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Two Decades of Organizational Struggle


Educators discuss the basics and value of union

For several years following the end of the Educational Association of Virginia, various attempts were made to reorganize the educators into a functional union. The primary outlet for these attempts were annual teacher institutes and the Educational Journal of Virginia.

Although the Association itself dissolved in 1882, the Journal carried on. It had become an independent publication in 1878, when the Association determined that it could no longer afford to subsidize the magazine.

For nearly two decades, educators across the state considered the need to bring the scattered educators together in some form of union that could fulfill their professional needs.

In 1884, Roanoke College Professor F. V. N. Painter encouraged teachers to join in a professional organization to improve their craft. It began at the Summer Normal Institute in Wytheville, with the creation of the First Virginia Teachers’ Reading Association.

The Association prescribed a uniform reading course, identified books and made them available to members at a reduced price, and then provided examination questions to be answered by the members, who would receive a certificate of accomplishment after two years of reading.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction R. R. Farr supported the initiative: “We regard these associations as meeting a long-felt need, and, whilst they are voluntary, shall treat them as part of our educational system.”

This interest in reading and professional development waned, and the final meeting of the First Virginia Teachers Reading Association was held in Martinsville in 1888.

Note: Read sidebar story on the “Teachers' First Reading List,” below.


A Universal Appeal

Two years after the fall of the Reading Association, Portsmouth principal Theo. J. Wool wrote in the February 1890 Journal that the principals in Norfolk and Portsmouth discussed the need to unite in a new Virginia State Teachers’ Association and were bringing their recommendation to educators across the state.

“In appealing to teachers,” Wool wrote, “it will hardly be necessary to discuss the importance and value of such an Association. It will cause an interchange of ideas, facilitate the formation of pleasant and profitable acquaintances, elevate the profession of teaching, and strengthen the influence of teachers individually and collectively.”

Wool’s message resulted in responses of support from educators across the state. Determining to move forward with the organizing effort, Wool and fellow Portsmouth principal Willis A. Jenkins traveled to Lynchburg to discuss the issue with Lynchburg Superintendent E. C. Glass. With the support of State Superintendent of Schools John E. Massey, the group decided to call teachers together to discuss a new association following the Peabody Normal Institute, which Superintendent Glass conducted, scheduled in Lynchburg later that year.

The response of the teachers attending the Institute was strongly in favor of moving forward. With State Superintendent Massey presiding, the 250 educators who attended the meeting agreed to create a Temporary Virginia State Teachers Association that would be formalized into a permanent body the following year. The delay gave those who strongly supported the organization an opportunity to bring the state’s teachers into the movement. State Superintendent Massey joined principals Wool and Jenkins in speaking at other teacher institutes during the ensuing months to encourage broad support for the new union, while other supporters wrote essays for the Journal to support the cause.

In February, 1891, a member of the temporary executive committee, identified only as A College Professor, wrote, “…We want to boost educational matters in general, and public schools in particular, until conservative Virginians appreciate the importance of the teaching profession as a profession, and, maybe, bye and bye, show that appreciation in providing of better schools, betters salaries, better everything….”

State Normal School teacher Celestia Parrish challenged teachers to step forward and work for improvement of their profession:

“We know that teachers all over the State have groaned under what they consider their wrongs. Small salaries, short terms, insecure tenure of office, inefficiency and indifference on the part of trustees, the thousand and one evils incident to their work as it now proceeds, in truth, render their lives anything but flower-strewn; but if all the teachers of the State will unite in an association the object of which is the good of their work in all its phases, they will necessarily be able to exercise a most potent influence in lessening the evils of which they complain. Let them no longer groan, but come and work.”

These efforts led to a successful meeting the ensuing summer in Bedford, held in conjunction with the Conference of Superintendents of Schools of Virginia. According to the Journal, “The attendance was excellent. Superintendents, trustees, and teachers were present in goodly numbers, while other educators and interested citizens attended.”

On July 1, 1891, the participants formed a new State Teachers Association of Virginia with a focus on supporting the common schools. All white educators, including women, were welcome in the new union. Note that the new organization is sometimes referred to as the Educational Association of Virginia.

In his final issue as editor of the Educational Journal of Virginia, long-time Association advocate and Richmond Superintendent William F. Fox commented in December 1891:

“The Educational Association of Virginia, embracing several departments, was permanently organized, and many superintendents and teachers enrolled their names as members. The meeting was highly successful in every particular, but we must not forget that the work is just begun. No superintendent or teacher can afford to remain out of the Association.”

In 1892, the new Association met and elected State Superintendent Massey as president. He was re-elected to the office in 1893.

Like editor Fox, newly elected President Massey was confident the re-organized Association would succeed where its predecessor organizations had failed—in securing membership among the state’s teachers. “If the superintendents will lend a helping hand, the Association can and will be made a powerful agency.”

Apparently the new Association disappointed educators who were eager for advocacy. Ashland Principal N. C. Starke, who also served as the Association’s recording secretary, expressed his concerns at the 1893 convention:

“Let us cease to procrastinate; for there is need of extra energy, since two years of comparative inactivity have deepened the ruts and impeded the progress of the Association in doing the duty of moving the all too cumbersome machinery of public education. Associations, like men, may busy themselves about matters not their own, and thus lose time.”

Starke said the new Association was not dealing with concerns of teachers, such as “red tape” caused by reports required by the state. He also wanted an Association that would exert influence on the State Board of Education and the General Assembly.

The frustration expressed by this Association officer must have been representative of the mass of teachers in the state, since there was little mention of the Association in subsequent issues of the Journal.

One of the Association’s organizers and later Journal editor, Willis A. Jenkins, reported several years later that the organization failed because the superintendents could not convince teachers to join. “We found further that the teachers would not come forward and engage in the work regardless of their superintendents. To this may be traced the failure of our attempt.”

Education and Association advocates would learn from this latest organizing failure, but it wasn’t until teachers expressed their frustration with their salaries and working conditions at a summer workshop in 1898 that the current and lasting Association began to form.

Teachers’ First Reading List

The First Virginia Reading Association was formed in 1884 to help teachers improve themselves professionally.

The committee to select the first reading course consisted of R. R. Farr, Superintendent of Public Instruction, J. L. M. Curry, agent of the Peabody Education Fund, and Professor W. B. McGilvray. Richmond.

The Association’s members were to read and respond to questions on each book:

  • Methods of Teaching, by Albert N. Raub, Ph. D., Principal of Central State Normal School, Loch Haven, Penn.
  • The Art of School Management, by J. Baldwin, late President of the State Normal School, Kirksville, Mo., now of Sam Houston Normal School, Texas
  • Principles and Practice of Teaching, by James Johonnot
  • Mental Science and Culture, by Edward Brooks, Principal State Normal School, Millersville, Penn.
  • Raub’s School Management
  • Brooke’s Normal Methods of Teaching
  • Hewitt’s Pedagogy, by Prof Hewitt, Principal Illinois State Normal School

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