A Pioneer Teacher Job Description 

A Pioneer Teacher Job Description illustrated how difficult it was for teachers, especially women, in the early days of Grey and Bruce counties.

Our schools and education system have been under the public microscope these past few months. 

This week I thought that it might be interesting to examine what school life was like a hundred years ago in Grey and Bruce counties. 

Today our children enjoy the benefit of school bus rides. 

A century ago, many students arose early in the morning, often before dawn, and trudged through knee-deep snow to school. 

Upon arrival at school the older boys often were required to split wood and carry it into the classroom, to be used in the wood stove that heated the building.

Early diaries and journals relate stories of children huddling in their coats around the stove awaiting the glowing heat that would take the chill from the air in the school. 

Today the teachers' pension plan is so large that they are one of the shareholders in Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. the company that owns the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey club of the NHL.

A century ago, the teachers did not have a pension plan. In fact, the teachers' guidebook dictated that teachers should save "from their earnings in order that, during their declining years, they would not be a burden on society." 

The pioneer teacher's job description went far beyond teaching duties. They had to fill the lamps, trim the wicks, and keep the school lighted. 

Teachers were required to make pens, and even whittle the nibs, for their young scholars. Every aspect of the teacher's life was controlled by his or her employers. Their social lives were dictated by a strict code of ethics. Male teachers were allowed to go "courting one night a week." If the teacher had a good attendance at the local church, he was allowed to socialize two nights a week. Unfortunately, female teachers did not enjoy such liberties. When they were hired, they were warned, both verbally and in writing that "women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed."

Today, the student's attendance is strictly monitored. However, a century or more ago, attendance at school was a luxury for many families, rather than a necessity. The older children, especially the boys, often remained at home until the winter. They were required to help with the harvest and attendance could be disrupted at any time to help at home. 

Today students will walk out of class to protest some issue. A century ago, in some area, schools also experienced students strikes. This action usually occurred once a year on or about Dec. 21. That day was known as "Barring Out" day. 

This event usually occurred in areas where the majority of the students were of Scottish descent. The morning of this "civil disobedience", the students arose earlier, than usual in order to arrive at the school before their teacher. 

Once inside the classroom, the doors and windows were secure in order to keep the teacher from entering. 

After several attempts by the teacher to gain entrance, he or she would trudge through the snow to the general store where a generous amount of candies was purchased. This "peace offering" was then sent to the students along with a message that school was cancelled for the rest of the day. 

Today, the media is full of reports of drug abuse in our schools. Students are suspended for smoking tobacco products, or consuming alcohol. However, in Owen Sound in the late 1840s, alcohol was very much a part of school life. Melba Croft, in her book, Fourth Entrance to Huronia, reports that a bucket of alcohol was kept by the door in the school. It seems that the quality of the drinking water was so poor, it was preferred that the students quench their thirst with alcohol! 

In 1997, it should be a source of pride to us all that, from these pioneering conditions, one of the best education systems in the world has evolved! 

A version of this article, "A Teacher's Job Description," originally appeared on December 12, 1997 in my Local History column of the Owen Sound Sun Times.

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