Rules for Teachers

While taking some time away from the annual meeting of the Western Section of The Wildlife Society, we visited a few places in the old downtown area of Sacramento, including the Old Sacramento Schoolhouse Museum, a replica of the type of schoolhouses that were found in the area in days gone by. The building was charming, and apparently they provide tours and an educational program for thousands of schoolchildren every year. (My son and I spent the day at a similar museum in the Dougherty Valley a few years ago, where his class was walked through a typical day in the life of a schoolchild from this era).

Old Sacramento Schoolhouse Museum
Old Sacramento Schoolhouse Museum

One of the chalkboards offered a brief history of Sacramento:

Brief History of Sacramento
Brief History of Sacramento

(It appears that flooding was a perpetual problem. Not too surprising, given that the city was built on a floodplain).

The thing I found most interesting, however, was this series of three posters with “Rules for Teachers” for various years. At the time, we all read through them and laughed at how ridiculous some of the rules were, but looking back, I’m far more interested in viewing these lists as a glimpse into our perception of the lives of women in the not-so-distant past. Now, before I get into any commentary, a brief word on the authenticity (or lack thereof) of these “historical documents” . . . according to Snopes, lists of rules identical to these, or with only minor differences, are posted in a variety of schoolhouse museums, but rather than being authentic, they were probably created in the 1930s as a “grim reminder” of how awful things were in the past. The Snopes’ article concludes, “Perhaps this piece tells us more about our contemporary vision of life in the 1870s than it does about life in the real 1870s.” Either way, I think it’s an interesting starting point for a conversation.

Some observations:

Both men and women are represented in the earlier documents (1872 and 1886), but in 1915, all but one of the rules are explicitly aimed at women. Not too surprising, considering that teaching elementary school children has often been considered a job appropriate for women (and only for women). The thing that did surprise me is in the 1872 poster, while women are mentioned, male pronouns are used throughout the document (e.g. “The teacher who performs his labor faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of twenty-five cents per week in his pay”). I’m not sure if that is meant to reflect the reality of more men in the profession at the time, or if it’s merely an artifact of a generally sexist outlook across society.

Male teachers were apparently allowed to marry, while that was grounds for dismissal for women. Men were given one or two nights a week off, while there is no similar mention for women. Women are also expressly forbidden from joining “feminist” movements such as the suffragettes. (Incidentally, this might be evidence of the lack of authenticity of these documents; according to Nancy Cott in “The Grounding of Modern Feminism,” the word “feminist” was not in use in the United States until 1910).

Smoking and drinking were forbidden across the board, and there appears to have been no retirement plan. But the 1915 list in particular gives a detailed description of standards for both appearance and behavior, but these are obviously aimed solely at women. Some are not too surprising – skirts not too high above the ankle, no hair dye or bright colored clothing, etc. But I found some of them baffling: “You may not loiter downtown in ice cream stores,” and “You may not travel beyond the city limits unless you have permission of the chairman of the board.”

I guess what I wonder the most is why these documents a) exist and b) are used today to describe conditions in the past. Were women (and male teachers) subject to extra scrutiny, and expected to be morally above reproach? Yes, that’s certainly true (although an overview of any literature documenting this is outside the scope of these musings). In fact, it’s still happening today – there are many recent cases of teachers being dismissed for lawful activities that were nevertheless viewed as being inappropriate in some way. So, there is a reality behind this, but how do we gain any insight from documents that are clearly not authentic? Maybe they’re meant to be humorous, or charmingly nostalgic, but I’m uncomfortable with a museum presenting something like this as part of an exhibit on the history of education. I’d rather see historical exhibits backed up with real history, rather than something fabricated like these “rules for teachers” appear to be.


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