& Daughters As Teachers
Preserving the Legacy: In Her Own Words
Joanne Robertson, Ph.D.
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.
was the only one from our township to go to college.”
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.
was a crazy waste of time!”
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
were the prehistoric days.”
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.
the pressed flowers!”
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
II COMING NEXT MONTH!
were happy days.”
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.”
was in charge of the valentine box.”
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.”
do you paddle a child with patches on his pants?”
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.
were proud of me.”
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.
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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