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Teaching the Teacher – or Not
Looking Back
Mountain Home
November 2008
Joyce M. Tice

Educational opportunities in our rural counties of northern Pennsylvania were more myth than reality in the early nineteenth century. The common schools were one-room shanties where one person taught 30 or 40 individuals of all ages. Winter schools were held for older students for six weeks in the winter, and younger students might attend for four weeks or so in the summer. That was all there was, and even that was not mandatory if a family felt the child’s time was better used for farm labor.

When a child had completed all that the school had to offer, say at age fourteen, the academically inclined might stay on a while longer for the "higher grades" if the school and teacher were willing or able and if a book or two was available. Then at age fifteen or seventeen a person might become a teacher by taking an examination. No further education or training was required. The examination, given by the county Superintendent of Schools, included spelling, reading, writing, grammar, and geography. Both written and oral examinations were included, and the prospective teachers had to bring their own paper and pens. Those who passed were issued a provisional certificate good for one term.

Voters in each township elected school directors who hired the teachers. There were no educational requirements for school director, and it might be noted that before 1921 female teachers could not vote for their own directors even if they were of voting age which they seldom were. School directors also elected the County Superintendent of Schools for three-year terms.

If a person were fortunate enough to be hired, she then taught in a building with too few books, too little furniture, too little heat, and had to board with a family within walking distance of the school during the school week. People in that era did not have the same expectations of privacy or personal space that we have. One news article in the 1860s indicated that school was opening with three students in a seat.

Finally in 1855 in Tioga County, under the leadership of then county superintendent N. L. Reynolds, the first Teachers’ Institute was organized. For five days once or twice a year, the teachers and prospective teachers of the county had the first exposure most of them had ever had on teaching methods. They had to pay for travel and board out of their own meager salaries, but often hotelkeepers in the town would give discounts.

Almost annually the resolution was discussed that female teachers should receive the same salaries as male teachers with the same certification. It always passed, and it never happened.

In 1864 the Mansfield Classical Seminary, founded in 1857, became the Mansfield State Normal School. Professor Fordyce Allen was its first principal. He had been Principal of the normal school at West Chester for the six years previous. The normal school offered a two-year course expressly for teacher training.

Professor Allen was a great advocate of the teachers’ institutes, and was almost always among the speakers locally. He was known nationally for his teachers’ institutes and had held them as far away as California. He would often hold one on his way to or from another.

It would be many more years before public high schools teaching the "higher branches" became available. That will be the subject of a future column. I have compiled newspaper articles on early schools and Teachers’ Institutes on my site. []

I know there are those who romanticize the "good old days." I am not one of them

Bradford County PA
Chemung County NY
Tioga County PA
Published On Tri-Counties Site On 02 FEB 2009
By Joyce M. Tice
Email: Joyce M. Tice