Teachers’ conventions are an enduring tradition

The first Central Alberta teachers’ convention was held in Red Deer 100 years ago

A teacher examines one of the many displays at a teachers’ convention in Red Deer, 1970. 

A teacher examines one of the many displays at a teachers’ convention in Red Deer, 1970.—ATA Archives

Michael Dawe

It has been nearly 100 years since the first Central Alberta regional teachers’ convention was held in Red Deer in October 1908.

The tradition of holding teachers’ conventions in Red Deer continues today, and on February 7 and 8, 2008, the annual Central Alberta Teachers’ Convention was held, one of the biggest conventions regularly held in the city.

In the early days, conditions for teachers left much to be desired. One of the first teachers in Red Deer was Mrs. Esther Sutherland, who was paid only $45 per month, not enough for the single mother to support her four small children. Fortunately, the community provided her with gifts of food and fuel. Nevertheless, every morning, the poor woman would fall to her knees at the front of the classroom and pray for divine assistance to make it through another day.

Teachers’ employment was at the whim of the board of trustees. Teachers were often fired with virtually no notice and for flimsy reasons. On one occasion, a popular teacher in Red Deer was fired because she had disciplined the board chairman’s children at school. The community reacted angrily to the firing and burned the board chair in effigy on the corner of Gaetz Avenue and Ross Street. The board’s secretary-treasurer became nearly hysterical over the public reaction and told the police that if they did not intervene quickly, "surely blood would be spilt on the streets." Cooler heads offered the opinion that the man was afraid he would be the next one to be burned in effigy.

Another teacher was fired for allegedly not keeping the older boys from swearing at school. Word has it that the boys were the sons of a trustee.

Salaries were an ongoing issue. One teacher was paid only $480 for the year, $120 less than her colleague, even though she had almost 50 students in her class. One male teacher was told he could only keep working if he took a big cut in salary. He refused and quit. The board, to its chagrin, found it was much harder than expected to find a replacement at the salary it wanted to pay.

On October 15, 1897, the first teachers’ institute was held in Red Deer, at which time a Red Deer Teachers’ Association was formed. Teachers’ institutes were held in Red Deer in subsequent years and were usually organized by the Territorial Department of Education (there not being a province of Alberta yet). The Red Deer Teachers’ Association sometimes found itself in the situation of having only a secretary-treasurer, with no one willing to step forward and become president.

On October 22, 1908, the Red Deer District Teachers’ Association was formed at the first regional teachers’ conference. The gathering was held at the new Red Deer Public School, affectionately known as The Castle. W.J. MacLean, the local school inspector, was elected president, and Mrs. Wanless, a local teacher, became the association’s secretary-treasurer.

The conference voted to create the Alberta Education Association, with teachers in attendance each paying a fee of $0.50. Another issue was a debt of $11.20, which was the district’s share of the costs of the annual provincewide examinations. While many teachers felt that this should be covered by the provincial government or the school boards, it was eventually agreed that each teacher would pay $0.35 to eliminate the debt.

The convention had several speakers, who presented on topics relating to improving classroom instruction, teaching art and music, introducing physical education and "making public schools more efficient in moral training."

A number of trustees attended the convention as delegates. A speech by trustee H.A. Malcolm was particularly noteworthy. He stated that while many trustees thought teachers’ conventions were "a loss of time," he felt they should take "a high position among nations by ensuring a good educational system." Malcolm stated that it was the duty of trustees "to stand between the teacher and unreasonable criticism on the part of the people." Trustees should also "visit the school and make sure the work is done."

The convention closed with a concert performed by teachers and students. The performance was described as "a source of enjoyment to all."

In 1918, the Alberta Teachers’ Alliance (later the Alberta Teachers’ Association) was chartered and, shortly thereafter, new locals were organized in Red Deer and other Central Alberta communities. Over the past century, the tradition of holding an annual convention to help ensure a high quality of education in Central Alberta has continued without a break.

This article is courtesy of Michael Dawe, city archivist, Red Deer and District Archives, City of Red Deer.

Also In the News