Judy Gilreath: Being a teacher in the 1920s

Judy Gilreath

Like most children, as a little girl I adored my grandmother. I was her first grandchild and had the privilege of spending many countless hours helping her make chocolate-iced teacakes and fried pies. Of course, she didn’t spoil me in the least. Listen, it’s my memory and that’s how I choose to remember it!

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my grandmother was probably what could be called a liberated woman of the 1920s. Before she married, she had a job outside the home. Now in the 1920s, there was a very limited choice of jobs that would be considered respectable for a woman. When I think about the 1920s, I always want to insert the adjective “roaring” before the date. My limited knowledge of the historical ‘20s comes from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel "The Great Gatsby" depicting jazz music, wild parties and flapper dresses, but I can’t imagine my precious grandmother in a flapper dress much less attending wild parties!

My grandmother worked as a school teacher. She didn’t have a college degree, and I’m not even sure that she had a high school diploma. However, in the early '20s, qualified, college-educated teachers were a rare or non-existent commodity in the rural county in which she lived.

In contrast, teachers today must pass rigorous academic tests and acquire college degrees. They never quit learning because they must continue to take training to maintain their state-issued teaching certificates. However, in the early 1920s not as much emphasis was put on teachers being academically qualified as was put on what school boards considered being morally qualified.

Today, there is a Georgia Code of Ethics for Educators, and Whitfield County teachers also have a professional dress code. Sometimes current teachers may feel that the requirements, especially the dress code, are too strict, however, my teacher grandmother was required to wear dresses. They could not have bright colors, could not be more than two inches above the ankle, and had to have at least two petticoats underneath the skirt.

In 1920, a female teacher could not keep company with men and would be dismissed if she married. She couldn’t even ride in a buggy with a man unless it was her father or brother. She had to be home between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. unless at a school function. After 10 hours in school, the teacher could spend the remaining time reading her Bible or other good books.

With these rules, I don’t think there was much chance of a female teacher getting married. Men teachers could take one evening for courting purposes, or two evenings a week if he went to church regularly. Some teacher contracts required teachers to save a large portion of their paychecks so that they wouldn’t be a burden on society in their old age.

Today’s teachers are required to do much more than instructing youngsters in academics. Teachers of the ‘20s, however, also had the responsibility of the school building. Every day they had to fill lamps, clean chimneys, bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the heater, sweep the classroom floor, clean the blackboard and start the fire before 7 a.m. so the room would be warm by 8 a.m. when the children arrived. Once a week teachers had to scrub the classroom floor.

According to historical records, many teachers did all of this for the large sum of $75 per month. That equates to a little less than $1,000/month in today’s money. There weren’t a lot of luxuries that the teacher could purchase. A female teacher wasn’t even allowed to frequent the ice cream parlor, and neither male nor female teachers could smoke, drink, play pool or participate in any of those activities considered by the board of education to be immoral for a teacher.

The teacher’s job has always been demanding but rewarding. Oh, how I would love to be able to ask my grandmother more questions about her experiences as a teacher in the early 1920s. The stories she could tell!

Judy Gilreath is superintendent of Whitfield County Schools.

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