Throughout much of Michigan's past virtually anyone was allowed to
teach, particularly in rural schools. In rural districts the pay was
always low and the school teacher was often a young, unmarried woman,
frequently still in her teens. Johanna Smith Rasmussen typified this
trend. In 1924 she began teaching.
The first day of school I was greeted by fourteen
pupils. These were students in the sixth, seventh, eighth and tenth
grades. Three were very near my own age. Somehow I was accepted as their
teacher and we started learning together. It was a good year and
truthfully I learned as much, if not more than my students.
Rural school teachers enjoyed neither vacation nor sick
time. After state laws mandated a specific number of school days to be
taught, rural teachers made up any absences by teaching extra days at
the end of the school year. Rose Hamlin Tennis, who taught in various
one-room schools in the mid-Michigan area, recalled how an appendicitis
operation in mid-year closed school for several days which were made up
Although some women made teaching their career, a substantial
number of women taught for only a year or two, then married and moved
on to new challenges. This pattern, as well as the relatively low pay
given most one-room school teachers, led to very high turnover among
teachers. By way of example, the Pleasant Hill School in Montcalm county
had ninety-nine teachers in the eighty-six years the school operated,
between 1873 and 1959.
Marriage was seen as a critical event that many local school
boards tried to discourage until the end of the academic year. Many
school boards required teachers to sign a contract granting the board
authority to discharge a female teacher who married during the school
year. Some contracts regulated the teacher's social life, required that
she be at home by 8:00 p.m. unless later hours were explicitly approved
by the school board and forbidding her from attending social functions
other than those sponsored by the school itself or a church.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century virtually anyone
who wished to be a teacher could do so. As a consequence students were
often subjected to teachers unprepared for the classroom. Charles A.
Harper, in A Century of Public Teacher Education, pp 12-13, quotes Dr. Humphrey, president of Amherst College of in the 1820s and an early proponent of teacher education
I might quote their complaints till sunset, that it is
impossible to have good schools for want of good teachers. Many who
offer themselves are deficient in everything; in spelling, in reading,
in penmanship, in geography, in grammar, and in common arithmetic. The
majority would be dismissed and advised to go back to their domestic and
rural employments, if competent instructors could be had.
Humphrey's frustration over poorly qualified teachers was
caused, in part, by a fundamental shift in what he and other educational
reformers of the early nineteenth century believed education should
accomplish. "Schooling," as it was commonly understood at the beginning
of the nineteenth century, was primarily memorization. Printed material
was given the student to be committed to memory. The "teacher's" task
was to help the child remember the printed word and test the student by
holding the book while the child repeated the lesson from memory. In a
system with such a modest goal, the teacher's own education could be
quite modest, consisting of little more than literacy.
Educational reformers, however, wanted schools to go beyond
memory and help children discover their potential. To accomplish this,
reformers demanded more broadly educated teachers who could help
children develop their individual skills. Re-inventing education as
skill development rather than memorization originated in Germany and
France but was quickly advocated by reformers in the United States. To
accomplish their goal in America reformers realized the need for a
school to educate teachers.
Massachusetts established America's first normal schools, in
1839. In 1849 the Michigan legislature voted to establish Michigan's
first normal school, as well as the first such school west of the
Appalachian Mountains. The legislature believed that by creating a more
educated farmer better public school teachers would lead to greater
economic prosperity. Although the legislature hoped for important
results from the state's normal school, selection of the city in which
it was to be located was based on more mundane considerations. After
some debate the school was given to Ypsilanti, primarily because the
community offered to raise $13,500 to help support the institution and
was the highest "bidder" among the five communities seriously
petitioning the legislature.
Although Michigan was the first "western" state to establish
a normal school, it lagged behind other midwestern states in the
development of such institutions. By 1880 Wisconsin had established four
normal schools, while Minnesota had three. Michigan's second normal
school was not founded until 1892. Located in Mount Pleasant, the school
was primarily focused on educating teachers for rural school districts.
The legislature quickly supplemented the newly formed normal school in
Mount Pleasant with additional normals in Kalamazoo and Marquette.
The curriculum offered at normal schools was of a practical bent.
Future teachers learned reading, writing, arithmetic, geography,
grammar, spelling, composition, and other subjects that would serve as
the core of their own teaching when they ventured forth from the normal.
Subjects such as music an drawing were added to the curriculum in the
1870's, when it became clear that teachers who could play an instrument
or also offer art instruction could more readily find jobs. Although the
faculty of traditional colleges often looked down on the normals
because they did not offer a classical curriculum, those involved in the
normal movement often took considerable pride in the fact that their
schools glorified common, everyday learning.
In the twentieth century normal schools transformed
themselves into teacher colleges. As colleges, the "normals" developed
four year curriculums and were authorized to award degrees, rather than
certificates. Michigan State Normal, in Ypsilanti, was among the first
normals in the nation to accomplish the transformation into a college.
In 1897 the state legislature designated Michigan State Normal a college
and authorized the institution to confer college degrees. When the
college granted its first bachelor's degree in 1905 it was the first
normal school in the nation to do so. Despite this transformation into
degree-granting institutions, teacher colleges in the first half of the
twentieth century saw themselves as being distinguished from
pre-existing state colleges and universities by their more limited
mission. It was only in the latter half of the twentieth century, when
higher education expanded in ways completely unanticipated by earlier
generations, that many teacher colleges again transformed themselves,
this time into universities that helped meet American society's
seemingly unquenchable desire for a college education.
Although normal schools represented an important and
eventually dominant trend in teacher education throughout the nineteenth
and into the twentieth century substantial numbers of teachers entered
the teaching profession without the benefit of a normal school
education. Low teacher salaries made it economically difficult for many
future teachers to expend large sums of money obtaining teacher
education. Taxpayers were at best ambiguous about improving the salaries
paid to teachers or toward allocating money for normal schools needed
only if one accepted the reformers new theory of education. As a result
many alternatives to the normal school existed up until approximately
The two most common alternatives to attendance at a normal
were teacher institutes and "county normals." Institutes were frequently
sponsored by the normals themselves during the summer months.
Institutes offered short, intensive periods of study in which rural
teachers could obtain or refine their skills. Although some normal
school faculty frowned on these "quick courses," through the 1920s they
offered prospective teachers a quicker, less expensive way to begin
County normals were similar to institutes but were usually
organized by the county school commissioner with the assistance of the
school districts in the county and the state. County normals were
organized annually during the summer. They were ad hoc creations that
offered very short courses focused on practical skills. County normals
were often taught by only two "faculty members," an individual who
delivered the "academic" instruction deemed necessary and a "master
teacher" who offered practical advice. Because the courses were short,
close to home, and often free if the student promised to teach the next
year in the county, many young persons who could not afford to attend
even a summer Institute at a normal school gained entry into the
teaching profession through the county normal. County normal graduates
were authorized to teach only in the county which had sponsored the
normal, however in at least some instances counties recognized each
others normal school as acceptable training and allowed graduates from
one county to teach in another.