School Days – Teaching the Teachers

letterhead-header 2Have you ever heard of a Normal School? That’s Normal with a capital N—not normal as in everyday or run-of-the-mill. I first encountered this terminology when I began researching 19th century teaching colleges. In the American West, teachers were often little more than former students who had completed the 8th grade and gone on to pass a teacher’s examination. However, as more settlers headed west and communities grew, so did the need for teachers with higher education.

In the early 1800s, schoolmasters were men. They ruled their classrooms with discipline and authority. Yet in the 1830s when tax-supported common schools made education more widely available, the result was a teacher shortage that left the door open for women.

“God seems to have made woman peculiarly suited to guide and develop the infant mind, and it seems…very poor policy to pay a man 20 or 22 dollars a month, for teaching children the ABCs, when a female could do the work more successfully at one third of the price.” — Littleton School Committee, Littleton, Massachusetts, 1849

By the time of the Civil War, women dominated the teaching field. However, if a woman wanted to set herself apart, to establish herself as a professional, she required training that went beyond the rudimentary grammar schooling of her peers. She needed a diploma from a reputable Normal School.

Normal Schools were two-year academies designed to grant teachers a mastery of the subjects taught in the common schools as well as giving them a practical knowledge of teaching methodology. Normal Schools prided themselves on their thorough, cohesive, and “scientific” curriculum. They would provide a norm for all teachers (hence the term Normal School) that would assure a level of quality generally unavailable previously.

The Boston Normal School, for example, was established in 1872. According to a regulation manual published in 1888, her courses would have included the following:

  • Mental and Moral Science and Logic
  • Physiology and Hygiene
  • Natural Science
  • Study of Language
  • Elementary Studies
  • Principles of Education, School Economy, and Methods of Instruction
  • Vocal Music, Drawing, and Blackboard Illustration
  • Observation and Practice in the Training School
  • Observation and Practice in other public schools

Not so very different from our current teacher education programs, is it?

So who were some teachers that made an impact in your life?

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For those who love to smile as they read, bestselling author Karen Witemeyer offers warmhearted historical romance with a flair for humor, feisty heroines, and swoon-worthy Texas heroes. Karen is a firm believer in the power of happy endings. . . and ice cream. She is an avid cross-stitcher, and makes her home in Abilene, TX with her husband and three children. Learn more about Karen and her books at:

20 thoughts on “School Days – Teaching the Teachers”

  1. The courses at the Normal School are very close to what teachers take today. I guess I always think of the teachers graduating from 8th grade and taking the teacher’s examination when I think of pioneer school teachers. Guess I watched too much Little House on the Prairie. :o)

    I had a high school history teacher who greatly influenced me. It was after taking his class, I decided I wanted to become a historian.

    And of course my parents, both teachers, impacted my life. My poor dad was my math teacher in the fourth and fifth grade. Math and I were just never meant to understand one another. :o)

  2. Hi, Kirsten. I remember Laura Ingalls taking her teaching exams, too. I think there were still a lot of teachers that used this method until education started to be regulated.

    I love that you had great history teachers. I actually hated history in school. Go figure. Now I adore researching all kinds of historical tidbits. I still tend to steer away from wars, politics, and major historical events, however. The history of my heart is the lives of everyday people.

    I can still remember my dad tutoring me in algebra. Thankfully for me, I have one of those numbers-geared minds, so those memories are pleasant ones. 🙂 I bet you and your dad both smile over those math instruction days now.

  3. Hi Karen!

    Interesting post. Normal school. What an unusual name for such a school. Don’t you just love their quote on the payment of women — always it seems the corporation cares nothing for anything EXCEPT their bottom line.

    Had so many wonderful teachers in both grade school and high school. But probably my best teacher was my mom. 🙂

  4. An enlightening post, Karen. I wasn’t sure how much education a teacher had to have in the old west. I’m sure it depended too on what part of the country the school was located. Schools in the larger towns and probably most back east had stricter training requirements than those on the frontier. Frontier towns took what they could get and had to be satisfied with it. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

  5. I had never heard that term. Still not happy that women still do not get equal pay. My gradeschool still had the “old maid” theory on teachers for the longest time. They were wonderful teachers for the most part but how sad they had to lose out on other aspects of their lives. I do believe some were bitter old women too. I can remember in around 4th or 5th grade having a young teacher – oh my lol. And then when hitting junior high it was ok to have men teachers (for certain subjects). Gosh, I feel old as dirt lol.

  6. Normal School is not a new term to me because my mother-in-law went to “Cheney Normal School”, now Eastern Washington University, in the 1930’s. I don’t know what year the name changed to Eastern Washington State College. I do know that as recently as the 1960’s Montana only required two years of college to become a teacher. I have a friend who taught there with just two years of training and I think she was probably a very good teacher for the early elementary classes she taught.

  7. I have heard the term, ‘Normal’ school, but didn’t know to what it referred. Now, I do. Yay! I learn so much here.
    I went to school so long ago, it’s hard to remember what teachers I actually did have. I do remember my 6th grade teacher, and my high school history teacher. He was funny. It was right after WWII and he stood in front of class the first day and said, “I don’t tolerate cheatin’.” And since he was quite large, we believed him. I got an A in that class. (I still have all my report cards).

  8. I have never heard the term either, very interesting. I guess the teacher that help me the most would have been my ninth grade math teacher. She wouldn’t pass a student out of her class unless you knew the multiplicaton tables and you would be suprised as how many didn’t know them. They helped me a lot in math. I don’t think most of the kids coming up today really know them.

  9. Hi Karen, I did know the term Normal school. It’s fun to learn more about its origins, though. My great grandfather was a schoolmaster (wait for him tomorrow LOL) and I guess it ran in the genes. Both my mom and I were teachers. I used to love helping her in her classroom!

    Of my own teachers, I think the one who impacted me the most was my high school sophomore year English teacher. I would like him to know I finally became a writer LOL.

  10. Hi Karen, I came across the term a few years back, but I didn’t know why they were called Normal Schools until I read your post. Now I feel so smart!

    Thank you for sharing and congratulations on your much deserved win!

  11. Karen – I found that quote on pay so funny and sad at the same time. We’ve come a long way, haven’t we? Not that things are perfect now, but we’ve made significant strides in making pay more equal across genders, races, and ages.

  12. Hi, Linda. I’m sure you’re right, that rural school in remote fronteir locations would have been happy for whatever teaching they could find. And I’m sure many of those teachers did a fabulous job, even without the higher education. But I must say that I’m glad our teachers receive college training before taking over a classroom today. 🙂

  13. Catslady – I always wondered about those “no marriage” clauses in teaching contracts and how long they were around. I could understand a community wanting to have a teacher for more than a year or two (or sometimes mere months) before she would marry and leave the classroom, but it seems like they should have allowed married women to teach if they wanted to and would commit to a contract.

  14. Mary J – How fun that you still have your report cards! I can tell you were a girl who took her schooling seriously. I was that way, too. And it’s fun now to see my 14-year-old daughter continue that tradition. She just told me yesterday that “failing” to her meant getting anything below a 90%. And what does she want to be when she grows up? You guessed it! A teacher.

  15. Hi, Quilt Lady. Doesn’t it make a huge difference when those teachers care enough about the basics to make sure every child learns them, and learns them well? We definitely need teachers like that. Not just to pass our state tests, but to give our kids that solid foundation they need to be successful later in life.

  16. Hi, Margaret. Thanks for the congrats! I think I saw you from a distance a few times at the conference. I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to talk much. Hope you had a productive time there!

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