The Life of a Frontier Schoolteacher

Unlike frontier days, most people in the United States take it for granted that there is a school available in nearly every community, in every state. Nowadays, these schools come complete with well-trained teachers and plenty of teaching materials.

If you had expected to find anything close to a modern school in the American West before the early 20th century, you would have been sadly disappointed.  Many communities in the Old West may have wanted a school for their children to attend.  However, that was easier said than done in many cases.  Schools in town were perhaps easier to start than schools located out in the middle of ranch country.  Even when a school was finally established, it was commonly a struggle to maintain it and keep it going.

Frame buildings were most desirable, of course, but not always an option for frontier schools. Many times the earliest schoolhouses were sod houses (“soddies”) or even a dug-out. Soddies and dug-outs were cheaper and quicker to build than wooden structures. These  could be used until a more suitable arrangement could be made.

One of the first problems was finding a qualified and willing teacher.  More likely than not, that meant some young unmarried girl or unmarried adult lady. This person had to be found, hired, and coaxed to come West, since frontier women were often too busy just trying to keep the ranch or homestead going to consider “school teaching.”

Many girls were hired from “back East.” This meant they would often arrive on the frontier largely unprepared for the tasks ahead of them.

A frontier schoolteacher’s (a.k.a. “school marms”) day went something like this:

5 a.m.—Wake up in the spare room/fainting couch/children’s bedroom in the home of the family the school marm happened to be boarding with at the time. (It was common for the teacher to be rotated among all the families attending a school. She usually stayed for a few weeks and then moving on to the next household so she did not become a burden on any one family.)  Splash cold water over face and body, dry off, dress.  Comb and pin up hair in a respectable bun.

5:30 a.m.—Eat breakfast with the family, if they were up; otherwise a cold breakfast of bread and leftovers from the night before was common. Make lunch of same, put in syrup can, and start off for school.  If the teacher was very lucky, she might have use of a horse or even a buggy to get to the school; otherwise, she must walk, even if that meant a distance of several miles in all types of weather.

6:00 to 6:30 a.m.—Arrive at the school.   Schools were sometimes wooden frame buildings constructed especially to serve as a real schoolhouse, but some communities and groups of families had to use whatever structure they could to set up their school. Whatever the school may have been, the teacher would have arrived alone, usually. And in the winter, it was also before sun-up.

6:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m.—Haul in wood or coal from shed and build up fire in stove during colder times of the school year. Pump fresh water into two buckets, one for drinking and the other for washing, and haul them into the schoolhouse.  Organize lessons, write needed items on board if the school was lucky enough to own one.  Since most frontier schools were considered well off to have perhaps a total of half a dozen schoolbooks for all pupils and the teacher to use, planning had to be done so that use of the few precious books could be coordinated properly and for maximum effect.  Most commonly used books included standards such as copies (as many as could be found) of McGuffey’s Readers, Milne Arithmetic, a “speller” or two, and if fortunate, books of history, grammar, geography or science. Oftentimes the Bible, a commonly-owned novel such as Pilgrim’s Progress or even the latest Sears catalog was used to teach reading as well.

7:30 a.m. to 8:00 a.m.—Receive pupils at school, supervise activities both inside and outside of schoolroom. The number of pupils varied greatly from school to school, and could be as few as half a dozen or as many as twenty-plus. They could also range in age from five or six up to teenagers.

8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.—Begin the day with a teacher-led prayer, and probably a patriotic hymn such as “My Country Tis of Thee,”—also known as “America”— then conduct lessons with a variety of age groups. Reading and arithmetic were popular morning subjects, since both pupils and teacher were still fresh for the day.  Each class, most often determined by either age or skill level in the subject at hand, were taught for fifteen minutes to half an hour, and then sent back to their seats or benches to work on their own.  The next age or skill group was taught for about the same amount of time, and so on, until all groups of children had received their instruction in those subjects for the day.  Children were expected to keep busy while waiting their turn by such activities as  practicing lists of spelling words or math facts on their slates, or by copying material from the board onto their slates for recitation later.

10:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.—Recess!  Children played outside in good weather, either in individual and small group activities such as leapfrog or hide-and-go-seek, or in large group activities such as baseball, tag or crack the whip.  In bad weather, children and teachers had to stay cooped up in the schoolhouse and amuse themselves with word games, telling jokes, playing “button-button-who’s-got-the-button,” or some other activity that could safely be conducted inside the room.

10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.—A good time for spelling and grammar classes.  Again, groups were rotated until all had had a chance to practice their subjects.

11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.—Lunchtime.  Lunches from home were taken out of an odd assortment of syrup pails, cloth sacks or canning jars and eaten.  Sometimes the school would have a few pans and utensils to heat foods from home atop the wood or coal stove, but cold lunches were more common. A brief recess followed, and then school resumed.

12:30 p.m. to 2:00 p.m.—Subjects such as history, geography or science was covered.  While books of this sort were probably the most rare in frontier schools, it was largely expected that the teacher herself would know something on these subjects and be able to teach them by heart.  Lessons in these departments were expected to be patriotic, morally uplifting, and not contradict the doctrines of faith.

2:00 p.m. to 2:15 p.m.—Another brief recess.

2:15 p.m. to 3 p.m.—School reconvened and was often taken up with more relaxed activities such as “spell-offs,”  reading and discussing passages from the Bible, reciting poems the children had been given to learn, or playing games involving regurgitating facts they had learned during the last several days or weeks. School was dismissed no later than 3 p.m. so everyone had a chance to get home while it was still daylight, and since many children (as well as the teacher) had quite a bit of ground to cover to make it home, classes were not to run late in the afternoon.  Before leaving for the day, pupils and teacher had to tidy the schoolroom, making sure it was swept, the board was washed off with a rag and water from one of the pails, the dippers wiped and hung up on their pegs, and any other things that might need straightening.  The fire in the stove would be banked for the night with extra wood or coal covered with cinders so it would smolder until morning. A closing prayer was said, and the pupils were dismissed to find their way home.

As stated earlier, the age of pupils attending a frontier school could vary from age five or six to as old as fifteen or sixteen.  In some cases, many of the pupils were not that much younger than the girl hired to teach them, which could sometimes lead to discipline problems, especially among the older boys.

A frontier teacher was largely on her own in terms of discipline and protecting the students under her care.  While corporal punishment (i.e. the hickory stick) was the rule in most schools, a wise teacher did not rely on it, especially if she was dealing with students who were close to her own age.  While most parents supported the teacher, they also expected the teacher to be able to completely hold her own in the case of unruly students, no matter how big they might be in comparison to the one trying to teach them.

Frontier schools were usually rather isolated, and as such could fall prey to wild animals—and sometimes, wild men.  Again, teachers were expected to be the guardians of the school and their students.  It was considered  a benefit if the teacher had a rifle and knew how to use it, both to shoot rattlesnakes that might invade the school as well as fend off anyone who might invade it with “an evil intent.”

Teachers were paid between 25 and 30 dollars a month, and room and board were considered fringe benefits with the job.  While that amount may not seem like much in today’s terms, it was comparable to a workingman’s salary of the time, and teaching school was considered a very good prospect for unmarried girls and women.

Once a girl chose to marry, many schools would no longer consider her for a teaching position, since women were expected in many cases to stay home and tend to their husbands, houses, and the children they naturally assumed would come along.  Women who wanted to remain in teaching often had to make a choice between a career and a husband and family—hence the cliché of the “old-maid schoolteacher.”

A superstition that persisted from early Colonial times forward, even to the days of the frontier, was the prejudice against left-handed teachers.  At one time it was standard practice to determine if the teacher were left or right handed, and if left-handed, they may be eliminated from consideration, since the left hand was considered “sinister” or the “Devil’s hand.”

Teachers were also expected to go to church whenever possible and keep good company, staying away from bad influences such as gossips, drunkards, or people known to have “loose morals.”  Teachers could—and were—sometimes fired if they did not lead what the community considered a moral life, especially if their conduct involved activities with the opposite sex or alcohol.

Needless to say, many teachers found the frontier schoolroom either too rigorous or too primitive, or they met and married men in the communities they taught in, so the turnover rate could be fairly high among school marms.

Despite the many obstacles faced in frontier schools, learning apparently seems to have taken place, and they were the springboards for the more modern schools that followed in later decades.

A typical view from the schoolhouse.

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