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Only A Teacher
Schoolhouse Pioneers
Henry Adams
Catharine Beecher
John Dewey
Elaine Goodale Eastman
Charlotte Forten
Margeret Haley
Horace Mann
Julia Richman
Laura Towne

Margaret Haley (1861-1939)

Through her leadership of the Chicago Teachers Federation, Margaret Haley became a voice in national education politics. She promoted a more professional approach to teaching, including improved teacher education and teacher involvement in school management. But Haley also fought for traditional bread-and-butter issues: pensions, salary increases and other benefits for teachers. The first woman and teacher to speak from the floor at a National Education Association meeting, she delivered the influential speech, "Why Teachers Should Organize" in 1904. In this speech, she introduced issues that continue to be debated by teachers' unions and the public today.

Margaret Haley was born in Joliet, Illinois, on November 15, 1861, to Irish immigrant parents. Growing up, she was influenced by her father, an active member of several labor organizations. After attending a progressive normal school, she moved to Chicago to teach sixth grade in the infamous stockyards district, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. There she taught classes of 50 to 60 students, in deplorable conditions, according to a rigid curriculum imposed by educational bureaucrats. Over the next 16 years, she observed the unchanging poverty of the community in which she taught. She also discerned a constant decline in the conditions of the schools for teachers and students.

Haley came to understand that it was up to teachers to fight for change, both in the schools and in society. She was influenced by the philosophy of John Dewey, who believed that schools should be microcosms in which students learned the process of democracy through participation in a community. According to Haley, the tendency of schools to treat teachers as "automatons, mere factory hands" was in direct conflict with the principles of democracy.

In 1897, Margaret Haley joined the fledgling Chicago Teachers' Federation (CTF). The CTF grew out of intense teacher dissatisfaction: most of the nation's city teachers earned less than unskilled workers. Unlike other teachers' associations of the time, the CTF earned the distinction of being dominated by women teachers instead of male administrators. Because high school teachers (who were then mainly men) were subject to different guidelines and received higher salaries, only grade school teachers were invited to join the CTF. In 1900, Haley became the district Vice President of the CTF and soon gave up teaching for full-time union work. Under Haley's leadership, the CTF fought for higher salaries, pensions and tenure, better school conditions, and, in Haley's words, the right "for the teacher to call her soul her own." The union also fought against the "factoryization" of the schools and the increasing constraints placed on teachers by rigid bureaucracies.

The earliest teachers unions lacked any real legal authority. Without collective bargaining rights, the CTF relied on lawsuits and political campaigns to effect change. Haley's first action for the CTF was to file suit when the Chicago Board of Education refused to honor a promised pay raise for the city's grade school teachers. Haley cleverly discovered that many of the city's corporations were not paying their fair share of taxes, which deprived the city of needed funds for schools. The CTF's lawsuit forced the corporations to pay their taxes and the city's teachers won their raise. But equally important to Haley was the fact that the corporations were forced to assume their civic responsibility to the public schools.

At the turn of the 20th century, the CTF was the most prominent and most militant of the teachers' organizations. In 1902, Haley led the CTF to join the Chicago Federation of Labor. She understood that teachers had much in common with manual workers, especially in light of the increasing "factory-ization" of the schools. The CTF's affiliation with labor shocked the Chicago establishment -- and many teachers. But it ultimately helped the CTF gain political power and an important victory regarding pensions. Eventually, political pressures forced Haley to renounce her alliance with the CFL.

Haley ardently believed that school reform was fundamental to social reform. She saw the struggle for teachers' rights as intrinsically linked to other social struggles and she used the union to back progressive causes, among them, woman suffrage and child labor legislation. Under her leadership, the teachers union became a political force for both school and social reform. Haley and her cohorts were so successful that they acquired the nickname "Lady Labor Sluggers."

Further Reading

Haley, Margaret (ed. Robert L. Reid). Battleground, 1982
Hoffman, Nancy. Woman's True Profession: Voices from the History of Teaching, 1981





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