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


Teaching has never been an easy profession, but frontier teachers not only trained young minds, they also had to help 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.”


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.


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 good-hearted 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.


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One Room Country School Houses Still Exist

Mary Connealy

We’ve spent the week talking about one room country schools and we’re talking about long ago history.

But I have a little different version of these tiny schools.

I went to one. My cowboy husband went to one.

Our four children went to one.

One room country school houses aren’t all buried in the distant past.

In Nebraska, and other rural states, they still exist.

In fact the school my children attended had Connealys in it going back five generations, to the founding of the school.

My roots weren’t nearly so deep in my rural neighborhood, because only my father had gone to the school I attended. My grandfather and grandmother were from nearby, but back in their day there was a school almost every mile. And many of those schools were crowded.

The real change I saw when I was sending my kids to school was how the populations in rural America was diminishing. A farm was 80 acres, a man could support his family of eight kids on 80 acres. My mother in law, who’d been in the school district my children went to for sixty years, talked of all the homes that had been. There were little houses all over in the country back then. Now a farm needs to be two thousand or five thousand acres to support a family and one man can handle it himself with a huge tractor and stunningly expensive combines and trucks and bins to store his grain. And that farmer is likely to only have two kids. The tiny schools have closed slowly and steadily for fifty years.

We live a long way out. I know people who are farther from town. In fact in western Nebraska it isn’t unheard of to have a forty mile drive, one way, to the nearest town. My children drove 15 miles every day to high school. When the distances are great, it is wonderful to have a school nearby.

The whole school

Our school, at its largest in my children’s years, had 13 students. The numbers fluxuated and at times we were down to five. My oldest daughter started school with one boy in her grade. By eigth grade she was alone in her class. There were eight grades, though some classes had no students. Our teacher had very few papers to correct but imagine the lesson plans. She had to do lesson plans for multiple grades, keep track of the progress through-out all levels of elementary school.

We had computers and the internet. In fact we had a computer for every kid in the class. I think Bill Gates donated them to us. There was a lot of paper work involved.

We took great field trips, get one mom to drive and off we’d go. We often had museums almost to ourselves.

We had up-to-date text books and access to videos and all the supplies any school has.

I’m defending the very unusual school my kids went to because I loved it. It was a mile down the road to school every morning, they often road their bikes. I had a huge amount of influence in that school, something that is very unusual in a school today where parents are invited in under very controlled circumstances only. The teacher became a good friend and we made a great team educating my children.

Nebraska Governor Kay Orr, a supporter of Rural Schools, comes for a visit

I know they missed out on some socializing, but I’ve noticed my girls have a great attitude with boys. They learned to think of boys as their friends, not as romances and not as icky. There just weren’t enough kids. They had to learn to get along and play with each other and I think that’s helped them get along in all aspects of their lives and have a healthy view of romantic relationships, too.

There was no shirking in class. If you’re alone in your grade, or maybe one of two or three, no one’s gonna slip through the cracks, no matter how hard they try.

The little blonde girl facing the governor in this picture is my daughter, now a mother of two, so it’s not a new picture. 🙂

The school my children went to is closed now, but there are still rural schools in Nebraska and other states. In remote areas it just makes sense to educate a child near home. I feel blessed that my children got this experience.I have four daughters…all college graduates. One of them had a friend who had been admitted to law school at an Ivy League college and my daughter went along to help her move in.

CLICK TO BUY ON AMAZONShe went with her friend to a ‘welcome to college’ party and every student was wealthy. Every one of them was working on their second or third advanced degree. Not a one of them had ever had to make the rent or worry about the cost of his clothes or drive an old beater car.

And she looked around at that priviledged crowd and just thought, ‘these are the people who are going to be running our country someday and none of them have one bit of practical experience at taking care of themselves.’

I told her she should have just said out loud, “You know what? I went to a one room country school house. I know how to drive a tractor. I’ve been kicked by a cow. I got out of college and had to get a job and I’m PROUD of that. I’m proud of supporting myself and hustling to find an apartment I can afford and finding an roommate to make it affordable and just MANAGING MY OWN LIFE. And guess what? I think I”m better than all of you.”

My daughter of course, did NOT say any of that. Probably because she’d been taught better behavior than that at her One Room Country School.

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?

Teachers: Miracle Workers Through the Years

While seeking an interesting topic for schooldays and teachers, I googled movies about teachers. I found a lot of them I liked, but one in particular resonates with me because the story is profound and amazing and true.


The Miracle Worker is based on Helen Keller’s autobiography, The Story of My Life (1903).  American playwright William Gibson wrote a play for a 1957 Playhouse 90 broadcast.  The original Broadway production opened at the Playhouse Theater in October 1959 and won the 1960 Tony Award for Best Play. Anne Bancroft who won the 1960 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for her role as Annie Sullivan and Patty Duke as Helen Keller recreated their stage roles in the movie.


I never see either of them without remembering their performances in this movie. Recently I watched the Hallmark movie, Homecoming, with the still-beautiful Anne Bancroft. Okay, I confess, Mrs. Robinson flitted before my eyes for a second there, too.


Television remakes were done in 1979 and 2000. many of you might remember the Melissa Gilbert version, where Melissa plays Helen and patty Duke plays Anne Sullivan.


At the age of nineteen months Helen Keller lost her sight and hearing during an illness, historically surmised to be  scarlet fever or meningitis. Pampered and spoiled by her parents from then on, Helen got her way by hitting, kicking, and throwing tantrums. Giving their daughter one last chance before she is institutionalized, her parents send for a teacher from the Perkins School for the Blind. Annie Sullivan was once blind herself, but after nine operations on her eyes gained sight. Against all odds, Annie determined to break through Helen’s world of darkness and silence.


One of the most moving scenes is when Helen finally understands the connection between the finger spellings and the objects they represent. Teacher and student show Helen’s parents what she has learned. There is much excitement and hugging, after which Helen pokes Annie, asking for her name. Annie spells t-e-a-c-h-e-r.


Helen pats the pocket on her mother’s dress, asking for the keys she put there. Helen takes the keys and offers them to Annie, a sign that Helen is finally willing to welcome Annie as her teacher. We are moved by the overwhelming emotions of each person. Helen who has lived in a frustratingly dark  and silent world, unable to communicate has just found a way to connect with the world. Annie has finally given Helen the keys to rich and fulfilling life. And while Helen’s mother is grateful to Annie and joyous for Helen, she must feel like the outside now.

In the final scene, just before bedtime, Helen comes into Annie’s room and kisses her cheek. They rock together for a while, as Annie spells out i-l-o-v-e-h-e-l-e-n. This is a teacher who will forever be remembered for her persistence and tough love. It blesses me to know teachers like Annie are still helping special needs children. It takes a special gift and a willing heart to commit to children in similar circumstances.

If you haven’t seen The Miracle Worker for a while, give it a watch. If you’ve never seen it, treat yourself.