Throughout the early 1800s the government attempted to establish publicly funded education in Upper Canada but made only marginal inroads. Early teaching positions were filled by the clergy or by individuals with few or no qualifications to teach. Local trustees competed with each other not for the best teachers but for the cheapest ones. One education historian said of the period “…a teaching post was commonly regarded as the last refuge of the incompetent, the inept, the unreliable” (Althouse, 1967, p. 5). This early perception of teachers would remain difficult to overcome and the struggle for recognition as a profession continued into the next century.
Egerton Ryerson, appointed Superintendent of Education for Upper Canada in 1844, is generally credited as the father of public education in Ontario as he was a committed advocate of publicly funded mass education. He once wrote, “On the importance of education generally we may remark, it is as necessary as the light; it should be as common as water, and as free as air.” He was also aware that Ontario needed a disciplined workforce to support the industrial revolution.
While Ryerson was the driving force behind public education, the Common School Act of 1846 gave it life. Building on the previous laws, it established a series of local school districts. Each district had three trustees who were responsible for hiring, paying, and ﬁring teachers and administering funds collected through local taxes and provincial grants. In order to provide some measure of uniformity and raise the standards of education, the Act also created a system of provincially appointed inspectors as well as normal schools, the province’s ﬁrst teacher training institutions.
The Toronto Normal School, the ﬁrst in Ontario, opened in 1847. Women were allowed to attend but in 1853 school authorities established a rule that there could be no communication between male and female stu- dents. Entrance requirements were minimal. Those applying had to be over 16, be able to read and write, do simple arithmetic, and have a clergyman’s letter in hand attesting to their sound moral character. Lectures ran from 9 in the morning to 8 in the evening with a curfew set at 9:30. All students had to attend church on Sunday (French, 1968).
Conditions for teachers were appalling, particularly in rural Ontario where most of the school boards consisted of a single one-room school, some with over 100 pupils. In return for poverty-level salaries, teachers prepared for and taught all grades and maintained discipline through measures considered criminal by today’s standards. They kept the schools clean, hauled wood for the stove, brought water from the well, and started a pot to boil in the morning so students, bringing whatever meager offerings they could from their homes, would have a hot lunch at noon. Some teachers tended gardens on the school site to provide additional food for themselves or their students.
Teachers had no job security, no sick leave, no pensions, no health insurance, no rights. Some lived under the harsh scrutiny of communities eager to judge their every action and worked for parsimonious trustees who could neither read nor write but who had ultimate control over their livelihoods.
In 1847, the ﬁrst year government records listed teachers by gender, only one in ﬁve public school teachers was a woman. In 1860 they were one in four, almost equal in 1870, and in the majority by 1880 (Althouse, 1967). Although women were well educated, made excellent teachers, and were able to maintain discipline, the driving force behind their increased numbers in education was economic. The great irony of public education in Ontario is that it was built on high principles but implemented with tight purse strings. Simply put, a school board could hire two women for the price of one man – even though his salary was already low.