Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Frontier Teachers: A Book in One Hand and a Gun in the Other

Teaching has never been an easy profession, but frontier teachers had to train young minds while helping to tame the west. 

Why would a woman leave family and friends for a low paying job in an unsettled, hostile land? Part of the answer lies with Catherine Beecher who did for education what her sister Harriet did for slavery. In The Duty of American Women to Their Country she encouraged women to go west and meet the demand for teachers, arguing that "Women are the best, as well as the cheapest, guardian and teacher of childhood, in the school as well as in the nursery."

Beecher was right about women being the cheapest; female teachers earned only forty to sixty percent of what male teachers earned, but that didn’t keep them from rising to the occasion. Between 1847 and 1858, more than six hundred female teachers traveled west to teach under the most difficult conditions imaginable and the numbers kept growing.

Armies, Indians and Things that Fly

In 1849 twenty-two year old Olive Isbel left Ohio with her husband to open the first school for American children in California. She taught a class of twenty students while cradling a loaded rifle in one hand and a book in the other. The Mission where she taught was under fire by the Mexican army trying to reclaim land believed to belong to Mexico.

Twenty-three years later in 1872, Sister Blandina Segale of Colorado didn’t have it much easier. Her classroom was periodically disturbed by attacking Ute Indians, who sided with the Mexicans.

While Sister Segale handled her Indian problem with prayer, Frontier teacher Harriet Bishop handled hers with diplomacy. When her school was attacked by fifty Sioux firing guns, she hid the children behind her voluptuous skirts and managed to persuade the Indians to leave by telling them that, “The children’s hearts are not strong like ours.”

How Students and Teachers Stayed Thin

Attacking armies and Indians weren’t the only problems frontier teachers faced. Isaben Fodge Cornish wrote about attending a sod school: "The floor was of dirt and during the cold winter of 1884 the teacher's feet were frosted. Later a quantity of straw was put on the floor which made it warmer but proved to be a breeding place for fleas. This was not conductive to quiet study but did afford the children some bodily activity." (No child obesity back then and now you know why.)

 Tonight's Homework: Read Ten Headstones

Teachers often lacked even the most basic necessities. Blackboards were considered a luxury and books were in short supply. Teachers were forced to use whatever was on hand. Eliza Mott, who taught school in Nevada in 1851, was so hard-pressed for books she conducted class in the local cemetery where she taught her pupils to read the epitaphs on gravestones.

Isbell also had to teach without benefit of paper, pens or slates. Her students printed their school work on their hands with pieces of charcoal and she scratched her lesson plans upon the dirt floor with a stick.

No Desks? No Problem!

Sister Segale was short desks and classroom space and this time she chose action over diplomacy. She solved the first problem by sawing what desks she had on hand in half, thus giving each pupil a place to sit. She then borrowed a crowbar and demolished the school, hoping that goodhearted citizens would take pity and build her a new one. Her plan worked.

Conditions were poor, the rules tough and pay low, but the heroic teachers who traveled west laid the foundation that shaped young minds and helped turn America into the land of opportunity it is today.

I wonder what the teachers of yesteryear would think about today's schools. My granddaughter's classroom has an iPad on every desk and the shelves are lined with computers (not books)! An apple for the teacher sure isn't what it used to be.

What do you think about today's schools and what do you most remember about your own?


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  1. I have mixed feelings about the schools today - I think modern electronics have made studying quicker, & easier, but - not sure kids use their brains as much, all the answers are right there in front of them. I've met quite a few young people working in stores, & restaurants, that seem unable to do simple, basic math, handle simple tasks, or interpret instructions. There are some really good schools with expanded opportunities, but a lot of parents aren't able to afford them - especially the private schools.

    When I was in school, the worst trouble you could get in was a result of skipping school, or smoking a cigarette. Now - students are confronted with drugs, sex, & guns in school.

    I'm becoming more in favor of home schooling, & am glad my children are grown.

    I applaud the frontier teachers - unbelievable to think of students writing on their hands with charcoal, & learning to read from tombstones!

    Thanks for this interesting post, Margaret!

    1. Hi Bonton, I have mixed feelings, too. I mentioned my granddaughter's classroom with all the electronic equipment; recently this modern classroom became useless when a squirrel ate through the electric wires. Learning came to a stop until generators were installed. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

  2. I'm wondering if the present day teachers will soon be carrying guns! Teachers were and are very creative. Loved this interesting blog. sharon, ca wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Hi Sharon, I don't know if teachers carrying guns is the answer, but I if were still teaching today I'd think about packing one. It's the frontier days all over again. Have a great week!

  5. I was a teacher by profession so I am still very interested and really saddened about schools of today. In my mind, teaching to a test in not the answer.....basics are! "Where there's a will, there's a way" attitude goes far in teaching children. A good foundation in the three"R's" will see them through a lifetime..like back in the old West. Teachers did what they had to to get the point across...learning to read in the cemetary! Our electronic gadgets are not always the best things, squirrels and such! Let's pull our boot straps up and get back to good ole sound education! And if it is necessary to have a gun in that classroom for the protection and safety of children then so be it!

    1. Hi, Melanie, it's me again. I just found out from Lena Dooley that you won a copy of Gunpowder Tea on her blog. Yay! I haven't yet received my author copies but hopefully I can get a copy in the mail to you in the next week or two.

    2. Margaret, I am thrilled to have won Gunpowder Tea and I will be eagerly awaiting its arrival. Thank you!

  6. Melanie, I like the way you think. Yes, yes, yes, let's pull our boot straps up and get back to basics!

  7. I love this post, Margaret, as a teacher and as a lover of history. I can't imagine the constant demand on the teachers of these hard times. While teaching is and always will be a challenge, in light of your stories here we have an amazing abundance of resources available to us that make our row a bit easier to hoe. And though I am in full support of the integration of technology into the classroom (I too use an iPad), my bookshelves will always be lined with books. There's nothing like the rustle of pages as students read--music to my ears!

    1. Anna, teachers are truly our national treasure and the demands on them is tremendous. I sure wouldn't want to return to the classroom with all these new challenges. Technology has its place, but I'm with you: nothing can replace real books. That squirrel that ate through the electric wires taught us a lesson in that regard.

  8. Oh my goodness!!!! I could have never, ever taught in the old west. I totally leave all the gun stuff to my husband. We go hiking and I'm always like "You're carrying, right?" And we don't even have to worry about Indians, just bear and wolves.

    1. Hi Naomi, I prefer to leave gun stuff to others, too. I write about brave women but in real life I'm a chicken. If I ever saw a bear I'd be so rattled I'd probably end up shooting myself!

  9. Sometimes I think teaching in those days would be easier than trying to handle some of today's teenagers and the rules they have to follow in school. I loved teaching for 36 years, but I'm glad I'm not doing it today. Thanks for a good look at how it was for our teachers back then. Good teachers are not as easy to find today, and I wish all those in the classroom today God's blessings.

  10. I was interested in the school teacher who hid the children in her skirts when Indians attacked. I also liked the idea of sawing desks in half to accommodate more children. Would love to win and read this book. sharon, CA wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

  11. I'm kind of a little jealous of the technology available to students today but at the same time I don't think kids are learning to communicate well with authority figures and their peers. Everything is done by text and/or social media, they hardly talk to each other anymore except while at school. Great post Margaret, I love reading about education in the pioneer days!
    kam110476 (at) gmail (dot) com

  12. Love this post! I would totally be the gun carrying teacher. :) It is the sad state of schools today and their "dependence" on technology that made me want to homeschool my kids from the start. Basics work - so why change that?! I love the clever "read the headstones" method of the teacher in your post. Use what you have! I try hard to have my kids learn from what all is around them and learn the good old hard working basics. Thanks for the great post!