Friday, January 14, 2011

Frontier Teachers

By Anna Kathryn Lanier


As the West was settled, teachers came to educate the children. From 1847-1858, more than 600 women went West to teach, but like everything else in the West, teaching wasn’t easy. There was an abysmal shortage of supplies. Sister Blandena Seagle noted in her journal about a Santa Fe, New Mexico school, “There were no black boards, charts, maps, desks, books….” This was typical of frontier schools everywhere.


Also in short supply was time. Today, schools in the United States must hold classes for 180 days. In the mid-1800’s, the schools usually followed the farming seasons. They were often open for a few weeks at a time, then closed during the planting season, opening again during the growing season. Anna Webber’s Kansas school was open for only three months during the year, May through July.


Another challenge to teaching was the building itself. A community was lucky to have a school building available when the teacher arrived. If it didn’t, a log cabin, shed or abandoned homesteader’s shack would be transformed into school. Or, the community would hold a ‘school raising,’ and build one. In general, the schools were one room and small. Sarah Newman recalls her room being “maybe 10 by 12 feet.” One teacher complained that though her school could only hold a dozen students, she had more than twice that in attendance on occasion. Overcrowding was a problem, even then.


Students, though, were separated, with boys on one side of the room and girls on the other. In some schools, the sexes were even segregated during recess. Edwin C Hewett suggested that a fence divide the backyard of the school, so the girls and boys could play in separate areas of the yard.


Classes tended to focus on the basics: reading, writing, arithmetic, history, spelling and penmanship—which could be difficult when you did not have slates, paper or pencils. The Bible was often the only book a family had to send to school for reading practice. With this shortage of books, lessons were largely memorization, recitation and oral drilling. Spelling bees were popular in the last part of the century.


In the East and first half of the nineteenth century, males dominated the teaching profession, since a woman’s place was in the home. However, as the country moved West, the need for teachers, male or female rose. By the 1870’s, 25% of all American-born white women had taught school at some time in their lives. The community had an advantage in hiring a woman teacher, though. Women were paid 40-60% less than their male counterparts, making $54.50 a year to a male teacher’s $71.40 on average in the 1880’s.


These women, some as young as sixteen, risked the journey west to bring education to the next generation. They are as much responsible for the settling of the West as the gold hunters, mountain men, farmers and businessmen who looked westward to seek their fortune.


Who was your most memorable teacher? Why? Leave a comment and you’ll be eligible for my prize drawing. The prize: a 2011 Studs and Spur Calendar….yeah, hunky cowboys for your viewing pleasure, all year long!


References:


Frontier Teachers: Stories of Heroic Women of the Old West by Chris Enss


Anna Kathryn Lanier
www.aklanier.com
www.annaktharynlanier.blogspot.com


"A story full of emotions... hurt, loss, and betrayal, turning it into a story of love, family, and happiness. A seasonal read, A Gift Beyond All Measure delivers on it's title." ~Talina; Night Owl Reviews

25 comments:

  1. Very interesting post, Anna K. I always enjoy your history lessons. You make the facts fun and memorable.

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  2. Thanks for the 'history' lesson! I often tend to forget the reality of history as Hollywood so glamorizes it!
    Karen

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  3. Great history lesson. You make it so interesting.

    My mother-in-law attended a one room school in a small town in west Texas. She was born in 1915 so that would have been about 1921-1928. For high school they were bussed to a bigger town. That school even had a football team - 6 players using half a field.

    We still have the clock that hung in that one room schoolhouse.

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  4. Hi Anna:

    I loved your post but I’m surprised that you didn’t mention that school teachers were always getting married and being replaced.

    My wife is a retired school teacher and when we visited Peru some years ago we were asked to bring school supplies. We visited two country schools that were large rooms, over crowded, and had dirt floors. The clock on the wall did not work because batteries were too expensive. The class had two teachers and the kids were the best behaved I’ve ever seen. My wife made instant friends with the teachers and wanted to stay and help them! What an experience.

    Vince

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  5. Hi Anna:

    P.S. Let a woman win that calendar. : )

    Vince

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  6. Hi, everyone. I'm glad you stopped by. I'm also glad you found it good....I wrote it very late last night and was afraid it would be 'dry.' Vince, I did mean to mention that there was a high turn over of teachers, as a married women usually couldn't teach (Laura Ingalls' mother seeming to be an acception...lol).

    It is one of the reasons 25% of white women had taught school at one point.

    And Vince, you sure you don't want that calendar? There are some real hunks on it! Your wife might like it....

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  7. Karen, I really didn't get into the hardships the teachers faced. Chris Enss has a list in the back of her book which tells a teacher's duties. It includes: filling lamps and cleaning chimneys; bringing a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal each day; male teachers get a night off for courting or two if they go to church; female teachers will be fired if they marry; after ten hours in school, the teacher may spend the remainder of their time reading the bible....

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  8. I don't know whether to mention the teacher I had a crush on and really was a great teacher or the English teacher who scared us all to death, but taught us the greatest lessons. We had three hours a day of English in the ninth grade and it propelled us into better writers the rest of our lives. I can still see her face with her upside down 'v' eyebrows over her penetrating eyes. Nobody ever showed up in her class unprepared... Need I say more?

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  9. Hi Anna:

    LOL!

    My wife does not need that calendar. She has me! : )

    To paraphrase Jane Austen, “A single woman out West who could read and write was in want of a husband and would soon find one!”

    Vince

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  10. My dad was my favorite teacher. I was sick a lot and he taught me to read before I started school, then kept me up with my grade after I was in school. If you mean a registered teacher, though, that would be hard. I had several great teachers. Probably my fourth grade teacher was my favorite. She taught me the joys of reading mysteries.

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  11. LOL, Vince. Okay, I'm sure some other lucky lady will enjoy the calendar since you don't want your wife to have it. :-)

    Paisley, it's those strict teacher's who often helped the most, the ones who didn't let us slip slid away. I have fond memories of several teachers.

    Caroline, my first fourth grade teacher is not one of them. She did not like me and I could do nothing right, even when I did do right. In the end, she failed me and I had to do 4th grade again. I'm glad you had a much better teacher than I did!

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  12. You've written about one of my favorite topics--frontier school teachers. I love stories about them, real or fiction. Thanks--I hope to write a story about one someday. Celia

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  13. Hi Anna K. thanks for such a fun and informative post. I love stories set in the west. Several of my aunts became school teachers but the teacher who stands out most in my memory is the one who was blown away by my writing and told the whole class he thought I could write a book. Talk about inspiration.

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  14. Loved your post!

    My favorite teacher would have been my senior English teacher. He was the only one that saw my craving to read, even if it was a textbook. He dug out older textbooks and told me which areas he thought I should concentrate on. He knew I could learn on my own and he encouraged it. Back then, I couldn't get a library card without paying for it since we lived out in the country. I only had the school library and him to help me satisfy the need I had to read.

    I had other teachers I liked but he's the only one that seemed to actually see me.

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  15. Hi, Celia, Debby and Denise. Thanks for stopping by and sharing with us. I really had't thought to do a story set with a school teacher, but it's an interesting idea. Of course, I hadn't thought I'd write westerns to begin with...lol. Have fun writing, Celia!

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  16. Anna, I really sympathize with frontier teachers. They were gutsy women. It must have been frustrating for them when the students stopped coming during harvest time and when winter hit and they couldn't make it into town.

    My favorite teacher was mu high school history teacher. He made history come alive in the classroom each day.

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  17. Anna,Thanks for asking about our favorites as you wrote of historical teachers. At 72, mine are virtually historical! In 6th, it was Anna O'Reilly who opened her shelves of Nancy Drews, the 7th grade English teacher who introduced me to Shakespeare by letting me read the role of Tatania or the music teacher who opened my ears to Beethoven and Wagner. By 8-9th grade, it was a print shop teacher who taught me to use the magical linotype and to put out our little newspaper. Hadn't thought of them in years! Thank you, again.

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  18. Hi, Marin and Arletta. Thanks for sharing your memories. I did have some great teachers. Ms. Wright in high shcool, my creative writing teacher, Mrs. Sietz in middle school, who really helped me not just in class but with family issues, though I don't think she even realized that. Teachers are such a great part of our lives. I don't think we even realize it at the time.

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  19. Anna, You wrote a fabulous post despite the late hour. Thank you. Well done. It's obvious that teaching is a life changing career, both for the teacher and student. Look at how long into our lives we remember those "special" teachers' names. To influence a life to that degree is mind boggling.
    Thank you again for reminding us of those to whom we owe a debt of gratitude.

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  20. I have to say I'm glad I didn't have to teach all those years without my overhead projector! LOL I have the first chapter of a novel based on my grandmother who taught on a ranch in the Panhandle of Texas before she married.

    My most memorable teacher was my sophomore English teacher, an elegant, refined woman who gave up a good career in business (as did her husband) because they felt called to teach. The hundreds of students whose lives they touched will be forever grateful! I have no doubt she could have been successful in a one-room school and crammed a year's worth of learning into 3 months if necessary!

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  21. Sandra and Judy, thanks for stopping by. I was just sent something via email that asked me to name 5 heisman trophy winners, the last few Miss Americas and academy award winners, etc, then asked me to name 5 of my teachers. It went on to say that it's the people who are important to our lives that we remember.

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  22. I grew up on a farm not far form Amish country in PA. Our farm backed against a small plot of ground on which sat a brick one-room school house. My brother, who was ten years older than I, attended this school. His teacher was an old maid, Miss McDonnel who was from a neighboring county. During the school year, she rented a room at a nearby farm and walked to her school--Pine Hill School. My brother was her only student to eventually go to college and get his PhD. She kept in touch with him until her passing. I have a fond memory of her allowing me to attend school one day a week the year before I was old enough to go to school. My brother had told her about my crying every morning because I wanted to go to school with him. She was a strict disciplinarian, smacking knuckles with her ruler if penmanship was sloppy. Boys had to chop wood to burn in the pot-bellied stove. I'm rambling--sorry. Your post opened the door to my memory closet.

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  23. Vonnie, no harm in rambliing. I'm glad I could help those memories come forward. Call your brother, share them with him! Thanks for stopping by.

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  24. Congratulations to Denise. She won the drawing for the Studs and Spurs contest (why do I want to write Studs and Spuds?).

    Anyway, have no fear, Vince! I have another calendar I'm going to give away when I blog at Caroline Clemmons' blog on Jan. 25th. So stop by then and comment for your chance to win.

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  25. Anna Kathryn,
    Your post brought back so many great memories.
    My fourth grade teacher taught our class to square dance and took us to competitions. She also read to us, all the Black Stallion books by Walter Farley. My 6h grade teacher took a tough classroom full of boys and girls ready to fight each other, girls against the guys, and taught us to play harmonicas. After we learned some songs, she took us to play for special events away from school. My high school English teacher, Mrs. Harris, who told me that my poem showed maturity beyond my years. I was writing paranormal even then. My high school French teacher who talked me into taking the first year of French over again, and convinced me, even though I was heart broken that my low grades in that first year would keep me out of honor society. So I took French from Mr. Franco, along with the kids in their first year the next year, and we continued until we graduated from high school, by which time he had us reading the French classics. My chemistry teacher, who one day told us that not only ourselves but the wooden desks, as well as rocks outside, had moving parts in the atoms they were made of, even though we couldn't see them move without magnification. My grandmother who taught school in the early 1900s in Alberta, Canada, before she married, and much later taught me to play the piano. Too many great teachers to mention them all.
    :-)

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