PHOTO CREDIT: LIFETOUCH
Before becoming a fixture on morning television as part of NBC’s “TODAY,” Jenna Bush Hager was a classroom teacher and reading specialist. The daughter of Laura Bush, a former teacher and children’s librarian, and George W. Bush, the nation’s 43rd president, Hager told attendees at the NSBA Annual Conference in April that she grew up fascinated with her mom’s life in the classroom: “I was the kid who would line my dolls up and play school constantly.”
During an onstage interview in Orlando with NSBA 2022-23 President Frank Henderson, Hager, a New York Times bestselling author, shared stories about teaching in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore; her work with students and families in Latin America; her concerns about book banning; and more.
(This interview was edited for length and clarity)
Are there lessons from your time as a teacher that have stayed with you over the years?
Everything. I think I’ll work in education, or at least advocate for it, for the rest of my life. Once, after a day of teaching third grade, I told my mom that she wouldn’t believe what happened in school: One of my students answered a question, and his response astounded me. She said, “Why wouldn’t I believe that? Kids can do anything we expect of them. If we have high expectations, they can meet them.” That’s so true. It baffles me that we don’t necessarily understand how important teaching is because it can change the trajectory of everything.
What took you to Latin America and to work with UNICEF?
I wanted to get to know the places where many of my students came from and master the language so that I could speak with their parents and grandparents. UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund) tries to make sure that all kids get what they need to survive. What’s interesting is that kids everywhere, mothers everywhere, fathers everywhere all want the same thing: the chance to have healthy, happy, productive lives. As school board members, you represent many different locations, and all your kids want— and their parents want—the same thing. It’s what unifies us. Particularly now, when it seems there’s so much division, it’s important to remember how much we have in common.
Any advice for school board members navigating the current political division?
You all have probably been put in some not-so-great circumstances of late with books we have long loved as a country being taken out of your classrooms or libraries. As the daughter of a librarian, I hate that that’s where our country has come because we know that so many of those books are the fabric of the culture of our country, and our kids should have access to them. Teachers and librarians are trained to hand out what’s appropriate. I’m not worried that they’re going to give a book that’s meant for high schoolers to a third grader. If we don’t allow them the freedom to make the decisions that they’re trained for, then it’s saying, we don’t believe in you, which is not how I think most Americans feel.
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