I recently became the recipient of a copy of my great-great-grandmother Stella Bowling Cunningham’s diary (which I am currently in the process of transcribing and uploading to my genealogy blog). I did not know this before I received the diary, but Grandma Stella was a teacher before she married my great-great-grandfather.
Stella doesn’t write much about school, but I find what she does write most illuminating. First of all, she is like most teachers at the time — an unmarried young woman who may have gone to Normal School, but otherwise received no training. Second, school was frequently interrupted by weather, illness, and farm cycles. As many times as she wrote “small school today,” I’m astonished she felt able to accomplish much. It would have been immensely frustrating to me, but she seemed to take it in stride. Once she mentions arriving at school, but no students showed, so she simply went home and sewed.
Another thing I noticed is that Stella frequently mentions problems with “order.” She even used a switch on a student. Aside from the part about the switch, not much seems to have changed on that front. I suppose kids were as prone to be discipline problems in 1893 as they are now. She does seem extremely frustrated by this issue, as it is the only one she mentions frequently. Frankly, having had my own struggles with that issue, I can only empathize with her across time.
I noticed that Stella had to buy her own supplies, too. She makes note of everything she buys and how much it cost in her diary. Twice she made a notation for “prepared chalk, .05.” Her students probably used slates, so the paper she purchased must have been for her correspondence. She appears to have been paid in vouchers and depended upon local families for board, which she still had to pay out of her salary.
Stella mentions working on grade reports at home, and she appeared to be frustrated by the work. She also frequently taught outside of school hours — she mentions an evening spelling class.
In some respects, much has changed, but still more remarkable to me is how much hasn’t.