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First 20 Years of the VEA

New union leads to two major accomplishments—public schools and The Journal

Rising from the ashes of the Civil War, the earliest version of today’s Virginia Education Association (VEA) lasted fewer than 20 years.

This first-ever union of Virginia’s educators began with a broad and laudable purpose: “…by all suitable means, to promote the Educational welfare of Virginia…”

Its founders and subsequent leaders were among Virginia’s educated elite. Of the 53 men who became its first members, four held the title of doctor, nine were listed as clergy, 30 were current or former school principles, seven were presidents of academies or colleges, and eight were listed as professors. Because the original VEA began seven years before the state established a system of public schools, only a few would have been considered public school educators.

During the ensuing years, well known men assumed active roles in the earliest VEA. These included Virginia’s first Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Reverend Doctor William H. Ruffner, as well as numerous college presidents and deans.

Even former military officers became active in the Association, including General Robert E. Lee (as president of Washington College) and Commodore M. F. Maury (as professor at the Virginia Military Institute), both of whom served the Confederacy, and Union General S. C. Armstrong, who founded and was the first principal of the school that became Hampton University.

Here is how Richmond educator and long-time editor of the organization’s Journal, William F. Fox, described one of the early Association meetings:

“In the summer of 1869 it was my good fortune to make one of an assembly that met in the chapel of Washington College, in the town of Lexington, Virginia. As I look in memory over that gathering I recognize it as a remarkable assemblage. Its president stood at the head of the law faculty of the University of Virginia…. At his side were his colleagues in the University—the Professor of Greek…and the Professor of History and Literature….

“As I look again I behold a man, tall and erect, whose thoughtful and courteous bearing bespeaks the cultured Virginia gentleman, whose countenance is marked by a subdued cheerfulness that shows acquaintance with misfortune, borne with quiet dignity and with patient submission to the mandates of Him who rules the world, and who is the strength and support of all those who put their trust in Him—the peer-less man who, as leader of the Army of Northern Virginia, was called on to exercise the highest quality of the soldier, the Statesman, the Christian—a man whose fame will ‘echo through all the corridors of time’—General Robert E. Lee.”

For more on General Lee’s influence, see the sidebar article below on General Lee's report as chair of the Association's Committee on Discipline.

With some notable exceptions, the organization through which these Virginia gentlemen interacted accomplished little more than holding an annual meeting and discussing educational issues of the time. Some who look back upon the first version of the VEA believe that the organization faded away in the early 1880s because of its gentlemanly approach to issues—discuss but take no strong position.

“Gentlemen,” by the way, was the appropriate description of the first VEA’s membership, as women educators were not admitted. Through the years, the issue of female membership was discussed, but the only acquiescence was to allow women to be associate members without the right to speak or vote. And, according to the culture of the time, only white men were allowed to join.

The greatest accomplishment of the early VEA was creation of The Educational Journal of Virginia, which fulfilled one of the original purposes of the 1863 call to convention—to create a system of communications among Virginia’s educators.

That Journal has published in one form or another, with different ownership and control, and under three different names, to this day. Now owned and published solely by the Virginia Education Association, the Journal is technically in its 106th year as the Virginia Journal of Education. In reality, the Journal has published under three different names for 144 years.

The very early issue of the Journal became tools to help develop the skills of teachers and administrators. They provided practical advice on school organization and instruction, as well as extensive discussions on topics such as corporal punishment, character development, and methods of teaching various subjects.

A rare but notable position taken by the earliest VEA was to encourage the Virginia General Assembly to create a system of free public schools and to establish institutes to develop a professional teaching corps for the schools to be created.

Once the system of schools was established, many of the newly appointed local school superintendents and some public school principals became regular participants in the annual meetings of the Association.

The first VEA, however, failed to attract the membership of the common school teacher. Appeal after appeal was made to attract teachers to join or at least to subscribe to The Educational Journal of Virginia. But by 1881, the Association still represented few of the state’s public school teachers.

At the 1881 convention, the 16th annual meeting held by the Educational Association of Virginia, President Charles L. Cooke, principal of Hollins Institute, must have realized that the organization was in its final days:

“Our organization was formed amid the dying throes of a great revolution—a revolution civil, political, and social, effected by a war on the most stupendous scale, which shook to its centre the continent we inhabit, which riveted the anxious solicitude of the civilized world….

“Brought into being at such a crisis and amid scenes so stirring and portentous, it is strange indeed that a new-born Association, so feeble in its beginning, survived at all. But it did survive, and it still survives….

“This Society, I say, has maintained a continuous life throughout this troublous, changeful era. This is a fact, and a most significant fact it is…."

Cooke proceeded to list the “grave defects of organization:”

“1st Its membership is transient, precarious and unreliable….”

“2nd It is exceedingly careless as to what publications are made in its name….”

“3rd It has no endowment and can only come before the public by the courtesy of editors and owners of the press….”

“4th Its constitution seems to require a discussion of subjects purely literary and scientific, while the great work of the Society, at this crisis in the history of the State, should be to so stimulate and enlighten the public mind on the subject of education as to secure the best system of schools and the best facilities for their successful work….”

Following the 1881 convention, the Journal editor reported, “The value of union and co-operation has been so often discussed that there is no need to repeat it now. Yet our teachers have shown an unaccountable neglect of the Educational Association. Of the more than 5,000 teachers in the State, less than 100 are active members of the Association, and the attendance at the meetings is lamentably small.”

The final convention of the first VEA was held at the University of Virginia the following year—1882.

Report of the Committee on School Discipline to the Educational Association of Virginia, 1867

Written by Robert E. Lee, President of Washington College (verbatim from documents at Washington and Lee University)

NOTE: The Educational Association of Virginia appointed on December 31st, 1866, General Lee as Chairman of the Committee On “School Discipline,” and to report at length to the next annual meeting of the Association in Lynchburg on the 3rd Tuesday in July 1867. Apparently this is his draft of the report to be made.

The Committee appointed by the Educational Association of Virginia on “school discipline” beg leave to report, that in their opinion it is impractible to establish fixed rules for school government. Public sentiment is so divided on the subject, & methods of family training are so varied, that no uniform system can be well adapted to meet the general requirement.

If the subject of education could be of more importance at one period of our history than at another, the period is present, & that it may be advanced to the highest state of efficiency, it is important that general cooperation be enlisted in its support.

It is therefore considered more advantageous to recommend for attention some general principles, & leave their application to the judgement (sic) & direction of teachers.

The selection of proper persons for the office of teachers is a matter of the first importance, & as its duties require love & comprehensive preparation, it should be regarded as among the most honourable & important professions, and be committed to those whose beneficial influence & instruction shall extend to morals & religion as well as to the intellect. The teacher should be the example to the pupil. He should aim at the highest attainable proficiency & not at pleasing mediocrity, unless he can teach those committed to his care to think & to work, & can impart to them (missing word) with learning there can be no real advance. He must study the character & disposition of his pupils & adapt his course of discipline to their peculiarities. Above all, he must be uniform, consistent, firm & kind in his conduct & teach more by acts than by ends. He should look upon the children under his charge not only as the future parents of another generation but also as heirs of immortality & while fitting them for usefulness in this life instil (sic) into their impressible minds principles of piety & religion; for if it is true as taught by history, that greatness rests upon virtue, it is equally true that religion is the fountain & support of virtue.

Should the daily business of the school be conducted on these principles & the pupils be trained in habits of obedience, reverence & truthfulness, & be convinced that they are noble & lively in themselves, the main object of the teacher will be attained.

In addition to these usual influences, a teacher in the discharge of his responsible duties should be clothed with all the authority of the parents, & be sustained by him so long as he shall instruct his child to his care. That he may be constantly informed of the conduct of his children, weekly, quarterly & annual reports of his progress should be sent him by the teacher in which should be stated his demerit marks, for absence, late attendance & misbehavior. Certificates of advancement should likewise be given to those who excel in studies & conduct. The system of punishment ought to be simple & mild as they can be made effective, & when coercion has to be resorted to, it should be left to the parent. When administering restriction of recreation etc fail to produce the desired effect, & the pupil shall obstinately resist the parent expostulation of the teacher, & his amt of demerit shall exceed the max standard, there will (be) no other recourse than to return him to his parents, as one unworthy a place in the school.

In connection with the subject, & as an additional incentive to the faithful & conscientious discharge of parental duty, the committee refer to a statement which the present Lord Shafsburgy is said to have made at a recent public meeting in London: that he had ascertained by personal observation that of adult male individuals criminals of that city, nearly all had fallen into a course of crime between the ages of eight & sixteen; & that if a young man should lead a virtuous life until he was twenty years old, there were forty nine chances in favour, & only one against his continuing an honest life thereafter. How important is it for every parent to exercise the necessary control over his child until sixteen. This proper management would not be difficult & might be the means of saving him from crime.

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