Red Schoolhouse by Winslow Homer, 1873
Before the second half of the 19th century, most teachers in the one-room schoolhouses were men. But in the 1850s, women began to become involved in teaching, and then women teachers in the schoolhouses became the norm. The reasons were that in a period in which there could not have been a surfeit of men, given the casualties of the Civil War, there was a surge in population growth. As Nancy Hoffman reports in Woman's True Profession: Voices from the History of Teaching, "The population of [Catherine] Beecher's Connecticut increased 31% in the ten years between 1840 and 1850, then an astonishing 42% between 1850 and 1860." Between 1870 and 1900, the number of teachers in the country tripled. The ratio of teachers to total number of school-age children decreased nationally during this same time period from 1 to 37 in 1870 to 1 to 32 in 1895, according to Mary Hurlbut Cordier in Schoolwomen of the Prairies and Plains.
Out west, the population continued to grow and families got together to build a schoolhouse and finance a teacher for their young. By this time, the teaching of children up through high school was considered a part of women's realm. Teaching offered women the same flexibility it does today: You could teach in your younger years before marriage and also teach even if you were married, although Horace Mann, the crusader for state-run public schools, argued that women teachers should not marry. It was a job that it was easy to leave and then come back to.
Teaching also offered a woman a path for more education, education being something that children had to fight for, since an educational infrastructure was lacking and child labor was often needed at the family homestead. A teacher brought in some income but was also then able to go to "normal schools," where in the summer they could learn new subjects or deepen their knowledge. In the beginning, teachers only had to know one grade above ones in their school--generally teachers had an eighth grade level of education. They then worked to augment their education with summer courses in the teachers' institutes, attempts at self-instruction and correspondence courses, and for some, attendance at the normal schools, the forerunner of the public high school.
Some teachers, reports Cordier joined teachers' reading circles to read books with other teachers and eventually examinations for certification. A reading circle book list in Nebraska in 1902 was as follows:
Hedge's Nature Study and Life
White's Art of Teaching
Murphy's Turning Points in Teaching
Sherman's What is Shakespeare?
Shaw's School Hygiene
As teacher education improved, its purpose of education also shifted. Earlier, as we see with Abe Lincoln's education, for instance, in the log schoolhouse, the emphasis was on drilling ideas,concepts, poetry, and text into the head of the student. Later, according to Cordier, "In place of the demand that the teacher should know only the three R's, there has grown up the more rational one that he should know the three M's--Matter, Method, and Mind."