Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | August 24, 2012

Evaluating Teachers in 1905

Since the Cornville Nutmeg last posted, I have been giving more thought about this notion of evaluating teachers. I even went so far as to ask a number of friends and relatives to give me the benefit of their thinking on what a graduated high school student might look like, learning wise, and what a good teacher might look like. The replies from those who answered were illuminating, and I will get to that. Before I do, though, let me pose this question: what is it that has led us societally to feel the need to subject teachers to some standardized means of evaluating their performance as teachers? It’s not that teachers were not evaluated before the twenty-first century. Have a look at this teacher contract from 1905.


The nuts and bolts of the contract appear below.

1. Teachers are expected to live in the community in which they are employed and to take residence with local citizens for room and board.

2. Teachers will be required to spend weekends in the community unless permission is granted by the Chairman of the Board.

3. It is understood that teachers will attend church each Sunday and take an active part, particularly in choir and Sunday School work.

4. Dancing, card playing and the theatre are works of the Devil that lead to gambling, immoral climate, and influence and will not be tolerated.

5. Community plays are given annually.  Teachers are expected to participate.

6. When laundering petticoats and unmentionables it is best to dry them in a flour sack or pillow case. 

7. Any teacher who smokes cigarettes, uses liquor in any form, frequents a pool or public hall, or (for men) gets shaved in a barber shop, (or for women) bobbs her hair, has dyed hair, wears short skirts (could not be any shorter than 2 inches above the ankles) and has undue use of cosmetics will not be tolerated under any circumstances.

8. Teachers will not marry or keep company with a man friend during the week except as an escort to church services.

9. Loitering in ice cream parlors, drug stores, etc., is prohibited.

10. Purchasing or reading the Sunday Supplement on the Sabbath will not be tolerated.

11. Discussing political views or party choice is not advisable.

12. Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes or two evenings a week if they go to church regularly.

13. After 10 hours in school, the teacher should spend the remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.

14. Women teachers who marry or engage in other unseemly conduct will be dismissed.

15. Every teacher should lay aside from his pay a goodly sum for his declining years so that he will not become a burden on society.

16. The teacher who performs his labors faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of 25 cents a week in his pay providing the Board of Education approves.

[My thanks to the Ames Historical Society for the artifact above as well as the details of the contract.]

You’d think such severity would be indicative of a pre-teacher union dark age, wouldn’t you? But, no. Prior to 1857, there were, in fact, teacher unions in fifteen states, but in that year Thomas Valentine, president of the New York State Teachers Association, founded. The National Teachers Association (NTA). In 1870, a number of smaller unions merged with the NTA, and the new group called itself the National Education Association, and the rest is history. Forty-five years later, teachers are still being treated like second class citizens! Hm…Where have I heard something like that before?

Today, of course, teachers are free to dye their hair, hangout at the ice cream store, and purchase and read as many Sunday supplements as they can fit in between correcting papers, but that likely has more to do with changing times than collective bargaining, don’t you think? Still, you have to admit the whole evaluation thing would have been pretty clear-cut. I mean, either your skirt is more than two inches above your ankle or it is not.

Beginning in 1959, collective bargaining became the standard for contract negotiations between boards of education and local education associations (almost all of which are affiliated with the NEA or the smaller but also powerful National Federation of Teachers); I believe it is that fact more than any other which is responsible for the push for standardized teacher evaluation. As I’m sure you all know, firing a teacher ranges from virtually impossible to all but impossible. Teachers who lose their positions for cause are more often than not subsequently tried and convicted of sexual misconduct with a minor, selling or supplying to minors alcohol or drugs or both, or theft of school property; but not for being incompetent. Almost all new teachers successfully jump through the hoops that their state’s education department creates for them, and then they are tenured. Once tenured, save for crimes of moral turpitude, they can and do remain teachers for 35 or more years. And just so we’re clear, while the hoops may be tricky, learning how to jump through them is not hard; neither does being a good hoop jumper have much of anything to do with being a good teacher.

Before collective bargaining, teachers in both public and independent schools were retained or let go depending on how well they taught. You likely recognize this “unfair” condition of employment because it applies to you yourself (unless, of course, you are a public school teacher). If you worked in sales a year or so ago and continue to work in sales, that likely has something to do with your success as a salesman. If you once were a therapist of some sort and continue to be one today, a reasonable supposition is that you have helped and continue to help your patients. Same for pretty much any job except if that job is protected by a union contract.

Now don’t have a hissy fit. I am not depicting as being mostly incompetent or dishonest individual teachers, nor for that matter firemen, electricians, gaffers, plasterers, heavy equipment operators, flight attendants, or actors – well, no, strike that; while actors are unionized, the vast majority of them work so little that really the idea of an actors’ union is more joke than anything else. How dumb would it be for Actors Equity to try to write into its contract that producers of Broadway shows must keep paying actors after a show closes? Almost as dumb as continuing to pay a teacher whose phone records, Tweets, and e-mails suggest overwhelmingly she is guilty of unlawful improprieties?

Incompetency ought to be the most common reason for someone not being hired or not having his contract renewed. The disheartening truth, however, is that incompetency is seldom the reason someone never got to be or does not long remain a teacher. How come? Collectively bargained for union contracts. Those contracts do not require a teacher to be a good teacher; they simply insist that a teacher adhere to the standards agreed to between the union and the board of education: for example, timely submission of forms and grades, attendance at meetings, compliance with contracted for administrative requirements, not using tobacco, alcohol, or illegal drugs on school grounds. Some schools require their teachers to file lesson plans a week or so in advance, but a good lesson plan can and too frequently does mean only that any given teacher knows the format and jargon – edu-speak some call it – that constitute a “good” lesson plan. There is not one chance in ten thousand that a “good” lesson plan guarantees an ineffectual teacher will deliver a good lesson.

Here are the questions I asked a select group of friends and relatives to respond to.

1.  What is the most important thing a student should have learned by the time she (or he – don’t feel left out) graduates from high school?

2.  What is the most significant indicator of a good teacher?

Next time, I’ll share with you what they said.



  1. Policy #15 should be reinstated: “Every teacher should lay aside from his pay a goodly sum for his declining years so that he will not become a burden on society.”

    It is a crime to continue to increase the tax citizens pay for the retirement benefits (and, by golly, the unions made sure the benefits are noteworthy) of public (federal/state/local) employees. It’s a pyramid scheme that is collapsing under its weight, since a smaller percentage of citizens are taxed to support these retirement schemes, and the retirement “entitlements” have grown by leaps and bounds.

    Gut the unions. Reduce retirement benefits for non-retired teachers with xx amount of years left before retirement, who have time to save for their retirement. Guarantee a maximum benefit of no more than xx, which would include the cost of the “free” new health care plan and other goodies. The xx’s are for you, a retired teacher perplexed with the unsustainable system, to fill in. I would hope the second set of xx’s would mirror a private sector’s employee’s benefits–and I’m not talking a white collar worker!

  2. Maybe some of the fault lies in the way the contracts with the boards of ed are written. Maybe there should be some kind of evaluation (peers? peers from other schools? tax-payers? education profs?) by people who actually observe the teacher teaching. I’m not sure how much weight I give to student’s evaluations, though I understand they are now a normal part of the process.

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