Uncovering the Life Stories of Three of the First Professionally Prepared Educators in the United States:
The Work of a Teacher-Scholar Professional and academic activities at times align in compelling manners and shape the pursuits of a teacher-scholar. This proved to be the situation for me when I joined the faculty at Framingham State University in Massachusetts in 2004. Upon starting at the University, I learned that the institution had evolved from first state normal school in the United States established in Lexington, Massachusetts in 1839 and held an interesting history in teacher education. I taught in the area of foundations of education and explored topics such as the normal school movement. With my interest piqued, I set about learning and writing about the students of the first class, including three fascinating women named Lydia Stow, Mary Swift and Louisa Harris.
My research unfolded over a period of ten years. During that time I visited historical societies and associations, public libraries, and private collections in efforts to recover the stories of these three women. I examined journals, letters, poetry, school board reports,meeting records, deeds, and news-paper accounts. After materials were collected and reviewed, I began the intricate task of piecing together their lives. All three women became teachers upon completing their studies. Two of these women, Lydia Stow and Mary Swift, likewise left the profession after a short time, married and started families, which too is typical of the historical work patterns of women and teaching. Most nineteenth century women teachers, particularly those who taught younger children, only stayed employed for three to four years. The stories of Lydia Stow and Mary Swift are much more complicated, however, than a cursory look at such data would suggest. It was through understanding their lives in context that their roles in the field of education become vivid, as well as how they drew from their normal school studies. Lydia Stow and Mary Swift left teaching in terms of paid employment, yet they stayed connected to the field and shaped it in profound ways. Lydia Stow, for example became an abolitionist associated with Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth; became the first woman school board member in Fall River, Massachusetts at a time when women were just crossing the threshold into these roles; and founder of a women’s union that provided social and educational services for working women and girls in the mills of that city. Mary Swift became involved in the field of blind and deaf education and though she was not formally employed as a teacher once she married, she continually touched the lives of many blind and deaf students, including the well-known Laura Dewey Bridgman and Helen Keller. She also was a school board member, appointed to serve on a special advisory committee for the Industrial School for Girls in Lancaster, Massa-chusetts and a founder and tireless advocate of the Boston Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), subsequently assuming a national advocacy role with this organization, which too provided social and educational services for working women. Louisa Harris, in contrast, did not marry nor leave the teaching profession. Her story provides another important lens to view the experiences of the early teachers educated at state normal schools. It reveals how life unfolded for one woman who remained single, boarded around, and at times interfaced with the stereotypes that surrounded the term “spinster.”My research eventually evolved into a book which will be published by Information Age Publishing (IAP) in the fall 2014.
When I reflect on the journey that resulted from the linkage of my professional and academic pursuits as a teacher-scholar, I recognize that I am indeed fortunate. I am excited that in 2014, when we celebrate 175 years of formal, state sponsored teacher preparation in the United States, the stories of three pioneering women will be shared. I also feel fortunate to have met many individuals during this journey who have shared not only valuable information, but also wisdom and kindness.
-Kelly Ann Kolodny, Framingham State University, Massachusetts