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What Was School Life Like?

What Was It Like to Be a Teacher?

Teachers faced common problems. Many school buildings were inadequate. There were often too few textbooks, maps, or schoolroom supplies and materials, or sometimes none at all. Often students missed class. At times, teachers had to deal with difficult parents and little or no professional development was available to them. They were poorly paid, and female teachers received even less than male teachers for the same position. There were schools that were too hot or too cold, others with chimneys that smoked; and some without even a clean water supply. Despite all the challenges, teachers did the best job they could with little resources and support.

Black and white photograph of male teacher and a group of children posing in front of a clapboard schoolhouse. All are dressed in what are probably their best clothes.

Elia Shklanka, teacher, with students at Kalush School, Alberta, 1917

Black and white photograph of young female teacher and young children posing in front of a clapboard schoolhouse

Teacher Olga Burak (later Swystun) with her students at Meacham, Saskatchewan in 1918 

Black and white photograph of a late middle-aged man in three-piece suit and bow tie, pen in hand, seated at a large wooden desk

The teacher, and later the principal, at Jesse Ketchum School in September 1909, Toronto

Once a teacher had accepted a position, there was the problem of where he or she would live. Most teachers boarded with the families of their students, sometimes moving from one home to another as each family took their turn. Some schools had a teacherage. This was a small shack-like structure sometimes located near the school, but usually found in isolated areas. They were lonely places for a teacher to live, often lacking basic comforts and certainly without luxuries.

Even though their salaries were small, teachers still often experienced problems collecting the fees from the families in the community. A teacher might go unpaid for long periods of time. Sometimes, instead of receiving money teachers would be paid the equivalent in goods, such as potatoes or other crops. The teacher then had to sell or trade these goods at the general store to buy what he or she needed.

The Chief Superintendent of Schools for New Brunswick reported in 1855:

"I have now before me a letter from a First Class Teacher, whom I know to be a most worthy and excellent man; he says that when he entered upon the engagement for twelve months . . . the inhabitants of the District subscribed the sum of £35 [approximately $3700 in modern Canadian funds] towards his support; that is to say, they signed their names to a paper, each promising a certain sum in consideration of his sending so many children to the School. . . . But how did he receive his £35? During the twelve months he got 2s 6d [about $13 in modern Canadian funds] in cash, the balance was paid in Potatoes, Buckwheat, socks, mittens, all charged at the very highest rates, and in orders upon the Store, where, as he says 'I obtained very indifferent goods, at very exorbitant prices.'

Third Annual Report on the Parish Schools of New Brunswick (Fredericton: J. Simpson, 1855), p. 10.

I Remember . . .

Maisie Emery Cook and her sister were teaching school in Alberta in 1901 and she recalls one of her boarding situations:

"My new home was a fairly large one storey log building with an annex which was used for a post office and grocery store. The main part had two bedrooms curtained off and the rest was living (and sleeping) room.... The husband, wife and baby had one bedroom, his sister and I had the other. The other seven occupied the living room.... We were taken to school whenever the horses were not needed for other work, but otherwise had to walk the four and one-half miles."

Maisie Emery Cook, Memories of a Pioneer Schoolteacher (Edmonton: The Author, 1968), pp. 18-19.

Black and white photograph of three young women, probably teenagers. All are looking at the camera, seated in a classroom with a blackboard in the background and a cluttered desk in the foreground

A young teacher with two students, 1896-1897

Black and white photograph of a young woman posing in front of a wooden schoolhouse with her mostly aboriginal students, ranging in age from young children to young adults

Miss Doherty (left) and her students, Bear Island, Ontario, July 25, 1906

Most of the earliest teachers in rural communities were men. When the teaching profession developed and required that teachers have some formal training, more and more women entered the field. Communities were happy to have female teachers because they would work for less pay than a male teacher. They were often young  --  sometimes as young as some of their students  --  and did not stay for very long in one school if they could find another teaching position in a better location or which paid a little more.

There were, however, a number of women teaching in early communities. In some areas women ran small private schools. In other newly settled communities, if a woman had a good education then she might agree to take some of the neighbourhood children into her home to teach them how to read and write.

An Early Teacher-Eleanora Hallen (1823-1846)

One of these very early teachers was but a girl herself. Her name was Eleanora Hallen.
Eleanora was 12 when she and her family emigrated from England to Upper Canada, now known as Ontario. She had been home-schooled in England, taught by her governess and parents. She began teaching some neighbourhood children in her family's log cabin before she turned 13. At the time, there was no public schoolhouse close to where they lived in Medonte Township, near present-day Orillia. Sadly, Eleanora died at 23 years of age, probably of tuberculosis. Fortunately for us, Eleanora and her sisters left sketchbooks and diaries that record what life in the backwoods of Upper Canada was like at the time.

Eleanora's diary entry for Wednesday, August 19, 1835 mentions a small private school. This type of school, held in the teacher's home, was run by women and called a "dame school." Not all children could afford to attend this type of school. At these schools, students learned the alphabet and read from the Bible. Eleanora wrote: "Sarah and Mary went to call on the Miss Pettits. They live in a very pretty house: one of them keeps a school which Agnes and Skeeler [Eleanora's younger sister and brother] go to. They like going very much; they like Francis Martingdale and Issill and Minerva Clark, but they don't like the Parrys nor the other children."

Eleanora's diary entry for January 13, 1836 reveals that she is teaching: "I teach the little ones generally every morning." She was six days away from turning 13 when she wrote this in her diary! Around this time, she mentions that her father is attending meetings about building a school.

For more on Eleanora Hallen, visit

Teaching Teachers to Teach

Gradually, it was realized that teachers needed to receive training to teach. Normal schools (training schools for teachers) were set up to turn promising students into qualified teachers. The first such school was established in 1847 in Toronto, with other normal schools following in the next 10 years in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Quebec. However, teachers could still qualify to teach even if they had not attended a normal school. The teachers who did attend were subjected to a rigorous academic program and gained classroom experience by practice teaching at a model school. They graduated with higher qualifications than teachers who did not attend normal schools.

Black and white photograph of women teachers in long dresses and skirts teaching gardening to well-dressed children in front of a large grey stone building

Teachers and students working in the garden at the Model School, Elgin Street, Ottawa, ca. 1890

Black and white photographs of well-dressed boys writing at their desks Black and white photographs of well-dressed girls writing at their desks

Boys and girls, each in their respective classroom at the Model School, Ottawa, June 1899. Students were separated by gender.

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