Teachers in the White House


Education is a major issue in the current election campaign. Many of our past presidents had first-hand experience in the education field. Some were teachers, and others were college presidents.

The first President to be a teacher was John Adams. After his graduation from Harvard, he became the master of the grammar school in Worcester, Massachusetts. Soft-spoken and introverted, Adams did not enjoy teaching. He described his students, ranging in age from five to fifteen, as “little runtlings, just capable of lisping A, B, C, and troubling the master.” For Adams, his classroom became a “school of affliction.” He studied for the law in the evenings, and after two years, left teaching to become a lawyer.

Thomas Jefferson, after he left the White House, founded the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia. In addition, he designed the buildings and campus and established the curriculum. He also served as the first Regent (what we would call a president today). To this day, students there refer to the University of Virginia as “Mr. Jefferson’s University.” The Rotunda and the Serpentine Walls are famous examples of Mr. Jefferson’s architectural designs.

James Madison and James Monroe not only followed Jefferson as President, each followed him as Regent of the University of Virginia. Madison became Regent upon Jefferson’s death, and Monroe served for five years after Madison retired. In the years they were in charge, the University of Virginia continued to grow and became one of the leading schools in the nation.

Andrew Jackson taught school for less than a year in 1783. He taught near Waxhaw, South Carolina, where he was raised. He left teaching when he moved to Salisbury, North Carolina to study law. Like Adams, he did not enjoy teaching.

Millard Fillmore taught school while he studied law. He quit teaching when he became a lawyer. Fillmore’s wife also taught school, and continued to teach after they were married, which was unusual for a woman to do then. After a successful career in the New York legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives, Fillmore lost his bid to become governor of New York in the election of 1844. He then became the first chancellor of the University of Buffalo. He served for only one year, leaving the University of Buffalo when he was elected comptroller of New York.

Probably the President with the most involvement in teaching was James A. Garfield. After an illness forced him to quit his job driving a team of horses pulling barges on the Ohio Canal, he enrolled in the Geauga Academy. After his first term there, he supported himself teaching in the local district school. He then attended Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, which later became Hiram College. After three years there, he studied for two years at Williams College. The president of Williams College, Mark Hopkins, had a great influence on Garfield. Garfield later described his idea of the perfect college as “a simple bench, Mark Hopkins on one end and I on the other. . . .” After he graduated from Williams in 1856, he returned to Hiram College as a professor of ancient languages and literature. (It is said that Garfield could write one sentence in ancient Greek with one hand and another sentence in Latin with the other hand, simultaneously.) The next year, he was chosen president of Hiram College. Garfield was about to board a train at Union Station in Washington headed for his 25th reunion at Williams College when Charles J. Guiteau shot him.

Grover Cleveland taught for a year at the New York Institution for the Blind in New York City. His father died when Grover was 16 years old, and he joined his older brother who was already teaching there. He left teaching to study law and become a lawyer.

William McKinley also taught for a short time. He was forced to leave college during his junior year due to illness. He returned home, and taught in a local country school for a term. He left when the Civil War broke out, being the first man in his hometown to volunteer.

William Howard Taft had a long career in government, including positions as a federal judge, governor of the Philippines, and Secretary of War. After he left the White House, he became a professor of constitutional law at Yale University Law School. He held this position when President Harding named him Chief Justice of the United States.

Woodrow Wilson is probably the only true professional educator ever elected President. Wilson established a law practice in Atlanta, Georgia, and practiced law for a year before deciding he was not suited to a legal career. He earned his doctoral degree in political science from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Wilson is the only President to earn a Ph.D. degree. For three years, he was an associate professor of history at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. He then became a professor of history and political economy at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. (He also coached football, leading one of the school’s greatest teams.) In 1890, he became a professor of jurisprudence and political economy at Princeton University. In 1902, the trustees of Princeton University unanimously elected Wilson president of the university. This was the position Wilson held when he was elected governor of New Jersey; two years later he was elected President of the United States.

Dwight Eisenhower served as president of Columbia University from 1948 until 1950. He never devoted his full attention and energies to his work at the university because he was frequently called to testify before Congress on defense policies, and served as an advisor to the government on merging the War and Navy Departments into the Department of Defense. He left Columbia University to return to active duty and become Supreme Commander of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Europe.

Lyndon Johnson graduated from the Southwest Texas State Teachers College, which is now Southwest Texas State University, in San Marcos. He ran out of money and was forced to leave college before graduating. He taught school for a year in Cotulla, a small town in South Texas. After saving enough money, he returned and graduated from college. After graduating, he taught public speaking and debate in the Sam Houston High School in Houston, Texas. He left to become a congressional secretary in 1931.

Richard Nixon became the youngest member of the Whittier College Board of Trustees at age 26. He also taught a law course at Whittier College.

Gerald Ford was the only All-American athlete to become President of the United States. After graduating from the University of Michigan, Ford took a position as an assistant football coach and boxing coach. He coached full time at Yale from 1935 until 1938, when he entered Yale Law School.

A number of Presidents have at some time been involved in education, although only a few actually did it as any kind of a career. Some were teachers, most were administrators. Today, this kind of experience is rare. Considering the importance of education as an issue, this is significant.