Wednesday, March 1, 2017

#2 One-room Schoolhouse: The Teachers     
March 1, 2017
By Julie A Hanks, Ph.D. aka Jesse J Elliot

     “The San Francisco Board of Education has voted to discharge any female teacher who may commit the crime of marriage.” FLIN, June 16, 1870, 215-4.

We can romanticize all we want about the teachers in the one-room schoolhouse, but those intrepid souls faced many challenges. Their job descriptions often entailed cleaning, maintaining the classroom, and teaching. Their salaries were low, and often they had no home of their own. Yet in spite of these many challenges, these amazing pioneers were America’s main conductors of education for almost two hundred years.
Teachers in the one-room schoolhouse were both male (the schoolmaster) and female (the schoolmarm). Except in the mission schools, if a female teacher married, she had to quit teaching “because her most important job then became taking care of the household for her husband.” Every family in the community would take care of the teacher’s needs, often providing a place to live until he or she could establish one. In some rural communities, families paid the teacher’s salary while others provided food and staples (Oak Hill School Teacher’s Resource and Curriculum Guide.)
One might ask: why did anyone become a teacher at an isolated schoolhouse in an isolated community? One reason is teaching school was one of the few respectable jobs available for unmarried women (and men without means). Teaching offered a job and an opportunity to travel. Although the one-room schoolhouse appeared to be a fifty-hour workhouse, it often was more than that.
All through the nineteenth century the one-room school was frequently the focus for people’s lives outside the home. Besides being used for the daily routine of educating children, it was a place where church services, Christmas parties and hoe-downs were held. The school provided social contacts outside the family unit and became an extended family itself. (Oak Hill School Teacher’s Resource and Curriculum Guide).
Though the pay was little and the opportunity for advancement was almost nonexistent, the one-room schoolhouse was usually able to fill the position of schoolmarm or schoolmaster. Interestingly, the academic qualifications were not an issue, but the moral and job demands were. According to “Rules for Teachers – 1872” (an unauthenticated list):
1. Teachers each day will fill lamps, clean chimneys.

2. Each teacher will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the daily' session.

3. Make your pens carefully. You whittle nibs to the individual taste of the pupils.

4. Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes, or two evenings a week if they go to church regularly.

5. After ten hours in school, the teachers may spend the remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.

6. Women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed.

7. Every teacher should lay aside from each pay a goodly sum of this earnings for his benefit during his declining years so that he will not become a burden on society.

8. Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls, or gets shaved in a barber shop will give good reason to suspect his worth, intention, integrity and honest.

9. The teacher who performs his labor faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of twenty cents per week in his pay, providing the Board of Education approves.

10. You must be home between the hours of 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. unless attending a school function.

11. You may not travel beyond the city limits unless you have permission of the chairmen of the board.

12. You may not smoke cigarettes.

13. You may not under any circumstances dye your hair.

14. You may not dress in bright colors.                                        
       However, the rules on this list must not have been far from the truth, because similar restrictions appeared on a 1923 Contract:

            Ironically, some of the earliest teachers on the frontier were mothers who taught the local children in her own home or wives of missionaries, but as communities grew, and one-room schools were built, the only women allowed to teach in classrooms were unmarried.

 “The marriage of Miss Alice Tomilson reminds us that our premium school teachers are being gathered into the matrimonial net by men who place self above the public welfare. Suppose all the marriageable female teachers in the world were to be married tomorrow, the country would go to rack and ruin.” Grand Island, Nebraska, Time, September 15, 1883.

Marriage aside, there was also the challenges of maintaining the school. As there was no custodial support, the teacher in the one-room schoolhouse was responsible for keeping it clean and heating it up in the morning. How extensive some of these duties were varied with the community. Some teachers even had to deal with cleaning the privies, while others did not.
Maybe, one of the advantages/disadvantages of teaching in the 19th Century was the lack of paper—too expensive, so at least the teacher didn’t have to take home piles of papers to correct every night and on week-ends. J

Next week:  Meeting some of the individuals who went out west to teach in the one-room schools.

Oak Hill School Teacher’s Resource and Curriculum Guide.
“Rules for Teachers – 1872” (an unauthenticated list),
 Gittleson, Wendy.  “EARLY 20TH CENTURY TEACHERS CONTRACT PROVES WE HAVE COME A LONG WAY, BABY,” Feminist Issues, March 8, 2015.

Moulton, Candy. (1999). “Education,” in Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West from 1840-1900. Writers Digest Books: Cincinnati, Ohio.

Grand Island, Nebraska, Time, September 15, 1883.
FLIN, June 16, 1870, 215-4.  (Source unknown)


  1. Good stuff, I have spent much time researching teachers and teaching pre-1930. I spent 42 years teaching and believe this is an overlooked bit of history. Nice post.

    1. Thank you. Just disappointed that the photos didn't show up. There're are so many stories to tell. I too am a retired teacher, and the research is definitely an act of love.

  2. I'm still fascinated with your research. It is on my list to answer your questions after I get the other major projects off the table. Thank you for such great history. Doris

    1. And thank you for your kind words. I look forward to reading any information you might have. J