Due to the Independence Day holiday, the next Free Spirit Publishing Blog post will be on July 9, 2012.
As many of us celebrate the birth of the United States this week, imagine what it would have taken to be a teacher in the newly founded country. European settlers brought many of their concepts of education with them. The idea of public schooling was strong, but very different from what we know today. Prior to the revolution, every colony—and sometimes every city—had its own way of managing the education of children. There were no standard requirements for teachers, but customs prevailed for many years. Would you be able to teach children the basics of reading, writing, arithmetic—and a bit more—in Revolutionary America?
First, if you were not a man, your chances of being a teacher in a school setting were pretty slim. While most girls were taught to read, writing was often a skill saved for boys. If you were a lucky woman who could read and write, you might be able to tutor, and you could teach your own children at home. Indeed, when family members had the skills, they often took on the task of teaching reading to children in their households, and perhaps also teaching writing and arithmetic. If you were a man and you lived in a larger town where schools had been established, you might have landed a job as a teacher. Schools were often managed as they had been in the homeland most common in that particular community.
If you were a skilled craftsperson or tradesman who could read and write as well as manage arithmetic, you might teach your craft to apprentices. In New England, good apprenticeship opportunities were highly sought, not just to learn a trade for life, but to increase the chances of getting more education. If your apprentice had not learned reading and writing at home, you would be expected to teach the basics.
Your chance of teaching children was higher if you were a church elder or a member of the clergy. Churches led the way in teaching morals and socialization, and they supported the learning of reading based on their teachings. Dutch immigrants started formal schools as early as 1660 and taught the basics through the eyes of the Dutch Reformed Church. Throughout the colonies, many German Lutheran schools educated their children as well.
If you lived in the South, the best opportunities for teaching children were often to tutor the family of a businessman or of a planter who owned a plantation. By the 1790s, several churches and ministers were offering grammar school for children of tradesmen and others, so if you were a young man interested in tutoring or the ministry, you had more opportunities for teaching. The idea of traveling teachers, serving remote rural areas for short times, was evolving as well.
In all parts of the country, your family’s class, religion, and race had a lot to do with what education you would receive (and your chance of being able to teach). In more affluent families or regions there tended to be more opportunity for education beyond the basics. Even some girls from these settings had classes in the arts and simple sciences as well as writing and math. In major cities in New England, a set of schools for young ladies developed, similar to the gentrified school programs seen in England.
Nonwhite children were generally excluded from education. If you were a black person who could read and write, you were probably taught to do so secretly, and you probably secretly passed these skills on to others. If a region offered schooling to freed slaves or their children, it was almost always in a segregated setting. Still, a handful of freed slaves entered the teaching profession and others went on to higher education.
As randomly as it seems to have started, the seeds planted by those early teachers helped build the base of a healthy school system. By the 1870s, as the post–Civil War era settled in, every state had public schools and literacy rates soared. It took a lot of good teachers to make that happen.
Enjoy your Independence Day, and celebrate the teachers of the past who helped bring reading, writing, and so much more to children.
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Historical Dictionary of American Education (online edition) by Richard J. Altenbaugh
Archaeologists Seek Evidence of Oldest Black School, from History in the Headlines