4 Teachers Who Became US Presidents
December 18, 2019
From the Founding Fathers to our current president, several commanders-in-chief had careers as educators before they became politicians. Learn about these four educators-turned-officeholders.
We’ve all heard of career changes. But one little-known path is surprisingly well-trodden — that of educator to politician.
Find out about four U.S. presidents who, before they stood before the nation, went before an even tougher constituency each day: their students.
Upon graduating from Harvard in 1755, John Adams was hired immediately by Thaddeus Mccarty, headmaster of the Central School in Worchester, Massachusetts. Mccarty had heard Adams’s commencement speech and was thoroughly impressed. Unfortunately, Adams was not happy as a teacher, and woefully described his pupils as “little runtlings, just capable of lisping A, B, C, and troubling the master," and the school as one of “affliction."
He was encouraged by friends to pursue a career in law, and he decided to keep his job as a teacher in order to pay for his studies as an apprentice, under the supervision of James Putnam, a successful member of the Massachusetts bar. During his time as a schoolmaster, Adams would start a diary he would keep for the rest of his life, though it his wife Abigail who would become known for her letters to Adams while he was president.
It is thought that Woodrow Wilson was born with dyslexia, and his early days of education were spent at home, being taught history and literature by his father. He would go on to study at the College of New Jersey — which became Princeton University — and later earn his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins. His research was largely centered on politics, which set the stage for his career change and pursuit of office later in life. He taught political economy and public law at Bryn Mawr before accepting a position as professor of history at Wesleyan University. While at Wesleyan, he published “The State: Elements of Historical and Practical Politics," which earned him tenure; shortly after, he secured a position as a law professor at his alma mater, Princeton.
While Princeton holds Wilson in high regard for the way he overhauled the university when he later became its President (he instituted the Oxford University model of small group tutoring, for instance), some current students dispute this reverence for Wilson, feeling displaced and excluded at what is already the least diverse of the Ivies.
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Elementary and Secondary Education Bill — which was reauthorized in 2002 as No Child Left Behind — announcing: “As a son of a tenant farmer, I know that education is the only valid passport from poverty. As a former teacher — and, I hope, a future one — I have great expectations of what this law will mean for all of our young people. As President of the United States, I believe deeply no law I have signed or will ever sign means more to the future of America."
LBJ’s career began as a teacher. With a borrowed $75, he enrolled in the Southwest Texas State Teachers College and worked as a janitor to pay his bills. He took a leave from his studies for one year to teach at the Welhausen School, a Mexican-American school in Cotulla, Texas. Later, after earning his B.S., he would teach public speaking at Sam Houston High School in (you guessed it) Houston, Texas, leading the school’s debate team to win the district championship and clearly honing his own rhetorical skills for when he would be elected to the House in 1931.
As good as President Barack Obama is with the little ones, it was not with them that he spent his days teaching. For 12 years, he spent time as a law school professor. It’s no surprise that the University of Chicago gets bombarded with questions about his time teaching at the school, where he was a lecturer from 1992–1996, and then a senior lecturer from 1996–2004. The president apparently turned down several offers to join the tenure track, and we all know what he decided to do instead.
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