In the early pioneer years, women were often responsible for
children's education. Before the development of schools, especially in remote rural areas, mothers filled the void by home tutoring their children. They pulled together books and whatever knowledge still remained from their own educations and taught their children as best they could. Often,
they taught their children how to read, write and the basics of mathematics. Women were responsible for inculcating Christian morality within their children, which included teaching them to pray and read the
Bible. Also, girls learned the skills necessary to being future wives and mothers, such as cooking, cleaning and sewing. They picked up tricks from their mothers on how to treat certain illnesses, prevent pregnancy or deal with a colicky baby. Women then were
very much responsible for shaping the early minds of their children and teaching them the skills necessary for survival.
My First Naturalist Teacher
by Morris Flewwelling
With the development of schools in communities, it was only natural, then, that women largely became the first teachers. For the early school boards, women were an attractive choice to hire as teachers,
as they could be paid less than half the salary of men. For women, teaching was a profession that already fell within their natural characteristics: women were used to teaching and dealing with children. It was a profession that required an education, but not one that was unattainable for women - a third-class teaching required only Standard V (roughly the equivalent of
Grade 4) and a four-month Normal school course. As a result of requiring an education, it afforded an air of respectability to women and boosted their sense of importance within a community.
Perhaps most importantly, teaching gave women a sense of independence. Becoming a teacher often meant moving away from home and entering new communities where they lived on their own. Although many abandoned teaching once they married, it was one of the
few professions that offered women opportunities for career advancement.
Teaching presented many challenges for women. In many instances, living and working conditions for early teachers were poor. First teaching assignments were often in very remote communities, distant from the physical comforts and friends and family. Many teachers as a result suffered from loneliness. Often, teachers' room and board were provided by the community, but they often failed to meet standards. For instance, one young teacher, upon arriving in the rural community in which she was to work, discovered that she was to board in a farmhouse where she would share the only bed with the wife, daughter and baby, while the husband slept on the nearby
Also, early schoolhouses were very rudimentary: oftentimes only
one room that was heated by a wood stove. They had a reputation for being too cold in the winter and hot in the summer due to poor ventilation. Teachers also expressed difficulty in getting proper supplies, especially books that quickly became old and tattered.
For instance, a teacher Agnes Hunter remarked:
were no reference books at my first school. Just chalk, a broom, a ball
and a bat. I even hesitated to give the pupils a list of necessary books
as money seemed almost non-existent. We did get two large boxes of old
books from Ontario. They were mainly old Ontario readers and books no
longer used, so of little use for reference. The Eaton's catalogue was
used extensively for posters and various other purposes.
Pay for women teachers was also low and in
some cases they would go without pay for several months if a community or school
board could no
longer afford the salary. This happened most frequently during the
Depression when many schools shut down and teachers' wages dropped by about 20
Many young women teachers also found themselves ill-prepared for their first years of teaching. Classes often contained many ages and grades, all of which the teacher was expected to keep occupied and under control. Much time outside of class was needed to plan for these classes, however, teachers were often not paid for this time. In some cases, women taught students who did not know English,
such as in residential schools or schools located in ethnic minority communities. One teacher commented:
I had just finished high-school; the only way I could think of to get a school was to answer ads in the paper. I got the largest one-teacher school in Alberta, up at a place called Lillyfield. It was largely Russian - well, there was no English-speaking child in the school at all. There were
80 students, grade 1 to 8, and one
Usually teachers did not know the children's language and much time was spent trying to understand each other. Classes were often big and students, in some cases, were the same age or even older than teachers, which
made discipline very difficult. Teachers are reported as having to enlist the help of the local priest or pastor to keep the older boys in line. On occasions teaching became a dangerous job for
women since outside of classroom time, they were often alone. In one infamous case in Red Deer,
Maude Waldbrooke, a young woman teacher in an industrial school, disappeared without a
Despite these challenges and hardships, most women enjoyed their teaching experiences. Teaching allowed them
new felt senses of authority and accomplishment as many took great pride in students' successes. Also with school reforms of the 1920s and
1930s, coupled with the development of a Department of Education and school
boards, conditions improved for teachers. They received better training, better
equipment and textbooks. One-room schoolhouses were eventually replaced with
school buildings and grades were separated into different classes. Also,
teachers' pay increased, thus attracting many more to the profession. However, these changes were not always beneficial for women. The institutionalization and bureaucratization of
education meant the entrance of men into higher management positions. In the one-room school house, women solely controlled their classes, in the later schoolhouse,
however, women often had to answer to
male principals. Despite this loss of authority, however, education remains today one of the few professions dominated by women.
Dawe, Michael J. Red Deer: An Illustrated
History. Red Deer: Red Deer and District Museum Society, 1996.
Gagnon, Anne. "Our Parents did not Raise Us to be Independent: The Work and Schooling of Young Franco-Albertan Women, 1890-1940."
Prairie Forum 1994 19(2): 169-188.
McLachlan, Elizabeth. With
Unshakeable Persistence: Rural Teachers of the Depression Era.
Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1999.
Silverman, Elaine Leslau. The Last Best West: Women on the Alberta Frontier
1880-1930. Montreal: Eden Press, 1984.