Hamstringing Our Teachers


‘How I conduct my classes seems to be of no great interest to the school authorities,’ writes a young teacher, ‘but what I do when school is not in session concerns them tremendously. My contract requires me to refrain from keeping company with young men in the community, yet I must live in the school district and remain here three week-ends out of four during the entire school year. I must n’t dance, play cards, or be out late on week-day nights; in fact, they want me to be an old maid! ’

The resentment expressed in these words is typical of the present unrest of many public-school teachers on account of the restrictions imposed on their personal lives. The requirement that teachers must be properly trained and experienced has always seemed reasonable to them and always will seem so, but restrictions on their private lives are increasingly regarded as unreasonable and interfering. Many thoughtful citizens outside the academic ranks are beginning to share the resentment of the teachers themselves toward the petty tyrannies which they undergo. Teachers who in the course of their employment live in a succession of communities with diverse standards must promise to conform, not to one conception of rigidly proper behavior, but to a dozen conflicting conceptions. The exactions to which they are subject are further complicated by inconsistency. The young woman previously quoted is required to live a wholly abnormal life in not associating with young men. In another district, however, her contract, may require what is equally abnormal for many young women, that she ‘will keep company with one person only.’ The board enforcing such a contract would, moreover, promptly dismiss her if she followed the natural course and married the ‘one person.'

Restrictions of many kinds are imposed on the personal life of the teacher in the United States. The whole surprising body of stipulations falls more or less naturally into seven classes:—

1. Prohibitions against such recreations as card playing and dancing.

2. Positive requirements of character, including church attendance and financial integrity.

3. Proscription of marriage or other occupations which might interfere with school work.

4. Attempts to protect the integrity of the teaching profession. (In this class fall laws that no teacher may serve as agent for a school-supply house, and laws regarding the employment of relatives of board members.)

5. Attempts to secure increased community services from the teacher by requiring that she live in the district, remain in it over week-ends, or teach a Sundayschool class.

6. Demands of loyalty to the nation — growing out of the feeling engendered in the late war.

7. Rules against giving or receiving gifts. (A protection which in most cases is welcome to the teacher.)

These restrictions are sometimes embodied in the state code or statutes; they are sometimes incorporated in contracts which teachers must sign; and a few of the most irritating are simply unwritten. The form in which the demand occurs is no indication of its importance to the happiness of the teacher, but is of considerable importance when any modification is sought.

Statutes and court decisions universally hold that teachers must be moral and law-abiding citizens, and that ‘not only good character but good reputation’ is essential. Years ago, when most of the present statutes were written, fairly clear lines of demarcation existed between morality and immorality. Now, when many respected community leaders engage openly in acts which other equally respected people condemn, it is difficult to place a satisfactory interpretation on the term ‘morality.’ The younger teachers especially chafe at restrictions which they honestly contend bear no actual relationship to their efficiency or influence. They desire to do nothing which would seriously impair the respect and confidence of their pupils. Personal requirements such as those which all intelligent and conscientious people exact of themselves are accepted as just. No teacher would regard sexual immorality, drunkenness, unlawful actions, avoidance of just debts, entanglement in public scandal or in any situation which would bring notoriety or reasonably grounded suspicion on the teacher, as consistent with the responsibilities of the position. But to be forbidden to do everything to which anybody objects is beyond reason and not for the best interests of the schools.


Let us glance over some of the acts denied to teachers which are not forbidden to other right-thinking and responsible citizens.

Cigarettes are prohibited by law to teachers in Tennessee. Teachers elsewhere frequently agree to abstain from tobacco in any form. In fact, the public use of tobacco in the average community even by men teachers is actively frowned upon, even by those who themselves indulge. At social and club gatherings in which the large majority of the men smoke, the man teacher, like the parson, must be ‘different.’ The case is relatively not the same for the women, since public smoking by any woman is still so uncommon as to attract public antagonism everywhere except in the larger cities. This is perhaps an astonishing statement to those unfamiliar with life in smaller communities, but despite the prevalence of the screen, with its nightly revelations of metropolitan license, the statement is true.

Card playing and dancing are mentioned in no state laws and rarely in contracts, although a Mississippi contract states, ‘No teacher is expected to attend dances at home or away when in the employ of this board.’ Teachers in many of the smaller communities are still expected by unwritten law, however, to refrain from these ‘immoral’ practices. Since both are approved and fostered in many church and community social programmes, and are permitted in many school functions, objection to them is confined to scattered sections of the country. It is by no means inactive, however. In Ottawa, Kansas, the school board dropped eleven highschool teachers last June because they had gone to a dance at the local country club in spite of a prohibitory board rule. The American School Board Journal quotes the Abilene Register’s comment: ‘An item like this, showing Kansas fanaticism, will do more harm as it goes over the country than the state chamber of commerce can overcome by a dozen surveys. A reputation for intolerance . . . hurts not only the town in which it exists but the state as well.’ All rural journalism is by no means as enlightened as this!

But the restrictions least tolerable to reason are those, fortunately exceptional, prescribing the company a teacher may or may not keep. A ridiculous Virginia contract a few years ago specified that the teacher should not keep company with ‘sorry young men.’ Two years ago Minehan reported in the Nation a contract in which the teacher promises ‘not to go out with any young men except in so far as it is necessary to stimulate Sunday-school work.’ Another surprising rule in an Ohio county is that teachers who ‘go with’ other teachers are dropped at the end of the year. Last spring two teachers were not reappointed because they ‘kept company.’ Such rules are peculiarly offensive to good taste and justice. Quite different is the common requirement that teachers make no ‘dates’ with their pupils, for such relationships may do much to disrupt the morale of the classroom.

Newspapers every now and then make much of attempts to modify the dress of teachers. The humor of such reports is their pathos. Women teachers especially are wrathful at the tacit reflection on their taste, judgment, or morality. They feel qualified to make their own decisions in regard to their clothes. It seems at times as though a deliberate effort were made to prevent teachers from wearing clothes ‘in style.’ Authorities in a Michigan city who recently attempted to prescribe the maximum distance between the hem of the dress and the floor were criticized by the press and actively opposed by the teachers themselves. Last September, newspapers made fun of the attempts of a school superintendent to ‘advise’ his teachers on such matters as the length of their skirts and the material and thickness of their clothes.

A Mississippi school district provides in its contract that ‘no teacher will play society to the detriment of this school or indulge in any sort of socials excessively during school nights. The superintendent or school board are to be judges of these matters and to warn the teachers.’ Here again appears the latent attitude of mistrust and petty regulation; teachers need moral guardians, lest they pay insufficient attention to their work.

Church attendance is expected of teachers, especially in smaller communities, and often indirectly plays a considerable part in reappointment. Much pressure is brought to secure them as Sunday-school teachers. This demand sometimes causes religious discrimination in the selection of teachers and often results in rules requiring them to spend a specified number of week-ends in the community. This means in practical effect that they are forced to become seven-day workers.

Many teachers are forbidden husbands. ‘Marriage, if the teacher is a woman, will annul this contract’ is a frequent provision. Approximately one eighth of all public schools have such a contractual regulation. A much larger fraction do not employ or reëmploy married women. Almost four fifths of the city schools in Ohio have definite rules or policies against employing married women. The trend in at least thirty-seven states increasingly denies marriage to women teachers.

Not long ago, the New York Sun reported a decision of the Johnson County, Tennessee, school board to employ and retain only single teachers of either sex. Five married men and nineteen married women were denied reappointment in 1929 under this new rule. The Sun comments, ‘Inclusion of married men in the banned class emphasizes the absurdity of barring married women.’

A number of reasons are commonly advanced for denying marriage to women teachers. It is claimed that managing a home will compel neglect of teaching duties. Again, unemployed single teachers claim that it is unfair to hire a woman whose husband should normally support her, when her place might be given to a single woman who has no other means of support. It is found, also, that if the husband finds a position elsewhere the wife is apt to leave on short notice. Pregnancy has brought some difficult problems. It has even been advanced as a serious argument that husbands of women teachers loaf and depend on their wives for support. Not the least of the lesser reasons sometimes urged is the difficulty of dismissing a married teacher who will continue to live in the district and wield active political influence.

Many excellent teachers have been lost to schools because of the regulation against matrimony. The American Federation of Teachers actively urges the right of women teachers to retain their positions after marriage. They point out that business does not exact such restrictions against marriage; also, that motherhood often leads to understanding of children’s problems which the single teacher never attains. On the other hand, the substitute teachers of Chicago recently requested the board of education to employ only single teachers.

In eleven states, married teachers receive better treatment. In these states1 permanent-tenure statutes exist under which certain married women teachers are protected from dismissal. Here the woman who has successfully completed her probationary or ‘trial’ teaching is automatically employed for ‘life’ during good behavior and continued efficiency. Courts in these states find no evidence that marriage of itself should justify a woman teacher’s dismissal. In New York a married woman teacher was held entitled to a leave of absence for confinement. By court decision she later was reinstated as a teacher. In France a still more liberal policy prevails — married teachers are given certain preferences. The law specifies: —

Twenty-five per cent of the vacancies in the course of the year in each department are reserved for the teachers who, living outside of the department, are married to government employees of the department or to one who has fixed his residence there for a year.

A leave of absence for two months with full pay is allowed married women teachers, half before and half after the period of confinement. ... If not able to return within two months, an extension is accorded them under the same conditions for a term up to two months additional.


No employee expects to take time which ought to be devoted to his main occupation for other work, but teachers are often unpleasantly and needlessly reminded of this obligation. Teachers’ contracts in El Paso, Texas, read, ‘A teacher may not engage in any other activity, occupation, or employment that in any way detracts from the value of her services as a teacher.’

Fresno, California, makes an exception of work in choirs or as organists in churches. Tutoring or outside teaching is usually frowned upon, probably with justification, although the board of education in Cambridge, Massachusetts, permits both tutoring and privateschool teaching so long as such work does not begin until one hour after the public schools close.

Fifteen stale laws prohibit teachers from acting as agents for school-supply houses. In the others the courts would enforce such a regulation on grounds of public policy. Protection of the schools from exploitation is likewise the purpose of laws in nineteen states forbidding teaching by relatives of schoolboard members. A ‘relative’ is defined in most cases as one whose relationship is within the ‘second degree of affinity or consanguinity.’ Oklahoma and Kentucky teachers cannot be legally hired if related to board members. In sixteen other states a vote of at least two thirds of the local school board is necessary to elect a relative of a board member. Often a board member cannot vote for a relative. In Arkansas a petition signed by the majority of the voters of the district is necessary in such a case.

Acceptance from pupils or patrons of gifts having monetary value is prohibited in several schools. Likewise teachers are occasionally prohibited from making any gift or contribution to superintendents or school-board members. Practically all teachers welcome this type of restriction, as it often protects them from annoying assessments which otherwise could not be satisfactorily avoided.

While teachers are often required to join local, state, and national teachers’ associations, membership in the Teachers’ Federation (which is affiliated with the American Federation of Labor) is sometimes forbidden them. The teacher in Peoria, Illinois, declares that ‘he or she is not a member of the Teachers’ Federation and promises to agree that during the term of this contract he or she will not join such organization’ under penalty of removal. The schools of Seattle, Washington, also exclude union teachers. Opposition to the Teachers’ Federation is most active in large cities where strong sentiment against labor unions prevails, or where there have been troublesome disputes between labor unions and employers. Some school officials fear lest teachers in this Federation attempt to make undue use of labor-union influence to gain their demands. Many citizens and teachers think that open acrimonious disputes between organized teachers and school officials would disrupt the schools and injure the pupils for whose advancement schools are created and supported.

Religion has always been a point of suspicion and jealousy in the public schools, where reading of the Bible is frequently required, but where the suggestion of sect often inspires resentment. A Nebraska statute forbids the wearing of religious garb while the teacher is on duty. In certain sections of a few states the public schools are taught by members of church orders; but in most states courts have forbidden religious dress in the public schools, at least if protested by school patrons. A court in Pennsylvania held it to be permissible, however, even when protested.

Many people feel that teachers are paid to take an active part in all local affairs. As one teacher puts it, ‘ I am expected to accept all invitations, speak to everyone, and attend everything that goes on, even if it takes seven nights a week.’ Another protests, ‘ I have not a minute during school time to prepare for class work. After school I coach basketball or dramatics for an hour or more. I am assigned classes in four different subjects, in one of which I have had little college training. School functions average one night a week. The town fairly bristles with clubs and organizations attempting to draft my time and services. They don’t seem to understand that I need my evenings and Saturdays for study and planning. The sad truth is that I make a bigger “hit” if I neglect my teaching for community affairs than if I reserve the time necessary for effectively stimulating and guiding the pupils.’

During the war considerable feeling arose against those who were thought to be disloyal to the government. It was during these years of excitement that the New York Legislature passed a law providing for dismissal of teachers for ‘treasonable or seditious words or acts.’ Several teachers were dismissed from the New York City schools under this law. On appeal, the Commission of Education ruled that, while ‘a teacher should not be dismissed from service on account of her political, religious, or social relations in activities outside of her employment,’ affiliation with an organization which preached overthrow of the government by unlawful means justified dismissal. Membership in the Communist Party was the reason for the dismissal of one of these teachers. In Pennsylvania a few years later a teacher was dropped for organizing a ‘liberal club’ among the students. This club wrote to the President of the United States seriously questioning the attitude of the United States in the Nicaraguan situation.

The New Republic quotes Assistant Superintendent Mandel of the New York City schools as justifying nonpromotion of a teacher a few years ago by the statement: ‘As a school-teacher he has not the same rights as other citizens to print, publish, and declare his thought and opinion. He is no longer at liberty to freely write, speak, or publish.’ The editor, in objecting to this conception of teachers’ rights, which would certainly do everything possible to turn the guides and instructors of our children into milksops, says of teachers, ‘With a few outstanding exceptions they are becoming the most tight-lipped and timorous creatures of any profession in the country.’

As a general rule it is expected that public-school teachers will subscribe to the present order of things and will not, in or out of their classes, advocate radical changes in, or find fault with, our present system of government. In ten states aliens may not teach, and in eight others oaths of allegiance are required of all teachers. Most of the cases prosecuted under such rules which have come to the notice of the writer, however, are those in which the teachers had really become ardent crusaders. Parents have the right to demand that their children be not indoctrinated with ideas in absolute opposition to their own. Indeed, it is positive indoctrination which is dangerous and objectionable. What should be inculcated is the general trait of independent judgment and ability to weigh facts impartially. This necessarily involves frequent criticism, searching and unsparing, of our present scheme of society, and thoughtful consideration of possible advancements. Only so can we improve.


Why so many restrictions? Obstinate conservatism is a prominent cause, especially in the smaller communities, where all must rub elbows, where community knowledge and discussion of one’s private affairs put everyone under surveillance, and where narrowness and prejudice, while not necessarily more common than in the country at large, are more likely to exert strong influence. Power to dominate the lives of others is an active human desire, sometimes fulfilled through activity in public-school affairs. A position on the school board or as superintendent of schools gives power to prohibit certain acts of others. Again, most of the early teachers were ministers, and the teaching profession has inherited many of the early requirements imposed on these preacher-teachers.

Since the right to terminate the contract upon thirty or sixty days’ notice is contractually reserved by some 10 per cent of the schools, and since most of the teachers in the United States serve under year-to-year contracts, the insecurity of their tenure is obvious. The ease with which school boards will ‘make a change’ in the face of even minor local complaint or antagonism is shown in the case of one young woman who lost her place because she took the affections of a young man from the daughter of a local merchant, and of another who was not reappointed because she changed from the rooming place allotted her by the president of the school board. Cautious and faint-hearted teachers, from fear of losing their positions, impose on themselves restrictions sometimes even more extreme than those demanded. They are apprehensive of ‘taking any chances.’ Probably the authors of the petty regulations we have been describing would hear us with surprise if we declared that they are actively encouraging that timidity and narrowness in teachers which are the worst possible influence on children. But so it is. How can teachers train children to be independent and self-reliant in mind and body if they are themselves hedged about with so great a variety of moral scruples and suspicious rules?

Occasionally young teachers with more enthusiasm than judgment have upset communities and seriously impaired their own influence through unwise and imprudent defiance of local traditions, by attendance at dances in halls of bad repute, associating with young people not in good standing, loafing in local pool halls, swearing or using tobacco excessively, or leaving the community at every opportunity. The school authorities, to prevent such recurrences, stipulated in the contracts that certain types of conduct must be avoided, not seeing that in legislating for extreme cases they were attempting to control unreasonably the personal lives of large numbers of teachers whose wisdom should be trusted.

Teachers must realize, however, that belligerent nonconformity is impolitic. Well-meaning, self-respecting people honestly believe many of the prohibitions now placed upon teachers essential to the protection of their children. These deep-seated emotional attitudes are slow to alter; generally indirect influence alone can bring changes in them. Only trouble can come from parading in the face of a community habits which are locally disapproved. In the meantime there is a growing conviction on the part of certain public leaders that too many restrictions are placed on teachers, and that better teachers will be obtained if the exactions required of them are not quite so extreme. The Columbus Dispatch of July 3, 1929, in an editorial comment, says: —

Teachers should know that it is part of American educational tradition that a teacher should have little or no freedom. She was born to be suppressed and harassed by a system of supervision designed to keep her docile. The moment she obtains her contract, she becomes the property of the community and must expect to have every detail of her conduct, personal habits, and even her dress dictated by groups variously designated as trustees, boards, and supervisors.

If these teachers have reached the point where they are ready to take a determined stand against intimidation and the forcing upon them of inhibitions, under which they have labored for many years, they have cut out a man-sized task for themselves, but they deserve to win. Organization and unity of effort are absolutely essential in all educational systems, as is hearty coöperation with the guiding heads of the system, but the tendency to reduce intelligent men and women to mere inanimate cogs in the machine, robbing them of all individuality and initiative, is deplorable and serves to drive from the teaching profession many valuable members who will not tolerate it.

Fettering of teachers tends to dehumanize them and to force from teaching many of the most wide-awake, stimulating, and wholesome men and women in the profession. These men and women will not submit to needless interference in their private lives. Better teachers will avoid or leave school positions requiring many personal restrictions and go to more progressive schools or engage in other duties permitting a more natural life. Active, exuberant boys and girls will not accept personal leadership from negative, fearful, and lifeless teachers whose opportunities to develop enthusiasm and vibrant energy have been suffocated. The very thing which should be most valuable in teaching — moulding the lives and interests of the pupils — is thwarted by the prohibitions to which teachers are so commonly subject. Young people receive the stimulation they must inevitably seek from other and less desirable sources, because the teacher is ‘different’ or ‘would n’t understand.’

Tolerance on the whole is increasing except as regards marriage of women teachers. In the larger cities this is about the only objectionable restriction left. Length of hair or skirt, weight or material of dress, and use of cosmetics are usually no longer regulated. Often younger teachers cannot be told from pupils. Hardly a teachers’ convention occurs without newspaper comment on the smart dress and personal attractiveness of the women teachers. While a few observers still maintain that they can recognize teachers by their dress and demeanor, they admit that the task is becoming increasingly difficult. Signs of further emancipation appear on the horizon.

Slowly people are coming to realize that the public schools need active, alert, enthusiastic teachers who themselves enjoy life and who stimulate enjoyable activity through their personal magnetism and keen interest in others. All occupations seek such people. The number which the public schools will draw and retain will be in proportion to the removal of restrictions which now make living less attractive to teachers than to those in other professions. Those true leaders who do go into teaching will be found in schools that allow teachers to live normal human lives.

  1. All of New Jersey, New York, Indiana, and California; certain cities in Colorado and Oregon; Chicago, Milwaukee, New Orleans; Maryland except Baltimore, and Massachusetts except Boston. — AUTHOR