right before the Montgomery bus boycott.
http://www.crmvet.org/images/imgeyes.htm

John Lewis, another famed civil rights leader and current Georgia Congressman, was also profoundly influenced by Clark’s teaching at Highlander.

In his memoir Walking with the Wind, he writes, “What I loved about Clark was her down-to-earth, no-nonsense approach, and the fact that the people she aimed at were…the same ones I could identify with, having grown up poor and barefoot and black.”

When Martin Luther King, Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he had Clark join him at the ceremony because he felt she deserved just as much credit for her work.

Clark has remained a relatively unsung hero of the movement. Lewis admits: “Her name might be generally unknown today, but she was a powerful influence on many of us during that formative time.”

9. She was an outspoken feminist.

Clark criticized the men she worked with who dismissed her and other women’s contributions to civil rights, calling their sexism “one of the weaknesses of the movement.”

In 1958, she spoke to the National Organization of Women about black and white women’s shared struggle against male domination.

She even encouraged the use of birth control in a time when the matter wasn’t openly discussed. Clark realized that too many black women and children suffered from having large families without adequate resources.

10. After retiring in 1970, Clark continued to fight inequality and serve her community.

In 1976, she won the back pay and pension that was denied to her when she was fired from her South Carolina teaching job in 1956 for being a member of the NAACP.

Clark in her later years laureltobyedison.com

Clark in her later years
http://www.laurietobyedison.com

She served on the Charleston County school board from 1975 – 1978, when she was nearly 80 years old.

Big thanks to Zinn Education Project for this post idea. Check out their page on Clark’s book Freedom’s Teacher, and their teaching materials on the civil rights movement!

Sources

Interviews with Jaquelyn Hall (1, 2)
King Center
AKA Authors
U of South Carolina — Aiken
Safero
StateUniversity

Dicker-Brandeis, Redux / Badass Teachers, Past and Present

One

Last week, I wrote about Freidl Dicker-Brandeis as the first subject in a new series on great teachers in history.

But then I realized, Dicker-Brandeis wasn’t just “great.” She was a badass. Here’s why:

1. She helped hundreds of children cope with the soul-crushing conditions of living in a ghetto during the Holocaust, forced to live separately from their parents and facing down their own deaths.

2. Before being sent to Auschwitz, Dicker-Brandeis had the foresight to hide two suitcases full of her students’ art so they wouldn’t be destroyed by the Nazis. If she hadn’t done so, we would have lost 4,500 testaments to the power of art to create hope and humanity in the worst of circumstances.

3. To prepare for teaching in the Terezin ghetto, she brought largely art supplies with her, instead of personal belongings and other survival items.

4. She was an accomplished artist in her own right — a student of the Bauhaus movement who studied under famous figures like Paul Klee. Here are two of her paintings.

5. Some of her students went on to become respected artists themselves. Georg Eisler and Edith Kramer are two now-famous students she taught while still living in Prague.

Two

I’m hereby renaming the series Badass Teachers in History. This is also a conscious choice to draw an alliance between history and the present — namely, efforts by groups like the Badass Teachers Association to fight education “reforms” that destroy individuality, creativity, and teacher morale in public schools.

And thanks to the Twitterers (Tweeters?) over at the Zinn Education Project, I have a whole bunch more Badass Teachers in History to write about.