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Tamaqua teacher protested her $40/month salary in '09

Published October 05. 2009 02:55PM

Since more than two-thirds of the nation's schools were considered rural during the first decade of the 20th century, the one-room schoolhouse dominated America's educational landscape.

In these cramped buildings, teachers had the daunting task of handling students ranging between 5 and 20 years of age. Memorization and recitation drills dominated the school curriculum.

Most rural children attended schools for no more than a few years, and their parents were often content with this limited classroom setup since their hands and healthy bodies were needed in the fields in order to put food on the table. If they received the basics in literacy and number skills, it was considered adequate.

The education picture was changing by 1909 but by today's standards, these were still very much the "horse and buggy" days for public schools. In towns, however, where schools were larger, students could be seated in a proper classroom setting with kids their own age.

With a population of 12,000 in 1909, Tamaqua could be considered one of the more progressive schools in the area. But, as in many school districts today, personnel and salaries were major issues facing the school board.

When Tamaqua high school students entered the fall term in 1909, they were welcomed with a new physics lab which cost the district $337. The Tamaqua Courier was excited about the new educational opportunities for students.

"Two years from now, we have every reason to believe that graduates from Tamaqua High School will be able to enter any college in the country," one writer said. "When we turn out pupils from Tamaqua high school, we want to feel that they are well-equipped to fight the battles of life," he said.

He stated however, that a new program was only as good as the instructors maintaining it.

"The new curriculum and the extending of the high school term are going to work a marvelous change, provided, of course, that the instructors are efficient and painstaking," he noted.

Salaries have always been a dominant part of school board meetings and in September 1909 Tamaqua's was no exception. One issue involved Miss Anna Johns, a graduate of Tamaqua and Millersville Normal School who came to the Tamaqua district after teaching for two years in New Jersey. Although her teaching experience was logged in New Jersey, she felt she was entitled to a salary of $50 per month, instead of the $40 she received.

Superintendent William Derr stated that Johns had taken a temporary position in New Jersey while waiting for a position to open in Tamaqua. He said that after writing to the state department of education about her request, he was informed that Pennsylvania did not recognize experience that was gained in New Jersey.

Several school boards, however, felt that Johns was qualified and deserving of the $10 monthly increase. Director Rev. Lobach said that Johns had the "practical experience" and that in cases like this the state allowed individual school boards to "use their own judgment."

Several directors felt that board members should not be raising teacher salaries randomly but adopt a uniform scale, based according to qualifications.

Johns' request for the salary increase failed by a vote of 7-3.

A group of grammar and sub-grammar teachers were also present at the meeting to protest salaries, which they said "were about the poorest in the state." Miss Steigerwalt argued that primary grade teachers were paid $5 per month less than the grammar school teachers, even though the higher grades were "considerably harder." She felt, however, "that all the teachers were underpaid."

Board president Shifferstein believed that every director favored the adjusting of salaries to make them commensurate with their duties, but he used a bit of school board reasoning still being used today throughout the nation.

"In view of the fact that the tax rate had already been fixed and the board was running greatly in debt, he did not believe favorable action would be taken this year," the Courier reported.

Shifferstein was interested in appointing a board committee to "investigate and recommend a scale of wages for the teachers for next year," a concept similar to today's salary negotiating teams.

In a separate salary issue during that Tamaqua school meeting a century ago, the directors hired constable Charles McConnell as a truant officer for $12.50 per month.

Truancy wasn't the worst thing on the minds of school officials at the start of school in 1909. Before classes even began, arsonists attempted to burn down the Market Street school.

Coal oil, which was contained in a pint whiskey bottle, was poured on the wood work. A broken bottle used by the suspected arsonists was found in the school yard.

Two young "witnesses" claimed to have seen a pair of young men running from the building with shawls over their heads, just before the fire alarm was sounded. Some of the statements they gave to police chief Hahn, however, didn't seem to add up.

After hearing these eyewitness accounts given to the police, a Courier writer felt that the two youngsters had fabricated the story in order to cover their own tracks.

"An investigation proves that the effort to burn down the building was the work of young school boys who had an imaginary grievance because they had to start school after a two-month vacation," the writer stated.

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