Jarrett Fuller

Warren teaching at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in the early 1990s. Image via The Cut


The Pedagogy of Elizabeth Warren

There are many reasons why I want Elizabeth Warren to be our next president. One of the smaller, admittedly superficial, reasons is education background. In the hours I’ve watched of her leading town halls, I tried to figure out why I was drawn to the way she spoke to large groups. I eventually realized she’s runs these town halls like a classroom, she’s speaking like a professor. She calls on people to ask questions, she responds not with soundbites or overly scripted answers but lengthy, detailed answers that not only answer the question but also engages the crowd, teaching them about a particular issue. As a long lover of school, and now as an educator myself, she’s speaking my language. She’s in the world I love.

And I’ve always been curious how her background as a teacher — both a primary school teacher and as a law professor — shaped not only her view of the world but also her job now, as a senator, and as a presidential candidate. What did she learn in the front of the classroom that influences her campaign? How is politics like teaching? Thankfully, Rebecca Traister had similar questions1 and The Cut recently published her fantastic profile of Warren through the lens of teaching. As Traister summarizes Warren’s pedagogical approach:

[S]he establishes direct communication and affirms that she’s not going to be doing all the talking or all the thinking; she’s going to be hearing from everyone in the room. By starting with a question that so many get wrong but wind up learning the answer to, she’s also telegraphing that not knowing is part of the process of learning.

Traister notes we’ve never had an educator-president quite like Warren would be — Obama famously taught law, as did Taft. Millard Fillmore, I just learned, taught primary school! Warren, however, taught both, and because she didn’t enter politics until her sixties, her identity as a teacher is central to how she works today unlike these past politicians.

Her love of teaching came early; in second grade when her teacher put her in charge of helping the struggling readers in the class:

Mrs. Lee put the 8-year-old in charge of a less advanced reading group. The experience of helping struggling readers string letters together into words was intoxicating. Speaking to me in Cambridge, wearing an oversize button-down and baggy chino shorts, her hair bobby-pinned out of her eyes, Warren recalled the process of breaking words into their parts until “that flash, that spark, that I went from not knowing to knowing. It happens in their face, and it happens then in my heart, instantly. My brain. It’s enormously intimate.”

It’s clear Warren’s work as a primary school teacher had profound influence on her later career teaching law students. She recounts to Traister her hardest teaching job was fifth grade Sunday School:

It’s a pedagogical approach that Warren sees as linking all of her experiences of teaching. “It’s fundamentally about figuring out where the student is and how far can I bring them from where they are.” Her biggest lesson in this, she said, came not in a law school but in teaching Sunday school to fifth-graders in Texas. Asked by her Methodist preacher to take over a group of unruly kids, she thought it would be simple: “You teach them a little lesson, you do a little art project, you give them cookies and juice, you say, ‘Thank you, Lord,’ and then the hour’s over.” But for weeks, things were bad: “They cut each other’s hair, they cut each other’s clothes; the boys climbed out the window.” So she thought to herself, Okay, you know how to teach. Teach them like you teach them in law school. She brought in a kids’ version of the story of Noah and told them to read it, because she was going to ask them some questions.

Her first question was “How do you think Noah felt when he heard this voice?” They giggled. “‘He thought he was going crazy. He had a worm in his ear.’ But they actually got interested in the question: What would it be like to be somebody who had a job, who had a family, and hears God talking to him? Does he know it’s God? Would you really sell your stuff? Before you knew it, it was time for juice and cookies and then everybody went home,” she said. “I thought, Dang, that worked. I loved my fifth-graders. They showed me, in all my cases of teaching, it’s about figuring out where they are, adding a little to it.”

Warren’s a believer in the Socratic classroom method, where the teacher calls on everyone, bringing everyone into the discussion instead of simply the teacher speaking for 90 minutes or a dialogue with the few who like to hear themselves talk.

Warren had laid out a case “for how, if you really care about equality in the classroom, if you care about racial justice, gender justice, and you just rely on voluntary discussion in classrooms, you’re only going to hear from the two white guys that love to talk.” For Warren, the Socratic method did not further inequities; it was a tool to mitigate them…The reason I never took volunteers is when you take volunteers, you’re going to hear mostly from men. ’Cause they have a lot more confidence, and they’ll get those hands up.”

By all accounts, Warren was a popular and highly regarded teacher at Harvard — she remembered every students’ name and led class without looking at notes. She was tough but encouraging, expected a lot but was fair to everyone. If a student asked her a question after class or via email, she’s be sure to send the response to the entire class to ensure the students comfortable asking questions didn’t have a leg up.

I found Traister’s entire piece inspiring, especially as I’m deep in syllabi prep for the upcoming semester. It forced me to rethink some of my own methods, how I could reshape the classrooms to make a better environment for everyone. As I was reading the essay, it was announced Toni Morrison had died and I found myself thinking of this quote of hers from a 2003 interview:

I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.’

This, in many ways, has been Warren’s life work — as a elementary teacher, a law professor, a senator, and a candidate for president. Here’s how she described her career as an educator:

[G]ood teaching is about starting where you are and the teacher having the confidence in you to know that if you had a little bit more information, a little bit more time on this, if you thought about this from a little different perspective, you might move a little bit.

That’s the kind of teacher I hope to be. That’s what I admire about Elizabeth Warren and that’s what I want in the next president.

  1. Traister is one of my favorite writers and has written about Warren twice before, once in 2011 when she was running for senate, and once last summer as she was preparing to announce her own presidential run