Bloody Lessons: Victorian San Francisco Teachers: Part Two

In my newest Victorian San Francisco Mystery, Bloody Lessons, the question comes up over whether a teacher got her position through undue favoritism on the part of a school board member. Once again, a plot point came right out of the pages of my dissertation and the newspapers of the time period. And once again, the controversies of the past, in this case over city policies governing the hiring and retaining of public school teachers, echoes controversies in the present.

“No matter what their salary, women highly coveted the job of teaching in the nineteenth century, and by 1880 a position in the California or Oregon public schools was not always easy to obtain. In the 1850s and 1860s a teacher had to go through a yearly examination order to get and to retain her job, and examination that was often given by an incompetent or pretentious person who had little idea of what skills or knowledge made a good teacher. In his memoirs, John Swett, the family California educator, recounted the story of one examination he was forced to take in 1860. The questions that he and other teachers were expected to answer on the topic of geography were the following:

1. Name all the rivers of the globe.
2. Name all the bays, gulfs, seas, lakes, and other bodies of water on the globe.
3. Name all the cities of the world.
4. Name all the countries of the world.
5. Bound each of the states of the United States.

“These teachers had graciously been given an hour to complete the answers to all five questions!

“In the 1860s, California passed state legislation, as did Oregon at a later date, that somewhat rationalized the system of certifying teachers, that law stated that examinations would be administered by professional educations. This took care of some of the abuses within the system, but the process was by no means standardized, and the quality of the applicants given certification still depended greatly on the varying quality of teh state, county, and local boards of examiners.

“For men and women wishing to become teachers in the Far West in 1880, no matter what their educational background, getting a teaching certificate represented no easy task. In 1879 63 percent of the nearly 600 persons who took the Los Angeles and San Francisco county certification exams were rejected. Moreover, passing the examination remained only the first step to securing a job as a teacher. A woman then had to get a local school board to hire her, and there is strong evidence that within all three cities in this period getting a position as a teacher depended a good deal on who she was and whom she knew.” Like Machine or an Animal:’ Working Women of the Far West in the Late Nineteenth Century”

The late Victorian period in U.S. history was called the Gilded Age in part because of the corruption within national politics, particularly at the city level.  Elected officials used their control of city jobs (police, fire, etc) and lucrative business opportunities (contracts to provide municipal services and construct public roads and buildings) to extort money and votes from city businesses and residents. The public school system proved no exception and as a result there was great competition between the parties over who was going to get elected to the local School Board. In turn, these officials were suspected (probably accurately in some cases) of misusing their power to award contracts to build schools for the expanding population, award textbook contracts, and hire teachers and administrators for their own political and monetary gain.

Two headlines from the 1879 San Francisco Chronicle reflect both the question of whether the examination system for teaching certificates was fair, and whether or not teachers were being hired entirely on merit:

“…Board of Education Special Investigating Committee, met in the Supervisors’ Room at the new City Hall and heard testimony in the matter of the anonymous letter heretofore received by the Committee insinuating that Miss Susie Jacobs, at teacher in the public schools, had obtained her certificate by means of having had previous access to the question being asked at the examination.”

“THE INCOMPETENT TEACHERS: Not only influential politicians, but prominent churches and benevolent societies had insisted, he said, that their favorites and protégés should be provided for in the School Department, irrespective of their Qualifications.”

We may never know if these accusations were true, but clearly, for many women, a teaching position in the 1880 San Francisco public school was worth fighting (or cheating) for. One of the reasons for this was it was one of the few positions that gave any chance of advancement, financial independence, and was considered “respectable.” Part Three will examine who the women were who succeeded in getting these jobs in 1880.

M. Louisa Locke

Bloody Lessons will be available September 15, 2013 in print and Kindle ebook, you can still pre-order here.

3 thoughts on “Bloody Lessons: Victorian San Francisco Teachers: Part Two

    • I know, those examination questions cracked me up! A side note, there was a lot of controversy in this period over the fact that girls were staying longer in high school than boys (just like about 5 years ago there was a big deal about the fact that women were now making up more than half of the college population) and one of the main theories was that it was the female teachers fault–that they were better a rote memorization–so taught this way, and as a result, girls did better in class and stayed in school, while boys go bored and left.

      A friend who did her dissertation on this, found, as contemporary analysts have, that the main reason there were fewer boys was that boys were leaving to go to work, and since there were many fewer economic opportunities for girls, parents were ok with having them continue on for a few more years (until they got married). My own grandfather and his brothers were taken out of school before high school to do sales work in the family business, and when that business ended were in a good deal of difficulty in the 1920s and particularly the depression. The daughters were permitted to stay in high school and ended up marrying men (who stayed in high school)who went on to get higher degrees, then higher earning jobs, and therefore they did much better economically in the future.

      All fascinating stuff.

      M. Louisa

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