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Teachers in America

While teachers in ancient societies were revered for their knowledge and wisdom, by the time the “profession” came to America, a teacher was one of the lower levels of the working poor, right alongside the clergy, often suffering deprivations and lack of personal life that others were accustomed to.

English schools, which were founded on the principle of a well-rounded student, became the model for the first American education system, with a very humanist approach. But unlike England, where the greater portion of schools were privately funded, New England colonists relied largely on government funding, while still holding the reins of who got the teachers’ jobs. Hired by the town council or clergy, a teacher was frequently monitored for violations of their moral code of conduct.

Early colonial teachers may have received only wampum or furs as their pay, and although that changed to money in the next 200 years, pay was often so low, that teachers were forced to take other jobs, or to manufacture pens and quills to sell…if their jobs allowed that liberty.

The Revolutionary War served as an impetus to improve the education of all. Franklin, Jefferson and George Washington himself, spoke passionately about the need for an educated electorate if America were to become a democracy. This led to an ordinance laid down in 1785, whereby it was recognized that private and religious organisations could not provide uniform educational programs, and so townships would now be required to set aside land for schools and operate them according to their population count.

At that time, as it would be for many years, the vast majority of teachers were male, starting with Puritan preachers in the early 1600s. Traditionally, it was considered a man’s profession, and women being uneducated in general, were unsuited. This was something of a farce, since the qualifications for teachers were so low. All it required was that the candidate had attended school themselves…with no particular level of achievement. When a woman did manage to get a job, it was with little children, the role woman was best suited for.

The 19th century saw the greatest movement in education. Education for all was not only suggested, it was legislated. Still, most schools lacked quills and pens, and the pencil had not yet arrived. Nor had the blackboard, which was invented in 1809, but did not come into regular use until 1820. Public schools multiplied rapidly, but women still took the backseat for employment, because it was assumed they were incapable of maintaining discipline.

War, the great equalizer of the sexes and other things, caused a shift in the demographics. After 1865, men returned to find their jobs had been filled during the Civil War by women, and filled quite competently, at up to 60% lower pay rates. Men left the profession in droves, because the pay was so low, even though those employed, made more than the women.

Just as today, teachers were expected to be like Caesars wife, “above reproach.” The moral strictures on their behaviour were somewhat Draconian in nature, and may have accounted for the high turnover of teaching staff. Men were not allowed to be seen having a shave in a public shop. They were allowed one night a week for courting purposes, and two if they were regular church-goers. Women were not permitted to marry, and couldn’t even attend public performances for entertainment. Even into the 1930s, new teachers hired in 77% of the existing school districts, were single, and 62% of those districts required them to resign if they married. Card playing was also forbidden, and when 11 high school teachers attended a local country club dance in 1929, they were immediately fired by the Kansas board of education.

At least by then, the explosion in public schools had also caused an equal increase in “Normal” schools, established to train competent teachers. As their competency was observed, so grew the respect for their profession.