Monday, September 6, 2010

Educating Flora, and Jenny and William...

An article in the 1900 Canadian Magazine, which I found posted on was of particular interest to me, since I am writing a book about the lives of teachers in Canada in 1910. My novel is Flo in the City, and is about a girl coming of age in the pivotal 1910 era and is based on the letters of

The article is called Parent and Teacher and is written by a Victoria elementary school teacher, an old maid, as she is clear to state. (Weren't they all:married women couldn't teach.)

In the opening paragraphs the author brings up suffrage. She says when she hears about all the women clamouring for more rights and responsibilities, she has one thing to say. As a teacher, she wants LESS responsibility.

(Of course, teachers were very often suffragists.)

She's a purist, she says, or a conservative: she says she has a job to do, 5 hours a day to teacher her students the subjects at hand and no time for all the 'hobby' subjects like religion, sewing, phys ed, patriotism and oh, kindness to animals, and that other areas of society, the pulpit, the community, the parent have abdicated their responsibility with respect to the child's education.

It's true. Canadian schools, at that time, were being called on to do a lot of the work once left to other elements of society. Schools were to churn out useful and productive citizens - and since it a world that was changing so fast, the Powers That Be (or the 'theorists' as she put it) were not quite able to grasp how to do it.

Indeed, in 1910, Laurier launched a Royal Commission, the Royal Commission on Industrial Training and Technical Education, to figure out how to educate Canadian kids for the new industrial world.

In the 1960's, the relic of this Commission was the Home Ec course, where girls learned cooking and sewing and boys woodworking. (I failed, on purpose.) And, in the 60's we learned patriotism in oblique ways (apart from saluting the flag and singing God Save the Queen.) We learned it through our reading texts.

I recently purchased all editions of the Canadian Reading Development Series (developed by a Westerner post WWII) and was struck by how the stories within (all very dull and plodding) were about inculcating children with some very specific Canadian values, values which were largely out of step with the emerging cosmopolitain multicultural Canada of the 60's. Lots of bears and wheat and Mounties and white bread families. *I'm sure the pedagogy was very sound. These texts were used for 30 years in classrooms across Canada.

In 1910, the Royal Commission spent 3 years travelling across Canada and Europe, asking lobby groups for input on how to educate kids for the industrial age, but ended up advocating what they already believed in: the manual training movement, where poor children were trained to be good little workers.

Education was for everyone, but everyone had a place. Especially women. They would be trained as good little homemakers, or if they had to work, as domestics, for good help was getting hard to find.

You don't hear much about this Commission, in History books, because it is embarrassing. (Still, some good things came out of it, a minimum age for leaving school, etc.)

The teacher who wrote this Parent and Child article, also blamed the Mother for not taking her part in the education of her child. (She invoked this idealized image of the Mom at end of day having a wonderful chat with her child, as they sit at rest, which proved she didn't live in the real world.) No mention is made of the father. (In my Flo in the City Story, I have Margaret chatting with Flora while she cleans the wood stove. Even Margaret had no time to sit and talk and she had only one child left at home.)

And then she proceeds to complain about the mothers she meets who do take an interest in their children's education. She says these women are too soft on discipline and always wanting to get their child off some punishment or off school entirely.

You know, I heard teachers complain about parents in exactly the same way in the 1990's.

The Nicholsons did take a strong interest in their children's education, both the Dad, Norman and the Mom, Margaret.

When daughter Flora fails some classes in high school (or academy) Norman writes home and tells Margaret to speak to Mr. Jackson and have him take more interest in the subjects Flora is failing.

I guess they saw the teacher as an employee of sorts. (This man quits the next year.) It cost money to send kids to school then, 25 cents a month for the elementary grades and 3.00 a month in the higher grades.


I wonder what Marion and Flora thought. I can guess. Marion was no-nonsence, but she worked hard to get the most out of her students. Flora was kind-hearted and felt sorry for her students. She describes a Parent's Day in Griffintown in 1914, where she is a convenor. She says all the parents are most interested in their children's progress...And this was the poorest community in Montreal.

I found a little note tucked away that suggests that Marion could be condescending to the parents. This note was written by an exasperated mom, with crude grammar. The mom asks why her kid is always being sent home, first to have her face washed and then to get 25 cents.

Of course, I really have no idea why Marion kept it...