Women Schoolteachers in the Old West

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The Three R’s: Ridin’, Ropin’, and Romance (of course!)

The leading lady of my first book, The Angel and the Outlaw, was a schoolteacher in the “wild, wild, West” of 1873 and so I thought I’d give a small glimpse into the life of a teacher in that day and age. I am also working on a new story in which the heroine is a teacher in Southern California’s back country.

Prior to tThe Angel and the Outlawhe Civil War, schoolteachers were mostly men because the prevailing belief was that women could not maintain discipline in the classroom. When the men left for the war, women moved in and filled positions at 60% less salary. When the men returned, they refused to work at the reduced wages (even though they did make more than the women teachers) and most left the profession.

Women teachers were required to be single. They could “sit” for their teaching certificate as long as they had graduated. Some were as young as fifteen. If they married, they had to give up their job. They were not allowed to attend public performances or dances. Male teachers were permitted to date one night a week or two if they attended church regularly. Because women were so few in number compared to men in the West, the turn-over rate for teachers was fairly high as women married and started their own families.

Children from the age of five would go to school daily through the week and then on weekends, would be expected to come back and help clean the schoolhouse. A teacher might have anywhere from three to forty-five students in the first through eighth grade. Discipline could be difficult at times, especially when some of the older boys towered over the teacher.

                                  Wisconsin Schoolhouse
Wisconsin One-Room Schoolhouse

The typical school house was a one-room building. A male teacher and his family often lived in a home next door or attached to the school house—a teacherage. Women teachers would be housed with one of the families whose children attended the school so that they could be supervised. (Now that would make it hard to “leave your day job” at the end of the day!)

Teachers had to be creative and work with whatever supplies they had. They used memorizing, reciting, and oral testing to teach reading, spelling, arithmetic and history. For many years, the main textbook was the McGuffey Reader. A staggering amount, approximately 120 million copies of McGuffey Readers were sold between 1836 and 1960. Many parents could not afford textbooks and so they sent their children to school with any book from home—usually the Bible—for instruction in reading. Eliza Mott was a teacher who taught the alphabet using the inscriptions on tombstones!

McGuffey Reader
McGuffey Reader

In doing research about the school in La Playa where The Angel and the Outlaw is set, I learned that the main difficulty for the teacher there was a horse track in Old Town San Diego that enticed the children to play hooky and also let them wager on the horses. When the school in La Playa had a teacher vacancy, the children rowed boats to the school in Old Town and attended there.

Some very important and influential people have “graduated” from one-room schools. To name a few ~ Abraham Lincoln (President), Herbert Hoover (President), Joyce Carol Oates (Pulitzer Prize), Laura Ingalls Wilder (author), and my father.

My father and his brothers attended a one-room school house that was built on land his father donated for the school. It still stands (and is now a private home), down a winding country road in central Illinois. It feels like stepping back in time a hundred years when I go back for a visit. My grandparents farmhouse is just around the corner ~ a country mile…

Iron flourish med

One of my memories is that my Junior High School was situated right up against the back of the San Diego Zoo next to the wallaby and kangaroo enclosures. When the tour bus would drive by loaded with people, the bus driver would often comment on the “animals” on the other side of the fence– meaning the children on the gym field. It was all in good-natured fun (I think…)

What about you?

Do you have any unusual or fond memories of school?

Comment for a chance to win a copy of my newest release ~ The Gunslinger and the Heiress ~ (which does not have a schoolteacher in it!) along with Playing the Rake’s Game by Bronwyn Scott. (Continental U.S. only)



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36 thoughts on “Women Schoolteachers in the Old West”

  1. When my mom lived on a farm in rural southern Missouri, she attended a one room schoolhouse until moving to Boulder City, Nevada when she was in about 5th grade. As for my memories, school is where I learned the love of reading and where I was bullied. But believe it or not, I loved school…I guess because my teachers stepped in and tried to stop the bullying.

    Smiles & Blessings,
    Cindy W.

    countrybear52 AT yahoo DOT com

    • Hi Cindy! My you are up early…or late as the case may be. I learned to love reading in school too–but not with the books there. A friend of mine brought in her Nancy Drew Mysteries. The Secret of the Old Clock was the first one I ever read and I was hooked.

      I’m glad the bullying didn’t ruin your total experience of your school days. I’m also glad that the teachers were aware and tried to help. This issue is getting a lot of attention these days and rightly so!

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. I don’t really have any good memories of school. I enjoyed reading this post. I learned a lot about the teachers in that time period.

  3. Thanks for stopping by Janine. I have found out, now that I am older, that many of my friends did not like school. They endured it. School sure had its ups and downs for me. I’m glad to see that my sister and many others I know are home-schooling now and that their children do very well with that “alternative” education.

  4. I was a teacher myself. One day as I was going through my evaluation with my principal observing me, one of my students turns his desk over and falls to the floor. Laughter erupts, I settle things back down, and an embarrassed little boy repositions himself without a word spoken. Making sure he is fine, I go back to my lesson and the principal rolls her eyes with a smile on her face. You just never know what may happen in the course of a day when kids are involved!

    • I bet you have lots of great stories, Melanie. I wonder if the little boy fell asleep at his desk? I am in awe of teachers of the younger grades. Kids mature at such different rates I don’t see how it is possible to keep them all moving forward on a task! I was a cubscout leader for 1st graders and my eyes were sure opened about that!
      Thanks for stopping by!

  5. I loved school. I still love to learn. I have wonderful memories of my 4th grade and 6th grade teachers. I know I thrived in those years as those teachers were demanding and had high expectations from their students. There is nothing I loved more than meeting a challenge and succeeding. My fondest memories are of my High School Science teacher. Mrs. R was amazing! She genuinely love Biology, Chemistry, Physics and her students. As an elementary teacher, myself, for 20 years, I look back and give credit to those teachers that inspired my desire to impact the lives of young people today. I still love going to school.

    • Wow Dawn! I bet with that attitude you are a great teacher and encourager of your students! I am a perpetual student too–loving learning. I think that is why I so enjoy writing. It is always a challenge to make the next sentence, the next paragraph, the next story, better than the last. To keep growing! It’s a fantastic journey…

      Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Learning about the teaching profession in the past is interesting to me because I am a retired teacher. As a student, I loved school. There I began my lifelong love of reading. I adored my teachers, so that must be what lead me to become a teacher myself.

    As a teacher, the most unusual thing to happen was a child saying to me, “My eye came out.” He opened his hand, and sure enough, there was an eye in it! It was the first time I knew that he had an artificial eye!

  7. What a story! I thought maybe it was a fake eye –from a toy store. That would have flattened me! I bet your heart stopped for a moment! Thanks for sharing that Cheryl! I won’t forget it now. Just too surprising!

  8. Hi Kathryn, what a terrific post! We just spent the weekend in San Diego. Old Town is so awesome. I love that old cemetery. The image of Eliza Mott teaching kids from tombstones is so a scene you need to put in one of your books.

    I look forward to your story set in SoCal. Some of our state’s areas just ache to become settings in books, such as Temecula and Holcomb Valley. (the latter I have used LOL.)

    I also loved school, and re-read and re-read my “reader” during the quiet study times. We had combo grades 5/6 and 7/8 in our parochial school, so while the teacher taught one grade, the other group had to work quietly. Sometimes the whole group got taught the same subject, though. My mom taught kindergarten at the same school, and I actually enjoyed her being there. Oh, the memories!

    • HI Tanya! Thanks for popping in today. I grew up on the hill just above Old Town and when I visit my folks there I still enjoy walking down the hill to shop and eat at the restaurants. I would love to write a story based in Temecula. I haven’t visited there in thirty years (I think I already told you that once)so I know it has really changed, but it is easy for me to remember how it used to be. When I first came to San Diego, Mission Valley (where Fwy 8 is) had dairy farms and a stable. You could rent horses and ride all the way to the beach. Sure can’t do that now! It’s all high rises and shopping centers and hotels…

  9. Oh, goodness, so many memories. Always a lot of drama and angst, but I enjoyed most of my classes and teachers (not all of course lol). I met my husband in high school. He was the new kid in class and had traveled the world (air force brat) and I had never gone anywhere. He was two yrs. older (which is impressive back then) but only one class ahead of me. He had to take PA history which is how I met him. It’s been 46 years 🙂

    • Isn’t it something how 2 years in high school makes such a difference when thinking about dating someone? My parents didn’t approve when (as a sophomore) I was asked out by a senior. But a junior — one years difference–was just fine. You are right about the angst! I am glad to be out of that hormonal surging stage…

  10. Used to live in Vermont, and I remember seeing the one room schoolrooms very much. My mom and dad used to teach in a one room schoolroom — oh, so many years ago. : )

    • Hi Karen. Thanks for stopping by today! So you came from a family of teachers! I don’t know how I would have handled being a student in a one-room school because I am so easily distracted by noise. If the teacher were teaching a different lesson to another grade right beside me, I would not be able to concentrate. I suppose I would have learned how to do it…although it would have been difficult.

  11. I remember where I grew up there was actually a museum called the Little Red Schoolhouse… went there once… very interesting to see… can not imagine so many grade levels being taught at once within one room…

    • Hi Colleen,
      Yes–I don’t know how the teachers managed. My father said the most his school had was 20 students. His graduating class was a total of 3! He is a very smart man (and no I am not biased in the lease lol) It is fun hearing his stories of his school days. Nice to have you stop by!

  12. I do remember my mother having word with my kindergarten teacher about her refusal to let me write left handed….

    • I’ve heard of that from a number of southpaws… I don’t think schools/teachers worry about that any more–at least I hope not. My son has always written with his left hand, but then he does everything else (throwing a ball, etc) with his right. Thanks for popping in Glenda!

  13. I have many good memories of school. Except for a few teachers, I love going to school. Ours was a large central county school which is now over twice the size it was when I was going. We lived in the country and the old one room schoolhouse for our area was located down the road and around the corner less than a mile from us. It had been purchased and turned into a summer home. My sister has owned it for over 30 years and lives it it. They have added two additional rooms for bedrooms and redon the bathroom and storeroom. She loves it.
    I have a reproduction copy of the McGuffey Reader and have collected many of the old text books used in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. They make for interesting reading.
    Thanks for an interesting post.

    • Hi Patricia!
      Thank you for stopping by the Junction! I bet those old books would make for interesting reading. I have a few very old fairy tale books…and I kept all the books of my children that were special for me (but they aren’t that old.) I love to look through old books as long as I don’t have to sniff the dust!

    • Hi Kim! I never took art (well–except for one high school class that I bombed at!) I was always using my electives to take band or drama. I’m actually having fun with coloring again–with colored pencils and pens and the new geometric design books that are out there. It is relaxing! Did you end up liking art after that teachers encouragement?

  14. Kathryn, I sorry I missed you yesterday. I love this blog! The early schoolteachers sure had it rough. Yeah, why on earth would they need to be supervised? Good grief! And it boggles my mind that men could be married and have a family but a woman would be fired immediately.

    Great blog! Thanks for sharing.

    • Hi Linda! I don’t understand that either — about being married and teaching at the same time. I guess they expected women to stay home and take care of their men. I could understand it perhaps, if they had children…but not just if a gal had a ring on her finger! Anybody else have thoughts on that?

  15. When I was in 3rd grade for some reason they had one of the classes go to the old junior high. We were so excited, instead of the new one story building we got to go to school where the big kids went, with the big, wide stairs and wooden floors.

    • Hi Sally! That sounds like a unique change for you! My husband taught at a school that had the wooden floors and wide stairs. When I would visit, I felt like I was stepping back in time. Everything seemed to echo inside that school.

      Thanks for commenting!

  16. Congratulations to Catslady! I drew your name from my Stetson (I really do have one, I promise!) for the free copy of The Gunslinger and the Heiress/Playing the Rakes Game. It’s a “two-in-one” book. I will contact you! If you don’t hear from me, please email me at kathryn @ kathrynalbright.com and let me know what address to send it to.

  17. Ah, the San Diego Zoo. One of my favorite places to visit. I loved seeing the pink flamingos as I entered, and the sea lion show. Then there was the two-headed king snake in the snake exhibit.

    I lived in La Mesa/Spring Valley area out with the tarantulas, scorpions and rattlesnakes, so no mistaking me for a zoo inmate.

    Robyn Echols w/a Zina Abbott

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