A teacher wears many hats. Some days a counselor, some a nurse, others a social worker. Always an instructor. Grace Silas Laizer of Saving Grace School in Arusha, Tanzania is at once teacher, administrator and recruiter.
Back here in the United States about 3.6 million teachers fill these multifaceted roles. On this last day of Teacher Appreciation Week, let’s take a look back at how this honorary week began and at the evolution of teaching in America.
Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt once proclaimed: “Education is the cornerstone of liberty.” It was this value that she placed on education which led her to propose to Congress a day set aside each year in honor of teachers. This national teacher’s day became May 7 and was first celebrated in 1953. (1)
Later, in 1984, the National Parent Teacher Association expanded Roosevelt’s idea when they dedicated an entire week in May to thank our teachers.
Teaching in America has come a long way since our colonial beginnings. In these fledgling days of our country’s inception, it was mostly men who educated the young. The virtues of family, religion and community were emphasized more than the three Rs. The curriculum was heavily influenced by the strict religious teachings of the day. The men were often innkeepers or farmers who stepped in to fill the role of schoolmaster during their off-season. The more educated men in the cities used teaching as a stepping stone to a career in law or the church. (2)
In the late 1830s reformers such as Horace Mann fought to make schools democratic, universal and free. These new public schools were called common schools and with the attempted inclusion of all children in the education process, a demand for teachers grew. In order to fill the staffing shortages and as men were drawn to other professions, new industries and the frontier, communities turned to women to fill the void. (2)
The common school reformers considered one of women’s most important qualifications their femininity. They viewed women as nurturing and of high moral character. They also set a precedent - women would be paid ⅓ of what men received. (2)
In many schools, the “schoolmarms” were young, sometimes only 14 or 15. Some of the pupils might be older than the teachers. Many districts required the teachers to resign when they married. (Such a rule remained in place in some areas as recently as the 1930s.) (5) The job then, like today, had its challenges. Some teachers were in charge of instructing as many as 60 children of various ages in a one-room schoolhouse. (2)
It was in the middle of the nineteenth century that states began requiring a basic academic competence and attendance at summer institutes for training. “Normal schools” were established for the systematic training of teachers. These schools prepared teachers for instruction beyond a grammar school curriculum. By 1867 most states required their teachers to pass a test for a state certificate. Such a test might include U.S. history, geography, spelling and grammar in addition to other basic skills. (3)
By 1900, Horace Mann’s idea of universal education took an even stronger hold. By this time 31 states had passed statutes requiring compulsory education for children ages 8 to 14. Nearly 75% of the teachers were women at this time. Rural teachers struggled with limited resources, run-down schools and inadequate funding. (4)
In the cities, the boards of education were formed by business and professional men who believed that schools should replicate a business model or hierarchy with the teachers at the bottom. The teachers felt powerless, underpaid and insecure with a lack of pension benefits, job security and poor working conditions. The teachers began to push back, forming teachers associations which later became unions. (2)
Throughout the 20th and into the 21st centuries teachers continue to struggle with some of the same issues, and it was within this context that Roosevelt astutely proposed the idea of a national day for teacher recognition.
In 2018 teachers are honored in a variety of ways. The National Education Association (NEA) recommended two on its website. The first is their Thank a Teacher project, a request to parents to make a video or take a photo of themselves thanking a teacher who has made a difference in the life of a child. The NEA shared these messages of appreciation to their members throughout the week. (1)
May 9 was designated as #REDforED, a day to show solidarity with teachers who are fighting for school funding, pay and better working conditions. Supporters were asked to dress in red. (1) A movement of teacher protest began in 2018 beginning with the walk out of teachers in West Virginia in February. This spurred walk outs and protests in other states including Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Kentucky.
Whether wearing red, organizing a luncheon or sending a card, one thing is indisputable - the recognition is but a small step yet well deserved.