In the 1800s anyone who knew a little about math, history, reading and writing could teach school. Many teachers with only an eighth-grade education taught students a few years younger than themselves. At first, most teachers were male. However, during the Civil War (1861 to 1865) when many men became soldiers, more and more women became teachers. Teaching school was one of the few occupations single women were allowed to enter. By 1900 the number of women in the teaching profession was greater than the number of men.
How were teachers prepared to teach in Iowa’s early schools? Some teachers earned certificates at their high school or took correspondence courses. Other teachers went to a special school for teachers. In 1876, the Normal School opened in Cedar Falls. It prepared students to become teachers for the growing number of schools located in Iowa’s many towns. It also prepared teachers for the many one-room schools located in every county of the state. In September 1876, 27 students took teacher-training classes for three, six or 12 weeks.
In 1909, the name of The Normal School was changed to Iowa State Teachers College. Slowly, laws were passed that required teachers to take more courses in order to receive a license to teach. Today, teachers complete four years of college in order to receive a teaching license.
The School Day
The one-room schoolteacher's day often began before dawn. He or she walked to school or rode a horse that was kept at a neighbor's farm during the school day. In winter teachers walked or rode in horse-drawn sleds through the snowy darkness.
Teachers worked hard to make students follow rules and study their lessons. A student caught dipping a girl’s braid in inkwells or whispering was sent to a cold corner of the classroom. Teachers sometimes disciplined misbehaving students by slapping a hard ruler across their hands.
Some schools had only one student during each term. Others had nearly 30. Rural children did not legally have to attend school until 1902, and many didn't. Older farm boys often stayed home to help with the crops and only went to school in the winter.
Country schoolteachers had many responsibilities in addition to teaching. Sometimes they did the work of a janitor to keep the school clean. They hauled water and fire wood, umpired recess baseball games and tended to scraped knees.
A busy teacher also relied on students' help to carry drinking and washing water to the school and to pass out and collect slates. Students sometimes emptied ashes from the wood stove, swept the floor or helped younger students with their lessons.
Teachers were paid very little. Sometimes their room and meals were part of their salary. At the end of the day when the floor had been swept and mouse traps had been set, teachers went to the home where they were staying and graded homework in the evening.
Rules for Teachers
Teachers followed many rules. Some were not allowed to dance at social gatherings or be away from home in the evening. All teachers were expected to attend church and keep their schoolhouses clean. In Iowa's early years of education, female teachers were not allowed to marry. If they did, it was understood that they would quit teaching.
Slowly teachers saw changes in the country schools. First, electricity, running water and indoor bathrooms were added to schoolhouses in the 1930s and 40s. Even with these improvements, many rural students traveled to schools in larger towns to receive their education. More and more of Iowa’s one-room schools closed. Finally in 1967, Iowa shut the door on its last one-room school ending an important chapter in Iowa’s history.
- Sherri Dagel, “One Room Schoolteachers,” The Goldfinch 16, no. 1 (Fall 1994): 18-19.
Adapted from original article published in The Goldfinch, provided courtesy of State Historical Society of Iowa.