Kolodny 2014 Normalites: The First Professionally Prepared Teachers in the United States

Kolodny, K. A. (2014). Normalites: The first professionally prepared teachers in the United States. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.


Summary: This book tells the professional and personal lives of three of the first professionally prepared teachers: Lydia Stow, Mary Swift, and Louisa Harris. Beginning with their preparatory years in the Normal Schools in Massachusetts, the book shows how these women build relationships that lasted a lifetime. Mary Swift had a very influential career because of her work with the blind, deaf, and mute. Louisa Harris was the only of the three to never married and to devote her entire life to teaching. She also became a prolific writer. The book also shares the challenges these women faced given the political environment of the era. Interestingly, and actually quite sadly, many of the challenges that these women faced two hundred years ago remain today.

Something that intrigued me about the book was how their lives were connected to some very famous individuals like Helen Keller, Horace Mann, and Henry David Thoreau to mention a few. I enjoyed reading this book. With Downton Abbey’s last season happening this year, I would love to see PBS take these story lines and create a new series.s


Interesting quotations:

  • “Many members of (Lydia Stow’s) family and friends believed hat teaching was an opportunity to meld young minds and contribute to the future of the nation. It was a role for which some felt that young women were particularly suited, since women, so it was believed at the time, possessed high levels of patience and perseverance” (p. 5). (My wonderings – to what extent is this perception occurring today?)
  • “To be a normalite was to be someone who was a guide and custodian for such order and system” (p. 18).
  • “The normalites began the practice of writing questions for Mr. Peirce (their teacher) which they placed on the enter table. He often answered them at the start of the day” (p. 26). (MY thoughts – to me this sounded a lot like reflective journaling. It seems like reflective journaling may be a long-standing signature pedagogy in teacher education.)
  • “(Henry Barnard) told them that great responsibility rested upon those who were the first to go out from the school. He beseeched them to understand that the public would expect much of them and that they needed to appeal to higher and holier motives than many teachers do. They were figures of notice in the public eye” (p. 38).  (MY thoughts – sounds very similar to what has been taught about professionalism in the seminar of the field experience. These issues also arise again when issues and concerns arise related to the field experience.).
  • “It is interesting that in Howe’s letter, he describes teacher as ‘a calling.’ Intrinsic to teaching, suggested Howe, was a higher purpose, a commitment to a grander mission” (p. 39).
  • “Dialogue often turned to the role of parents in their children’s education. Should parents be more interested in procuring a fine horse or cow than in the morals of their children” (p. 42). (MY thoughts – in my experience, the same holds true regarding and concern for parents.)
  • “Though they were  young and impressionable when (the normalites) started their studies, between the ages of 15 and 17, they developed maturity and self-confidence. As students, they questioned practices that they thought were unreasonable and recorded their reflections bout those circumstances” (p. 47).
  • “(The normalites) grew to care about each other and formed lifelong friendships as well as what would now be considered professional networks that would influence their future endeavors” (p. 48). (My thoughts – this is another example of how powerful the social curriculum can be and yet is is so easily dismissed.
  • It’s interesting that even though normal schools were successful, the large number of schools needing teachers likely led to what we call alternative routes to teaching” (p. 49).
  • Governing bodies were considered about the graduates’ performance. The same is true today.
  • “They also remained attached and visited with their sister normalites, at their schools and homes, drawing strength, advice, and ideas from their shared experiences” (p. 54). (My thoughts – this shows the value of conversation in professional development. Perhaps this is showing one of the first forms of job-embedded professiaonl development.)
  • Lydia notes in one of her journal entries that the students could not sit still. This remains a problem today with teachers and administrators expectations for students to sit and be still when their requests are not developmentally understood.
  • “These officials, not teachers themselves, believed that there should be perfect order and that the children should be motionless, even the youngest ones” (p. 71). (It seems like it is still an issue today. I think about the Facebook email that was I just recently on the same topic. It seems that if we are still debating this issue of what is developmentally appropriate for children and what are developmentally appropriate expectations.) Louisa felt that she knew her children better than they did, and I think the same remains true today. Teachers should feel that they know better than the external evaluators.
  • Teaching was hard – even back then. “Her work at this school was perplexing and draining, and she often felt that she might give up in despair” (p. 76).
  • “Financial burdens of schools were debated, at times bitterly. Women teachers, Such as Lydia, recognized these issues and realized that they often were unable to fully participate in the political process that shaped schools” (p. 77).
  • Also still true today, or at least teachers with whom I work have echoed these thoughts, “Their professional and pedagogical decisions were controlled by local school officials politicians, and headmasters” (p. 98).
  • “Thought the occasion that had first brought them together, as pioneers of a new state normal school movement, was to prepare them for teaching, their relationships were by now firmly bound by much more than their professional interests. They had become a life support to each other” (p. 112).
  • “Without context, the lives of nineteenth century women teachers often are reduced to mere numbers. They taught for a certain number of years, often married and then left the education profession. Their lives are not considered in a holistic sense; the intermingling of their public and private circumstances remains unattended. The stories of Lydia Stow, Mary Swift, and Louisa Harris, however, illustrate that the roots of formal teacher education in the United States, which began in the normal schools of Massachusetts, are deeply entwined with nineteen century social contexts and reform movements. The normalites’ early decisions to take part in the movement had a profound impact on their sense of self, their impact on society, and their friendships and social networks that lasted a lifetime” (p. 137).
  • “Five thousand, eight hundred and seventy-eight students were registered for school in 1872, yet the city only had 4,686 seats available” (p. 154). (Overcrowding remains an issue).
  • “If one was well regarded by the committee, one could be favorably assessed. The contrary likely could take place. The assessment of the teaching ability of the teacher was not the only factor which led to performance decisions made by the school committee” (p. 155). (Still an issue today)