Teaching in the 1930s: Moving from the Ritz to the Ranks

Gloria Toole


May 1929. The fresh-faced flappers graduating from Calgary Normal School were looking forward to their first teaching assignments, marriages and possible other careers. Many of these students, who came from across Alberta, were riding high in Ford Model Ts or Plymouths paid for by their families’ wheat crops or fathers’ burgeoning small town businesses and prospering professions. Oil, cattle and investment money had been circulating in Calgary for at least 15 years.


Normal School’s principal, E.W. Coffin, called his students “stepping stone teachers.” Many of them would use their rural teaching postings to pay off their loans and then go on to university and other professions. As early as 1924, Coffin reproached his graduates:


To look upon and treat the pupils as a means of replenishing our finances, to encroach upon their time in order to advance our professional or academic interest; merely to qualify for our monthly salary, small as it may be; this is exploiting and it is more culpable than any other.


During the 1930s, though, the attitudes of the “Normalites” changed rapidly. Turn the dusty pages of Calgary Normal School’s yearbooks and you’ll find a dust bowl revolution.


Teachers of the 1920s were part of a rising middle class on the prairies. The Normal School course had been extended from four to eight months in 1919, and to nine months in 1928. There was strong talk of making it a two-year program. Teachers who wanted to assume administrative roles in the city started saving for university. Many Normalites felt that rural appointments were beneath them, as was the company of immigrants and working class.


Rural assignments could be bleak. Inexperienced 19-year-old grads—mainly single women—instructed each grade consecutively while trying to keep all the other students silently plodding through seatwork copied from the blackboard. Teachers spent their evenings chalking the next day’s assignments, stoking the stove, collecting water and sweeping up.


The work caused great loneliness. “The night wind whispers under the eaves of the lonely shack and sighs as it blows across the empty field,” C.W. Dyde wrote in the 1928/29 yearbook, as she anticipated teaching in the Zhoda School District.


In 1922, Calgary Normal School relocated to the third floor of the new Institute of Science and Technology’s west wing, where it shared the halls with tradesmen in training. The differences between teachers and tradesmen were acknowledged publicly. In 1924, F Stevens, president of the tradesmen’s students’ union, wrote a thank-you note to the Normalites in which he said: “We were told that you were so different that your work was on a higher plane and that you would not care to associate with us.”


He was delighted that they attended each other’s dances.


Normalite elitism could be nativist: Anglo-Saxon and Protestant (white and good). Anyone else was bad. Many rural communities harboured pockets of non-English-speaking immigrants isolated from—even disdained by—English-speaking (mostly British), movers and shakers of Alberta. In Becoming a Teacher in Twentieth Century Calgary: A History of the Calgary Normal School and the Faculty of Calgary, Robert Stamp points out that part of the role of teachers in the early 20th century was to enter so-called “foreign” settlements in Alberta and win newcomers to the language, culture and citizenship of Canada. To that end, early curriculum at Calgary Normal, “the school on the hill,” emphasized the arts, history and literature.


When the stock market crashed in 1929, advertisements in the yearbooks reflected the catastrophe. In 1928/29, Birk’s Jewellery store advertised itself as a “diamond merchant” and compared its watches to quality cars. In 1931/32, however, Birk’s dropped the diamond merchant label and humbly began selling pen-and-pencil sets for $3.50. The 11 security, insurance and investment companies that had vied for Normalite business in 1929 disappeared forever from subsequent yearbooks.


The 1928/29 yearbook editor had complained about rural appointments. “The vast majority of us will go forth into rural parts and teach school faithfully as per instructions received, whether we enjoy it or not. As a consequence of the economic disaster of 1929, however, students became more appreciative of future employment prospects. Suddenly, a teaching job, even a rural one, was precious. The valedictorian of 1932/33 hoped breathlessly for a teaching appointment, any appointment. The 1930/31 yearbook staff summarized the hopes of one student this way: “Her incentive is a country school as soon as possible where she can reign supreme.”


Students began to use their lectures and experiences to prepare specifically for rural assignments. “It is said that in a country district the worth of the teacher is gauged by the Christmas concert put on” (1933/34).


At the same time, it became more difficult to gain admission to Calgary Normal School. In the early 1920s, Grade 11 students with poor averages could register: by 1937, only those who had completed Grade 12 were admitted.


Instruction, too, began to link Normalites more closely to the farmer and the working class. In 1935, the United Farmers of Alberta government introduced the enterprise system to all elementary schools, which specified that work was to be grounded in the every day. The Calgary Normal School curriculum moved from classical to practical. When the Social Credit government was elected later that year, the new premier, William Aberhart, a compelling teacher of the period, endorsed this new curriculum as a more realistic preparation for life. Hammers, saws and wood began to appear in those one-room schoolhouses. Teachers struggled to teach the skills of the farmer and the working man.


Teaching during the dust bowl years wasn’t easy. In some rural districts, teachers were paid with chickens and eggs. New grads walked in the same worn boots as their rural students. They understood each other.


“Years of struggling apprenticeship in an overcrowded profession, years of low salaries—what have they brought us? An appreciation of courage, the will to succeed, and a cry within us—‘if others could, so can I,’” wrote Mary Beard (1935/36).


From wealth to cracked dirt; from disdain to clinging hope. Teaching had evolved from a damnable job to a compassionate calling.


The penny had dropped.



Stamp, R. 2004. Becoming a Teacher in 20th Century Calgary: A History of the Calgary Normal School and the Faculty of Calgary. Calgary, Alta.:  Detselig Enterprises Ltd.



Gloria Toole is a former specialist with the Calgary Board of Education. She retired in 2006. Her story “Personal Power—Calgary's partnership programs give girls hope for the future,” appeared in the fall 2007 issue of the ATA Magazine (volume 88, number 1).