click to view original photo

School Records: Researching School Teachers, Part 1 - Overview

Understanding more about the particular educational needs within a community may shed light on how a teacher was selected and where trained.


Content Details

Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by:
Word Count: 877 (approx.)
Short URL:

Parents have always had an interest in making sure the people who teach their children are qualified and of good moral character. It is said the licensing of teachers dates back to Roman times (Angus 4). In Colonial America the requirement of good moral character was paramount, as determined by one or more local ministers. But as the authority for licensing teachers passed from the church to civil authorities, the criteria expanded leading to early teaching seminaries and normal schools. Over time, these early schools evolved into colleges and universities, and the education of teachers changed significantly, often with requirements differing from state to state and even within local communities.

This first article on Researching School Teachers provides a brief historical overview on the profession of teaching in the United States, to suggest ways teachers may have entered the profession and were qualified to teach. The second article focuses on the types of records created, while the third and final article explores places to find them. What you find, in combination with other research, may give you a good profile of your ancestor as a teacher, and may supply new and important information.

The history of school teachers in American dates back to Colonial times. Although available only to males, education was a value in the colonies and town schools were set up. The "common school," although funded in part by the town, was not entirely free requiring tuition in the form of a "rate bill," used primarily to supplement teacher salaries. The Boston Latin School, founded in 1635 was the first public school and is the oldest existing school in the United States. Another type of school, the "charity school," was free and typically operated by a religious body. Teachers were selected, as has been stated, based largely on moral character and sometimes religious faith.

As the society diversified, many opposed having religious views imposed on their children through public education, and by the eighteenth century, private academies had replaced town schools. In the early nineteenth century many elite private schools had come into existence, including a number of the today's Ivy League schools.

Public education came its own in the nineteenth century, as cities and states moved toward replacing tuition-supported and variously sponsored charity schools with a system of free, common schools. The issue was supplying teachers for these new schools. At the same time, America was developing two distinct patterns of education: rural and urban. Owing to the different demands, different types of programs were set up to prepare teachers. Thus, where a teacher taught school may suggest not only where he or she received received training but also they type of training received.

The earliest form of teacher preparation was in private or state-subsidized academies, dating back to 1785, and private teaching seminaries, beginning in 1823. By the end of the nineteenth century, there were four different approaches to training teachers. Among these were the state and private schools; teacher programs in high schools or normal schools in large cities; teachers departments in colleges and universities; and teaching institutes aimed largely at training teachers for rural schools. The time spent and the level of training varied across these different approaches.

Supply and demand over the years in various settings also determined how teachers were qualified. At the beginning of the twentieth century, teacher examinations, with or without formal training, were the primary means of determining competence -- in some cases, mere oral examinations by a local official sufficed. As teaching schools and programs evolved, teaching certificates were often issued through the educational institution, some with and some without further state examination.

Historically, and throughout the nineteenth century it was the "citizen" and not the professional educator, the local community and not the state that set the standard and determined who would teach in their schools. But the politics of education brought change, and in the first half of the twentieth century, state control of the system of teacher certification became the norm, and a greater "professionalism" took hold in the training of teachers, resulting in the conversion of normal schools to universities, and doing away altogether with local teacher institutes. Teachers today are trained in a college setting, typically in a four-year, Department of Education program. The United States, today, has "a teaching force with the highest levels of formal education in the world" (Angus 2). The question is to what degree teacher professionalism impacts student academic performance, and the debate continues.


Angus, David L., and Jeffrey Mirel. Professionalism and the Public Good: A Brief History of Teacher Certification. Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, 2001. Web. 25 June 2011.

Go, S. "Free Schools in America, 1850-1870: Who Voted for Them, Who Got Them,
and Who Paid
." Job Market Paper, University of California, Davis. 2009. Web. 25 June 2011.

"History of Education." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 9 June 2011.Web. 25 June 2011.

Ravitch, Diane. "A Brief History of Teacher Professionalism." White House Conference On Preparing Tomorrow's Teachers. U. S. Department of Education. 2002. Web. 25 June 2011.

Thattai, Deeptha. "A History of Public Education in the United States." J-LEDS Digital Library: November 2001 Issue. Web. 25 June 2011.

Other Articles in this Series

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

<< GenWeekly

<< Helpful Articles