Only a Teacher - classroom
Only A Teacher
Teaching Timeline
Looking for an interactive experience? Explore the history of teachers and education using our multimedia timeline! (It uses the shockwave (v. 4 and above) and real player plug-ins.)

1772 to Late 18th Century

"Wanted Immediately: A Sober diligent Schoolmaster capable of teaching READING, WRITING, ARITHMETICK, and the Latin TONGUE... Any Person qualified as above, and well recommended, will be put into immediate Possession of the School, on applying to the Minister of Charles Parish, York County." -- The Virginia Gazette, August 20, 1772

From colonial times and into the early decades of the 19th century, most teachers were men. There were, of course, career schoolmasters, but, especially in smaller and rural schools, the people who stood in front of the classroom might well be farmers, surveyors, even innkeepers, who kept school for a few months a year in their off-season. The more educated and ambitious schoolmasters were young men who made the schoolroom a stepping-stone on their way to careers in the church or the law. The connections they made with local ministers and school committees in securing teaching jobs often helped them when they moved on to their real professions.

1820s to 1830s: The Common School Era

"The grammar school teachers have rarely had any education beyond what they have acquired in the very schools where they have to teach. Their attainments, therefore, to say the least, are usually very moderate." -- James Carter, Education Reformer, 1826

Reformers like Horace Mann had agitated to make schooling more democratic, universal and non-sectarian. But as new public schools, called Common Schools, sprang up everywhere, there simply were not enough schoolmasters to staff them. Mann and his fellow reformers like James Carter, Henry Barnard and Catharine Beecher saw that the schools needed not only more teachers, but better teachers. Many of the most promising young men continued to be siphoned off by more prestigious professions, as well as by new industries and the lure of the western frontier. So where would the army of new teachers come from? There was, of course, another ready source of labor, if reformers could convince the public to accept it. Women were poised to take over the schoolroom.

Common School

The Common School is the precursor to today's public school. In the late 1830s, the reformer Horace Mann of Massachusetts proposed a system of free, universal and non-sectarian schooling. Each district would provide a school for all children, regardless of religion or social class (hence the term Common School). Previously, church groups or private schools had provided most education for children, for which students generally had to pay tuition. The new schools would be funded by taxes and special fees paid by parents.

In addition to teaching basic literacy and arithmetic skills, the new schools would, according to reformers, instill a common political and social philosophy of sound republican principals. Mann and others hoped such democratic consensus would ward off much-feared political instability and upheaval. Children would gain needed knowledge while learning how to be productive democratic citizens. The advent of the Common School significantly affected teachers and the teaching profession. The increasing number of new schools across the country demanded greater numbers of educated teachers. In order to staff the schools, communities turned to women, spurring the feminization of the teaching profession -- the entry and eventual domination of women in the workforce. It also led to the formalization of teacher training, often through Normal Schools.

1840s: Feminization Begins

"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

Women had long run what were called Dame Schools in their homes for the youngest children. While the dame-school teachers were not particularly well educated, they did demonstrate that women could teach. In any case, younger women were becoming better educated; the United States, in fact, had a very high degree of female literacy. The Common School reformers seized on the idea of hiring women to teach in the new schools. They cited as women's most important qualification their femininity -- the fact that they were women. But they often added, in an aside, that women need be paid only a third what men received.

The reformers argued that women were by nature nurturing and maternal, as well as of high moral character. As Mann wrote in 1840, "The school committee are sentinels stationed at the door of every school house in the State, to see that no teacher crosses its threshold, who is not clothed, from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot, in garments of virtue." (Note that Mann still refers to the teacher as he, though he usually proselytized on behalf of women as moral leaders in the schoolroom.) Teachers were moral exemplars, the models and instructors of upright living.

Even as they granted women moral superiority, reformers quietly worried over women's ability to maintain order in the classroom and discipline unruly children. In many schools, the new schoolmarms were young - some only fourteen or fifteen years old. They had finished the equivalent of eighth grade and, in some schools, that qualified them to teach. Their pupils might well be taller and older than they - at least when the farm boys put in their periodic appearances in the classroom. Nineteenth-century female teachers often complained that teaching was most challenging when the "big boys," who would either flirt or tease and defy them, arrived.

The reformers often derided women's intellectual capabilities. Yet women were becoming better educated than ever before, and state officials took notice. In this period, most states began to put in place requirements for teachers: basic academic competence and attendance at summer institutes for ongoing training. Many (beginning with Massachusetts in 1838) had inaugurated Normal Schools, institutions devoted to teacher education.

Normal Schools

Normal Schools were originally established to provide systematic training of teachers. Their goal was to prepare teachers for work in the emerging Common Schools at a level beyond the simple grammar-school education many teachers previously brought to the classroom. 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 first state-sponsored Normal School was established in Lexington, Massachusetts in 1839, under the guidance of Cyrus Peirce (and at the urging of Horace Mann). While the idea of Normal Schools achieved great popularity for a period and many states moved to set up their own schools, in fact, the heyday of Normal Schools was relatively short-lived. Around the turn of the twentieth century, as reformers sought to professionalize teaching to a greater degree, education courses increasingly moved into regular colleges and universities. But the impact of Normal Schools on the concept of teacher training was enormous, as states recognized the need to provide teachers with stimulating and demanding preparation courses.

1850s to 1880s: Women's Experience in the Classroom

With as many as 60 children in the one-room rural schoolhouse, teachers had their work cut out for them. Admittedly, the curriculum was generally not very demanding -- reading, writing, basic arithmetic, a little geography and history. The texts often took the form of simple moral tracts and primers of childish virtues. Webster's blue-backed speller was popular, as was the Bible, and later McGuffey's famous readers.

Still, women flocked to teaching. Not only were they grateful for the salary, however meager; they also welcomed the independence and sense of purpose teaching gave them. No doubt some regretted having to leave their homes and earn their own livings. Many assumed they would teach only a few years until they married. But many others welcomed the escape from a life of drab labor, isolation or frivolity. Teaching gave women a window onto a wider world of ideas, politics and public usefulness.

Ironically, the women teachers could effect change precisely because they had no longstanding, vested interest in teaching careers. They were, in a sense, outsiders. But they formed associations, went to summer training institutes, exchanged ideas and friendships, and unobtrusively contributed to the transformation of their communities. The feminization of teaching changed not only how society perceived women, but how women perceived themselves.

Port Royal Experiment

Begun in 1862 on the South Carolina Sea Islands, the Port Royal Experiment was an early attempt to prepare newly freed slaves for full democratic participation in post-Civil War society. When Union forces began an assault on St. Helena Island on the Port Royal Sound, the plantation owners fled, leaving behind their homes, possessions, and 10,000 slaves. Philanthropic Northerners, including Laura Towne and Charlotte Forten, undertook to educate the soon-to-be freedmen. Their goals were literacy, economic independence and civil rights. Their efforts to bring the freedmen into "white society" became known as the Port Royal Experiment.

Hampton Institute

Founded in 1868 during southern Reconstruction, Hampton Institute in Virginia began as an agricultural college and Normal School for newly freed slaves. It was the vision of General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, who had commanded an African-American brigade during the Civil War. Armstrong, who led Hampton until 1893, perceived a need for vocational training for black Americans and convinced the American Missionary Association to establish Hampton. Its emphasis on practical manual skills (rather than strict academic pursuits) was seen at the time as enlightened and important for African-Americans in a period of crucial transition. In 1878, Hampton added an Indian Department, headed by another Civil War veteran, Captain Richard Henry Pratt. Teacher Elaine Goodale Eastman joined the Indian Department that year, launching her lifelong engagement with Native Americans. In 1900, Hampton took over the Penn School, the school founded by Laura Towne on the South Carolina Sea Islands.


Since the Common School era (1830-1880), bringing diverse people into the American mainstream has been one of the primary goals of public education. Around the turn of the 20th century, immigrants flooded into the United States. In 1907 alone, authorities recorded the arrival of more than 1,200,000 newcomers. The movement to assimilate and Americanize these foreigners took on new urgency. Especially in cities, schools were not only expected to teach English, but to instill American customs, manners mores. At times the methods were extreme; principal Julia Richman, for instance, recommended washing students' mouths out with soap, kosher soap if necessary, when they spoke their native languages. Still, many immigrant families were grateful for the job the schools did; they saw the school as a bridge to a new and better life. And it often was. Students looked to teachers as role models, exemplars of gentility and success in the new land.

Wounded Knee, South Dakota

In 1890, American troops were convinced that a small band of Sioux Indians in South Dakota were planning an uprising. The Native Americans were practicing the Ghost Dance ritual, which foretold the return of the buffalo and the fall of the white man. While many observers, including the teacher Elaine Goodale Eastman, were convinced that the Sioux had no intention to wage war, the U.S. military thought otherwise. The tension came to a head near Wounded Knee Creek, close to the Pine Ridge Reservation, in the dead of winter. Government troops opened fire on unarmed men, women and children, killing nearly two hundred of them and injuring countless others. This action was among the last skirmishes of the American Indian Wars, but its legacy has lived on in uneasy relations ever since.

1890s to 1910s: Women Teacher's Rebellion

"It was with that first class that I became aware that a teacher was subservient to a higher authority. I became increasingly aware of this subservience to an ever growing number of authorities with each succeeding year, until there is danger today of becoming aware of little else." -- Marian Dogherty, Teacher, Boston, 1899

By the turn of the 20th century, nearly 75 percent of America's teachers were women. But women made up a far smaller percentage of administrators, and their power decreased with each higher level of authority. Their deportment had always been closely watched; increasingly their work in the schoolroom was not only scrutinized, but rigidly controlled. Teacher autonomy was on the decline, and teachers resented it.

Especially in big city schools, teachers at the turn of the 20th century felt like the most insignificant cogs in a huge machine. They felt dictated to and spied upon. Furthermore, they were badly paid and lacked pension benefits or job security. Many teaching positions were dispensed through political patronage. Married women were often barred from the classroom, and women with children were denied a place in schools. And daily conditions could be deplorable. The often-cited developments of immigration, urbanization and westward expansion had swelled, and changed the face of, the student population. Teachers had little flexibility in how they were to teach their myriad charges, who in urban schools particularly, might well come from impoverished families who spoke little English. They taught in classrooms that were overcrowded, dark and poorly ventilated. Schools felt like factories.

For rural teachers, conditions were not necessarily much better. They had limited resources, with the added burden of keeping up run-down schools. African-American teachers especially suffered from inadequate materials and funding. Though their communities were eager for schooling, teachers found that money was rarely abundant. Well into the 20th century, black school systems relied on hand-me-down textbooks and used equipment, discarded by their white counterparts. African-American teachers were usually paid significantly less than their white peers and their civil rights were often compromised. (For instance, in a later era, belonging to the NAACP could be grounds for dismissal and southern affiliates of the National Education Association denied black teachers membership.)

In the early decades of the 20th century, even as school districts put greater emphasis on "professionalization," teachers everywhere felt left behind. City Boards of Education, increasingly made up of business and professional men, worked to reform teaching. Often their goals were laudable: to root out corruption, to raise the practice and status of teaching, to ensure real student achievement. But they rarely had any first-hand knowledge of what teaching actually was like. They worked according to a business model, with clear hierarchies and chains of command -- which left teachers at the bottom. The "administrative progressives" (as education historian David Tyack has called them) wanted to impose uniformity and efficiency on classrooms of 50 disparate children. They supported the move away from Normal Schools to university departments of education, where theory would rule. They discouraged individual initiative by teachers, whom they considered too limited to enact worthwhile change.

Not surprisingly, teachers rebelled. At least in urban districts teachers had the advantage of numbers. Cities became the centers for the teachers associations that eventually grew into unions. In Chicago, Margaret Haley and Catherine Goggin of the Chicago Federation of Teachers rallied their peers (and the city government) for improved pay, retirement benefits and tenure. Haley knew that many women considered teaching genteel, white-collar work. Joining a union was anathema to them. But she convinced them that they needed the union and could do real social good within its embrace. In the process, she laid the foundation for the American Federation of Teachers (one of the two main teachers unions today, along with the National Education Association). In New York, Grace Strachan and the Interborough Association of Women Teachers fought for Equal Pay for Equal Work (despite men's assertion that they rightfully should be paid more than their female counterparts, since they had families to support).


There are two national teachers unions in the United States today, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. The NEA was founded in 1857 as a policy-making organization, one that hoped to influence the national debate about schools and schooling. Over the next hundred years, it played a significant role in standardizing teacher training and curriculum. Until the 1960s, the NEA tended to represent the interests of school administrators and educators from colleges and universities.

The AFT, on the other hand, was always much more of a grass-roots teachers' organization. It was formed in 1897 as the Chicago Teachers Federation, with the explicit aim of improving teachers' salaries and pensions. Catherine Goggin and Margaret Haley allied the CFT with the labor movement, going so far as to join the American Federation of Labor - an act that horrified everyone who wanted to see teaching as genteel, white-collar employment. At the same time, the union conceived its work in terms of broader social improvement, bettering the lives of the poor and the alienated. By 1916, several local unions had come together to form the AFT. In the 1940s, the AFT began collective bargaining with local school boards, which again horrified some people. Collective bargaining always carries the threat of strikes, and teachers, as servants of the community, were long seen as both too indispensable and too noble to engage in work stoppages. The issue of strikes remains contentious today.

Teacher militancy has waxed and waned over the past 50 years. But many teachers believe that whatever gains they have made -- in pay, benefits, job security and working conditions -- have come from the efforts of their unions. Today, the NEA and AFT flirt with the idea of merging and have made significant strides towards combining their memberships. Their common interests -- greater professionalization, increased authority for educators, enhanced clout in Washington, better working conditions and improved schools -- dictate working together, and perhaps even becoming one very powerful union.

1910s to 1930s: Progressivism

"How can the child learn to be a free and responsible citizen when the teacher is bound?" -- John Dewey, Philosopher of Education, 1918

Though it took time, the women teachers were largely successful. They gained better (and eventually equal) pay, pensions and tenure. They became principals of grammar schools and, in some smaller districts, even superintendents. But men continued to dominate administration, and the increased clout of women teachers made many people uneasy. Male educators fretted about The Woman Peril, making dire prophecies about the emasculating effects of women teachers. Through the 1920s, the bureaucrats' grip on schools, and on classroom practice, remained firm.

John Dewey, perhaps the most influential educational philosopher the 20th century, challenged the rigidity that characterized many American classrooms. By the 1920s he had become the standard-bearer for Progressive Education, arguing that democracy must prevail in the classroom. Both teachers and children needed to be free, he argued, to devise the best forms of learning for each child. These assumptions turned the hierarchy of classrooms and schools upside down. While the implementation of progressive education has been uneven over the past 100 years, its influence on teachers' roles within schools has been notable.

1930s to 1960s: Relative Calm

After about 1930, teachers went about their work with less public agitation. Unions declined after achieving most of the bread-and-butter goals they had first set. Larger political and economic issues diverted most teachers' attention. But among African-American educators, significant obstacles remained. In the 1940s, Viola Duval Stewart challenged the unequal pay scales of black and white teachers in Charleston, North Carolina. With the help of the young Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP, she won her suit. Still, most southern schools remained legally segregated, and black schools invariably received less funding and fewer supplies. By the 1960s, desegregation was gaining steam and teachers clearly were at the forefront of a major social issue.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas 1954

In 1895, the Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson established the principle that public facilities -- including schools -- could be "separate but equal," therefore legalizing segregation as long as facilities were equivalent for both races. The 1954 Brown suit, brought by parents in Topeka, Kansas, argued that segregated schools were inherently unequal. The Supreme Court agreed by unanimous decision. In 1955, the Court followed up by announcing that schools must desegregate "with all deliberate speed," although in many places it took ten to fifteen years for schools to become integrated. The later Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenberg decision took Brown one step further, recognizing bussing as a legitimate means to end segregation in the schools.

1960s to 1980s: Teachers, Social Equality and Professionalism

"We need to move now to a professional approach, which holds people accountable for doing what's good for kids, for teaching and learning. That requires change both on the part of the unions and on the part of school boards, administrators and parents and community participants in the process as well." -- Linda Darling-Hammond, Professor of Education

The 1960s and 70s saw many upheavals in which schools across the country were directly involved. Teachers became more militant, battling for (and sometimes against) civil rights, community control of schools, anti-poverty programs and the end of the Vietnam war. Native American and Latino education took on new urgency. Unions again entered the fray, this time over collective bargaining rights, school funding and another round of pay and benefit issues. As America moved towards the 1980s, other concerns dominated. The public seemed convinced that American schools were failing, and that teachers must be at least partly responsible.

The 1983 report "A Nation at Risk" depicted teachers who were both underqualified and underpaid, working in poor conditions, achieving poor results. A follow-up report in 1986, "A Nation Prepared," laid the foundations for a new professionalism and a new Standards movement. It proposed improving teacher education, restructuring the teaching force and giving teachers greater say in how they met new requirements for student achievement. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards was born the next year to provide a clearing-house for national recognition and certification of exemplary teachers.

Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Board of Education, 1971

Sixteen years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Supreme Court further clarified its Brown decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg. In 1969, the Swanns, an African-American family in Charlotte, North Carolina, brought suit when their children were not allowed to attend the city's white schools. In its ruling, the Supreme Court stated that all schools within a given district didn't strictly have to reflect the district's racial make-up. But, the Court argued, all-black or all-white schools must not be the result of deliberate policies of segregation. The Supreme Court justices then went a step further and suggested that bussing would be an acceptable means of achieving integration.

1990s to the Present

"There's really nothing more rewarding than seeing a student who has incredible potential being reborn as a good student." -- Alex White, Teacher, New York, 2000

At the start of the new millennium, teachers remain ambivalent about the effects of these developments. They are discouraged by the public perception of schools, but heartened by the public will to give education the attention it deserves. They lament the comparatively poor pay and lack of respect that teaching still commands, but see improvement ahead. They are wary of rigid dictates on how to do their work, but excited by the many new forms schools can take today. They remain inspired and challenged by their students, which is what makes staying in the classroom worthwhile.

Assessing Students

Assessing students' work has become an increasingly controversial issue over the past decade. Should teachers and the public rely on results of standardized tests, on multi-faceted portfolios of a student's work developed over time, on judgments about a student's process and progress in learning, or on a student's finished product? The divide between those who favor assessing process and those who support evaluating a final product has provoked wide debate both in and out of the classroom. As states impose standardized exams on schools, many teachers complain that a single, one-shot test can't provide a clear picture of a student's progress or higher-order thinking skills. On the other hand, the public largely believes that all students should master a common body of knowledge, appropriate to a given age. Many educators favor what they call authentic assessment, essentially a compromise between the two schools of evaluation. Authentic assessment looks at actual performance, through tests or complex projects, but also requires attention to learning process, synthesis of different modes of learning and student reflection on what they've accomplished and how. Portfolio assessment sometimes falls under this rubric, since it provides a compilation of different forms of learning: papers, projects, and journals, for example. Teachers voice one reservation about these forms of evaluation, however: they are simply too labor-intensive granted most teachers' workload. Many teachers see up to 150 students a day, and they say that, even with the best will in the world, they're hard put to do justice to that many comprehensive student portfolios.

The Standards Movement

The call for uniform, high standards in teaching and learning has echoed throughout American history. Catharine Beecher and Horace Mann despaired of the low standards for teachers in the mid-19th century; 50 or 60 years later Progressive educators like John Dewey complained about ineffective teaching methods; all Americans worried about the state of our children's learning in the 1950s in the wake of the Russian rocket Sputnik, and in the 1980s we were convinced we were a "Nation At Risk" because of our low educational standards. With each outcry has come a new determination to define and implement better standards for our schools.

The 21st-century Standards Movement has taken several different forms, primarily relating to curriculum, teacher training and performance, and student achievement. What Standards enthusiasts want to see, in essence, is a well-defined body of knowledge and guidelines that would indicate what students should know and when. This sounds simple, but the problem, of course, lies in agreeing on the knowledge to be acquired and the means of assessment. These are contentious issues. But whatever standards prevail, both teachers and students will feel the effects.

Potentially, a lot is riding on the outcome of the Standards Movement. For teachers, at issue may be classroom autonomy, ability to overcome larger social forces like poverty, and even financial compensation (as some authorities want to tie pay to student achievement). Teachers want their students to succeed, but hope that assessment, both for them and for their students, will take a variety of factors - like social conditions and local consensus -- into consideration. Other people put their faith in standardized exams for both teachers and students, since the tests would define the body of knowledge to be mastered and indicate whether that knowledge had, in fact, been absorbed. Still others argue that we suffer from too much standardization already and need a more thoughtful, individualized approach to raising the quality of teaching and learning. These are issues that will not be resolved soon, though many states are deeply committed to standards-based initiatives.

Assessing Teachers

Public concern with the preparedness and quality of the nation's teachers has generated a great deal of publicity recently. Ironically, most people, even if they express concern about teachers in general, report that they like and support their own children's teachers. But personal feeling aside, the nation has had no overarching means of assessing teachers until recently. States have tried various means of determining the quality of teaching, but these attempts have been localized and often criticized as inadequate. Local systems usually rely on an in-house administrator to evaluate teachers and make recommendations about retention and tenure. Increasingly, however, school districts have included some form of peer review, which permits teachers to judge and learn from each other. In some cities, unions play a role in teacher assessment, though the public and many school boards are wary of union involvement in evaluation.

Many educators believe that the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards addresses the problem of broader teacher assessment. The NBPTS now grants national teacher certification for seasoned professionals, based on complex performance assessments and examinations. Teachers must submit lesson plans and videos of their teaching, as well as lengthy and reflective journals about what they've done and why. The process of receiving national certification is rigorous, so limited numbers of teachers have undertaken it and not all teachers succeed on their first try. But many teachers have commented that they have become better teachers in the process.

About the Series | Timeline | Pioneers | Closeup | Show & Tell | Teachers Today
Screensaver | Online Resources | Professional Development
Purchase Video | Feedback | Credits