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Teachers and Teaching

Teachers and Teaching


Status of Teachers. Teachers were not universally held in high esteem during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. As one governor of South Carolina asked during this time in an address to the legislature, Who are the teachers of our free schools? Are they men to whom we can commit with confidence the great business of education? He then answered, claiming they were grossly incompetent, but with the poor pay allowed them, we cannot reasonably calculate upon a better state of things. The status of teachers varied from state to state, but their professional status was suppressed because of poor pay in all areas of the United States. Salaries even in top school districts such as Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the late 1870s were $1,800 for male principals and $700 for the rare female teachers who served as principals.

Gender Gaps. The average male teachers in the United States made $800, while the average female elementary teacher made $300 to $400 per year. Nearly all teachers of younger children were women, with the grammar and high schools under the supervision of a male principal. The earliest secondary schools employed men at first, but by the 1880s women teachers had become more prevalent in public high schools. Chicago reported that its public high school system employed twenty women and sixteen men; Boston, forty women and thirty-five men. A male teacher-superintendent usually headed the schools and hired women instructors. In an age that characterized girls and boys as different elements in Gods plan, differences in salaries based on gender seemed normal. However, some citizens argued that the elementary school teachers deserved more money since they taught more pupils. The commissioner of education in Ohio complained in 1878 that high school instructors constituted a minority of the teaching force but consumed disproportionate funds. In that state only 711 of the total of 23,003 teachers taught high school, but they consumed more than $436,000 of the $5 million expended for salaries.

Qualifications to Teach. The old theory that almost anyone could teach almost any school subject served to retard the growth of uniform certification practices. The licensing of teachers was a local function, and the fitness of candidates for teaching positions was generally determined in a haphazard fashion. College degrees ensured advantages, but most teachers attended normal schools rather than colleges. Even in an urban district such as Chicago in 1878, only 50 percent of the men and 10 percent of the women teachers had even attended college. Superintendents were often much more concerned with morality than education when hiring teachers. Even though urban schools were becoming more and more bureaucratic, the public still expected teachers to be Christian and of high toned and refined character. In a typical contract, a teacher was asked to keep the following promises in regard to conduct: I promise to abstain from all dancing, immodest dressing, and any other conduct unbecoming a teacher and a lady. I promise not to go out with any young men except to do Sunday-school work. In one North Carolina district a man who had difficulty establishing his moral credentials because of notorious bad habits finally found employment when a friend gave him a certificate of good moral character during school hours.


Arthur T. Hadley, The Education of the American Citizen (Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1901), p. 53;

Edgar W. Knight, Education in the United States (New York: Greenwood Press, 1951), pp. 334358;

William J. Reese, The Origins of the American High School (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), pp. 122127.

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