Teachers Through History: The Myth of the Golden Age

By Robert Lowe

“He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock, perched upon his spindle neck, to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for. The genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.”

Washington Irving’s unflattering portrait of Ichabod Crane, the awkward and opportunist schoolmaster from Connecticut, captured popular contempt for the calling of the country teacher in the years following the American revolution. His was a job that paid little, asked few qualifications, and occupied a short term in winter when more productive labors had come to a halt.

School reformers of widely different political views like to harken to a golden past when teaching was a true profession. Conservatives fret about the competitive position of the United States on the world market and renounce schools’ responsibility for promoting equality. They imagine a time when teachers were masters of academic disciplines and provided their charges with first rate intellectual training. On the other hand, some liberals and radicals seek to restore teachers’ allegedly autonomous past when, free of the deskilling effects of bureaucratic constraints, they could devote themselves to creatively nurturing students’ affective and cognitive abilities.

The historical record, however, suggests that such pasts never existed. This article will look briefly at what really happened with teaching in the United States over the last 200 years. It will dispel myths of a golden past, and in doing so, it may help us assess where we are now and what the prospects are for significant reform.

One Room Schools

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the one room district school prevailed, and the typical teacher was male. Occasionally a college student earning money for the next term, the schoolmaster was more likely a local farmer, tavern keeper, or individual with no demonstrated talent for gainful employment. Basic literacy and numeracy were the general requirements for the Job, plus applicants had to pass locally created, often absurd trustees’ examinations that historian David Tyack has labeled “trials by trivia.” Arbitrarily tested and evaluated, it was not by coincidence that the successful candidate often belonged to a trustee’s family.

Only in storybooks did a teacher practice his calling in a tidy red schoolhouse nestled in a rich green meadow. In reality, as Carl Kaestle has pointed out in Pillars of the Republic, the school typically was a crude structure of logs or clapboard located in a swamp or other wasteland unfit for farming. In this building, the schoolmaster would find what scholar Joseph Kett has called a “promiscuous assemblage” of students ranging in age from three-year-old “a-b-c-darians” to young adults. Some fifty to sixty scholars and as many different textbooks brought from home would further perplex the tasks of the untrained teacher. Memorization backed up by corporal punishment constituted a pedagogy of repression.

Feminization of Teaching

Originally a male pursuit, the sexual composition of the teaching force first slowly and then rapidly changed during the nineteenth century. By 1870 the occupation had become 60% female and rose steadily to nearly 90% in 1920. Historians point out several reasons for this transformation. Changing conceptions of education began to stress nurturing and patience, qualities associated with women. Males enjoyed expanding opportunities in more remunerative pursuits; females did not. Women could be hired more cheaply, a matter of importance as immigration swelled the school-going population. And as public school reforms created graded classrooms and a need for supervision, it was believed that females would be more pliant subordinates.

Feminization of teaching coincided with rising entry standards. The creation of normal schools and summer institutes, as well as a lengthening school term, tended to drive men out of a job that had previously required no credentials and could be performed in the winter months when other work was scarce. Ironically, as teaching began to require formal training and occupy a greater part of the year, its identification as a fem^e calling remanded it to a subordinate place in the occupational hierarchy. Even when men returned to teaching in large numbers after the Second World War, it did not attain the stature of an authentic profession.

The Urban Scene

By the turn of the twentieth century women teachers predominated. Although one room rural schoolhouses still were widespread, practices in the cities were shaping the future of teaching. Most urban elementary school teachers in 1900 had an eighth grade education, and high school

teachers, who then served a tiny percentage of the nation’s youth, had attained a year or two of college. Not a single state required a high school diploma for teaching at the elementary level.

Urban teachers now benefited from facing graded classrooms with uniform texts. But in cities like New York, 60 to 70 students, speaking myriad languages, would fill dark, grim gaslit rooms that overlooked garbage strewn alleys or absorbed the odor of outhouses. Elementary school salaries were scarcely incentives to take all this on. According to a 1905 NEA study unearthed by David Tyack, they averaged around $650 per year, generally on a par with the wages of sanitation and street laborers.’In addition, autonomy was absent both inside and outside the classroom. Not only did supervisors define what and how to teach, their authority spilled over into teachers’ private lives. Professor Michael Kirst, for instance, located a list of rules for female teachers in Westwood, California for the year 1915 which prohibited getting married, dating, leaving town without permission; frequenting ice cream stores, gelling in an automobile with an unrelated man, dressing in bright colors, and wearing less than two petticoats.

Women, of course, were not always willing to play subservient roles. They dominated efforts to organize teachers early in the century. Grace Strachan led the Interborough Association of Teachers in New York City. She persistently advocated equal pay for equal work, which was achieved in most states once women gained the vote. Perhaps the most famous organizer was Margaret Haley, president of the Chicago Teachers Federation. Under her leadership, the CTF successfully forced corporations to pay taxes; it championed the rights of students to gain an education that was free of tracking, IQ testing, and other mechanisms that stratified them by social class; and it supported teacher councils, which were meant to help shape school policies. In time, however, the CTF traded efforts to control the direction of education for tenure and other bread and butter issues that have been the main objectives of organized teachers ever since.

Change and Continuity

Over the first half of the century, high school attendance and graduation dramatically rose. In 1900 only 3% of seventeen year olds graduated from public schools in the United States. By 1940 the graduation rate had risen to slightly over 50%. Qualifications for teachers rose accordingly. In 1930, for example, the average elementary school teacher had completed two years of college and virtually all high school teachers were college graduates. Yet even by the early 1950s the majority Elementary school teachers still lacked college degrees. The educational attainments of teachers never dramatically outstripped those of the general population.

Propelled by the GI Bill and attracted by a wealth of high school positions, males began to re-enter the teaching force in the 1950s. Largely of working class origins, they struggled to ensure their rights through a trade unionist focus on wages, security, and working conditions. They furthered these interests by engaging in an unprecedented wave of strikes during the 196bs. Some of these actions, however, conflicted with the aspirations of minority people. The most prominent case involved Albert Shanker’s New York based United Federation of Teachers. The union struck in order to block Puerto Rican and black efforts to wrest community control from a system that had been notoriously unresponsive to their needs. la aajlition, organized teachers narrow trade unionist orientation backfired in the 1970s. Confining their demands to those of industrial workers, they were treated as such. They, rather than supervisors, were the first to suffer layoffs when school systems were forced to retrench.

While organized teachers often acted to preserve their relatively minor privileges at the expense of groups with none, the power of the civil rights movement drew a number of idealistic and socially committed people into teaching during the 1960s. A vision of a more equal society inspired these teachers to struggle to empower their students. Yet progressive teachers generally sought change by working at the cellular level of the classroom or by joining the alternative schools movement. Insufficiently powerful to confront the elaborate bureaucratic controls that limited both teaching and learning in public schools, they failed to institutionalize their practices.

These problems aside, educational attainments of teachers continued to rise during the 1950s and beyond, and teachers today are more secure and more able to impart intellectual training than they were earlier in the century. As opposed to an eighth grade educational attainment at the turn of the century, all teachers now possess at least a bachelor’s degree. Most have stayed in the occupation significantly longer than the four year average in 1900. And state certification requirements, tenure, and grievance procedures are dramatic advances over annual rehiring, idiosyncratic qualifying tests, and arbitrary interference inside and outside the classroom. Nonetheless, teachers neither control the governance of schools nor the curricula. Teachers still have far too many students, and as historian Larry Cuban has shown, they out of necessity teach pretty much the way they did 100 years ago. Also, as in the past, they lack public esteem.

Such continuities in the history of teaching suggest that dramatic change in the status of the occupation is unlikely, despite the outpouring of major reports that advocate otherwise. Given the high demand for teachers, the interests of administrators in maintaining control and keeping their jobs, and the resistance of the public to paying for significant improvement in teachers’ standard of living, it is likely that the reforms that will take hold will tighten accountability and circumscribe teachers’ freedom rather than create a pedagogical profession. If teachers arc to improve their opportunities to utilize their intelligence and imagination, such change will have to come from the bottom up rather than the deliberations of corporate foundations and the deans of major schools of education. But this would mean reconceptualizing the goals of organizing teachers. Teachers collectively would have to go beyond a concern with wages and benefits to seize the prerogatives of administrators and address the quality of education students receive. Clearly there is little precedent for such action. Yet perhaps, at least, we can take sustenance and guidance from “golden” moments in the past, as when the aforementioned Chicago Teachers Federation organized not only for greater autonomy, but also to support the rights of students against a system that would stratify them by class background.

This essay makes use of a number of secondary sources, especially work by David Tyack. For further reading, please see the following:

Larry Cuban, How Teachers Taught; Constancy and Change in American Classrooms, 1890 – 1980 (New York: Longman, 1984).

Nancy Hoffman, Women’s True Profession: Voices from the History of Teaching (Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1981).

Jacqueline Jones, Soldiers of Light and Love: Northern Teachers and Georgia Blacks, 1865 – 1873 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980).

Polly Welts Kaufman, Women Teachers on the Frontier (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984).

Marvin Lazerson, “Teachers Organize: What, Margaret Haley Lost,” History of Education Quarterly 24 (Summer 1984); 261- 270.

Myra H. Strober and David Tyack, “Why Do Women Teach and Men. Manage? A Report on Research on Schools,” Signs 5 (Spring 1980); 494-503.

David B. Tyack, The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974).

Robert Lowe is Associate Director of the Educational Opportunity Program, Marquette University. He is co-author with David Tyack and Elisabeth Hansot of Public Schools in Hard Times: The Great Depression and Recent Years (Harvard University Press, 1984)