New York City
March 2003

Mothers & Daughters As Teachers
Preserving the Legacy: In Her Own Words

by Joanne Robertson, Ph.D.

Living history: Reflecting memories

My mother has asked me to write this story, for she is no longer able to do so herself. Her testimonial bears witness to the significant contributions of women to the field of education, and to the evolution of critical theories of teaching and learning. For, embedded within her recollections about the four room schoolhouse in a small coal mining town, are philosophies influenced by her family culture, college education, and gender perceptions.

“I was the only one from our township to go to college.”

“I was an achiever,” my mother proudly exclaims. “No one could stop me.”When she attended college in the late 1930s, only 20% of women were pursuing baccalaureate degrees. She was the first-generation child of Czecho-slovakian immigrants, so what follows is a story of assimilation, determination, cultural association, and personal empowerment. Unable to afford the dormitory charges, she washed, ironed, polished, and ran errands for “rich senior” women living in an off campus residence to cover her expenses. Afterwards, she returned to her hometown to teach the children of immigrant parents like her own.

“It was a crazy waste of time!”

“I wanted to be a professional - a teacher,” my mother says. She describes her undergraduate reading, writing, and arithmetic classes as “rote.” She watched movies of classroom “procedures,” and visited schools to observe, evaluate, and record her impressions of teaching methodologies. “We practiced the push-pull,” method of handwriting,” she tells me. She draws ovals across the page to demonstrate this technique. “You couldn’t go over the line,” she adds. The “visual method” was highly recommended for reading and writing instruction. Students were to be “drilled” in correlating sounds to words. “They said it, saw it, and pronounced it,” my mother explains. After completing two years of undergraduate work, she began her teaching career, completing the remaining coursework over the following summers.

“Those were the prehistoric days.”

She earned $25.00 a week as a 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade teacher. “There were four classrooms in the building,” my mother says. “Kindergarten and grade one, 4th, 5th, and 6th grade, and 7th and 8th. The principal taught seventh and eighth “because he was a man.” She explained the “rules” for women who wanted to keep their jobs. “You should be single, and devote your life to teaching. No marriage! The children should never see a pregnant teacher,” she laughs. “You should wear only black or brown, like a uniform. No smoking allowed.” She describes the local soda shop she went to “sneak a smoke” with fellow teachers during recess. They sat in a small back room, so as not to be seen.

“Oh, the pressed flowers!”

The school day began at six in the morning. “I had a pot-belly stove in one corner,” she gestures as if picturing the layout. “The room was always cold.The older boys came before school to help me start it. Their parents gave them firewood. Always those pressed flowers from the boys who took care of the stove. The older boys stood against the wall as the others arrived. They’d hide the bouquets in their desks and give them to me at recess when nobody could see.”


“Those were happy days.”

“We had a curriculum – we called it the Bible because you had to follow it,” she states. “The older children worked with the younger ones, and I always read lots of stories to them. I would draw pictures about the books, and write words underneath, that was the ‘visual method.’ I would read the words and then the children would read them. With some money from my salary I bought extra workbooks for the classroom, and when they became worn the older children would help the younger children make storybooks out of them. I kept everyone busy working on things they were able to do.”

I ask what methods didn’t work. “What didn’t work,” she replies, “is that they must be able to think for themselves. They just can’t keep copying things – memorizing. They have to have a feeling for stories. They should develop their own characters. They have to see the active function. What it is and how it works in life.”

“John was in charge of the valentine box.”

“In my mind you should never label a child. That’s the worst thing you can do. That says to the child, ‘you’re dumb.’ They feel like they’re tagged. You must find out what interests them.” She begins to speak about one student, who she believed was cognitively impaired. “John loved to decorate! He helped me to put up the pictures, words, and letters around the classroom. As we worked, I would say the words for him. He would practice them later. John loved rhyming, so I did word patterns like ‘spin, tin, thin,’ you know. He built the valentine box, and handed out the valentines. I made sure everyone had one. John liked coming to school, taking care of the plants, stoking the stove, and working on his projects.”

“How do you paddle a child with patches on his pants?”

“I never used that damn paddle! I don’t believe in hurting a child. Show them there’s another way. If they misbehaved I didn’t call the parents. No way!” She speaks of child abuse, alcoholism, and poverty. Because she lived in this immigrant community, and was almost as close as a family member to the children, she understood the factors that impacted upon their opportunities for learning.

“They were proud of me.”

The affective and motivational components of learning are critical to the social, emotional, and cognitive development of children and can lead to increased personal and academic engagement. These components, in conjunction with the social context in which the learning occurs, can never be underestimated in their impact upon student achievement. My mother’s classroom might have been chilly due to the pot-belly stove, but it was warm in relationships and respect for the uniqueness of each child. It was alive with stories, both personal and textual. Which is why my mother could have never used the paddle. It would have been like beating herself. “I showed the children that just because they lived in a small coal mining town, it didn’t mean they couldn’t go to college. I motivated them.” It is clear my mother believes this was her greatest accomplishment. I agree.#

Joanne Robertson, Ph.D, is a professor at St. John’s University. This article was inspired by her mother, Annie Semo Robertson. 

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