Spotlighting the Legacy of Teachers in the U.S.

American education has greatly changed over the years. Both students and teachers look vastly different from their early American counterparts. At the beginning of the colonial era and well into the 19th century, the majority of the teachers in America were European American males. There were few female teachers, and most only taught the very young. Generally, it was believed that women did not have the physical or social abilities that men had, and that it was necessary to impose authority and apply discipline in schools, especially with regard to male students.

Additionally, these teachers were young, and most of them would teach until their late 20s. Most of the male teachers abandoned their careers around the age of 25. Teaching was viewed as a temporary arrangement by young men, and most moved on to other jobs within a few years. The few women who entered the teaching profession abandoned their careers after their adolescence as they moved on to marry and establish families and households when they became young adults.

Teacher pay was low, which was another motivation for teachers to prepare themselves to move on to more lucrative professions. Teachers who maintained long-term careers in education were not in the profession by choice but because they had no other options. A prevailing practice during the colonial era was to bestow public service jobs on social dependents who had few employment opportunities.

Participation in the teaching profession changed after the mid-19th century. Beginning in the 1840s, a large number of women entered the teaching profession. The increase in the number of female teachers was influenced by a fundamental change in the approach to child rearing. The belief, prevalent during the colonial era, that children were essentially sinful and needed control by force, gave way to the belief that children needed to be nurtured and guided.

Women’s personalities and disposition were thought to make them better suited to provide this type of guidance. The trend toward the feminization of teaching continued into the early 20th century, when approximately four of every five teachers were female. Elementary teaching was a female stronghold, and only in high schools did men continue to have their presence felt. As teaching conditions changed, men slowly returned to the profession at both the elementary and secondary levels.

Poor pay and relatively unattractive opportunities plagued women in the teaching profession. Attrition was quite high and, over time, the teaching profession suffered from a lack of good teachers.

Feminization of the teaching profession had other effects on the delivery system. The school calendar was especially drawn to suit the interests of women and was designed to integrate with their household work and other child-rearing responsibilities. School calendars were intermittent, and the profession was believed to lack the professionalism that was apparent in other careers. The teaching profession became burdened with the perception that the career was that of “social housekeeping,” similar to nursing and other social work professions.

Teaching has come a long way since its establishment as an American profession. As an educator, you are part of a long legacy of education in the United States.

What could your impact be?

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