As the nation’s Top 50 teachers gathered on the lush lawn of the White House’s Rose Garden in April, they waited with nervous anticipation as President George Bush took center stage. Each year, the State Teachers of the Year and the National Teacher of the Year are invited to Washington, D.C., to be honored by the president for their accomplishments.
But they were just as anxious to hear from first lady Laura Bush because she is one of their own. A former Texas elementary school teacher and librarian, Mrs. Bush has embraced education as her platform during her White House years. As she stepped up to the podium and began sharing her classroom experiences with the teachers, they nodded in mutual understanding.
“I know how rewarding and how challenging teaching can be and what a remarkable difference a teacher can make in the life of a child,” she told the group. “When I was 8 years old, I made the decision to become a teacher. My mother said she knew I’d be a teacher when she heard me scolding my dolls for not paying attention. But I wanted to teach because I loved school and I loved my second-grade teacher; I wanted to be just like her.”
One of her most memorable days remains her first day of teaching. “I had earned a teaching degree, but no textbook could prepare me for the pressure of 20 sets of eyes staring at me with total expectation,” she said. “At 9 a.m., we started to work. We recited the alphabet and numbers. We colored and we put together puzzles. We read a few books. And a few more. And by 9:15 a.m., I’d gone through my entire day’s lesson plans.”
Moments after the ceremony ended, she walked to the Map Room in the residence for an exclusive interview with American Profile. Warm and approachable, she remains a teacher in spirit and disposition as she encourages more Americans to become teachers and urges parents to read to their pre-school children.
“There’s a lot of research that shows that children who have been read to start school with a huge advantage,” she says. “They have a much bigger vocabulary because the vocabulary in books—children’s books that parents read to children—is larger than the spoken vocabulary of children who aren’t read to.
“Everything that’s associated with learning to read—the way we read in English, the way we turn the pages, the way we read from left to right on the page—all of those things we just assume children will know, but they have to be taught that,” she says. “Children have to be taught to read; it isn’t something you learn automatically.”
While growing up in Midland, Texas, Laura was read to each night by her mother, Jenna Welch. “We read Little Women before I could read it myself and cried together when Beth died,” she recalls. “And now, of course, I have those same memories of reading with my own children.”
The first lady vividly remembers the evenings filled with books by Dr. Seuss. “When the president would read Hop On Pop to them, they would take it literally. The front of Hop On Pop has the big bear Dr. Seuss character with the two little characters jumping on him, and that’s exactly what Barbara and Jenna did. When he read Hop On Pop, they did.”
She earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Southern Methodist University in 1968 and then launched her education career by teaching a third-grade class in Dallas. The next year, she moved to Houston, where she taught second, third and fourth grades.
She earned a master’s degree in library science from the University of Texas-Austin in 1973 and accepted librarian positions at public libraries and elementary schools in Houston and Austin through the 1970s. “I read, for instance, every single book in the whole library about landscaping and gardening, because that was an interest of mine,” she admits. “It was one of the few jobs where you didn’t feel guilty if you spent all of your time reading.” She married in 1977 and left the classroom to become a full-time mother in 1981.
Teachers today face many of the same challenges that Mrs. Bush did more than 30 years ago. “They’re always the same because the challenges are human challenges—the challenge to inspire children, the challenge to make sure children are really learning what you want them to. There’s always the challenge of making sure children know how to read, because if you can read, you can do all the rest of your subjects. Really, by about the fourth grade, most of your school work is dependent on your reading ability.”
What has changed, she says, is technology. “Now everyone is using a computer, and I noticed my girls in high school and in college, they e-mailed their papers to their professors. The use of e-mail is really a terrific tool for education.
“And then there’s the big competition that schools and teachers have, and that is television and all the other things that are offered to children now that other generations of children didn’t have. Most generations, up until probably 40 or 50 years ago, went home and did their homework.” Now homework must compete with sports and other demanding extra-curricular activities, as well as the television, she says.
“Turn off the TV, is my advice,” she says. “And we did this in our home. I think it’s really good to limit the amount of time your children watch TV. One of the ways you have to do that is to turn it off yourself.”
When her daughters were younger, she was careful not to turn on the TV too frequently. “They really didn’t complain about it,” she says. “They were also very self-directed. They came home from school and sat down and got their homework done because they wanted to get it done and be finished with it. I have to say, I was not that directed as a student. I was much bigger of a procrastinator than they ever were. But their father was pretty directed like that, so I guess they inherited it from him.”
Mrs. Bush, who left most of her personal collection of books at the family’s ranch in Crawford, Texas (pop. 705), begins and ends her days with books. “Laura, for God’s sake, turn off the light!” her husband has told her. “That’s when we both read, at night,” she says. “It’s how we relax. It’s really sort of a ritual for us. And then, in the morning, we get up really early and get coffee, bring it back to bed and read the newspapers.”
When her husband was elected president in 2000, she immediately knew that education would be her main focus as first lady. “When George was elected governor, those were the issues I worked on in Texas,” she says. “I actually hosted a symposium on early childhood education, a lot like the one that I hosted in (Washington, D.C.).” In fact, the first lady was on Capitol Hill on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, scheduled to brief the Senate Education Committee about the symposium.
In 2001, she launched the first National Book Festival, an annual event that celebrates reading. Last year’s event attracted 80 authors and a crowd of more than 70,000. This year’s festival is scheduled Oct. 9 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
She also works with several recruitment programs, including the New Teacher Project, which welcomes mid-career professionals to low-income and rural schools; Teach America, which recruits college graduates to teach in under-served schools; and Troops to Teachers, which offers second careers to retired military personnel.
“Education is always an important issue in our country, and it’s never finished,” she says. “We think, ‘OK, we’ve really gotten that right. Now we know the research and we know how to teach reading.’ But the fact is, another kindergarten class starts the next year.”