So You Want To Be A 19th Century Teacher

An exploration of teaching in the 1800s

By: Justin McHenry


Some of the most interesting finds here at the Archives are not what we are actively scanning, preserving and making available to the public, but it is those items which appear accidently within the materials we are working on. These random artifacts haphazardly thrown into the wrong box or misplaced in some ledger book offer a unique glimpse into the past for what might have been routine in that day and age, but seems so foreign and magical to us today.


Case in point, this "Teachers' Provisional Certificate" issued to Mr. Phares McFerren in the fall of 1864. Outside of maybe Ichabod Crane, never once has the teaching profession of the 19th century and before ever crossed my mind. It was always something remote, small, and distinctly American. Isolated one-room schoolhouses set back in a hollow with kids of all ages hiking to get there. An iron stove set square in the middle of the room. Its pipe extending up, straight, carrying the smoke out and warming the building as the pupils sit at desks, writing on their slates.



The “Teachers’ Provisional Certificate” provides an actual human experience to something which seems so distant to us. It’s an artifact of that world, of schools and teachers in that world, in transition. Pennsylvania was at the forefront of providing public education. As early as the Constitution of 1790, Pennsylvania provided the basis of a public education system. In 1834, the Free School Act created a general state system of common schools, which led to a great increase in the number of public schools around the state.


With the increase in the number of schools meant an increase in the number of teachers needed and also how to ensure that those teachers were qualified. For the most part, all a person needed to demonstrate in order to be a teacher was that they were of good moral character. No particular education or prior teaching experience was required. Beginning in the 1850s, teaching became more professionalized with the creation of teacher institutes around the state, the founding of professional organizations such as the Pennsylvania State Teachers Association and the National Teachers Association (founded in Philadelphia), and the creation of a county superintendent position to oversee education in the county. This also led to individuals having to pass an exam in order to be qualified to become a teacher, which is where our “Teachers’ Provisional Certificate” comes from.


Certification of teachers was still in its infancy in 1864 when Mr. McFerren received his certificate, but there was already a wide field of subjects that a person needed to be proficient in to become a teacher: understandable topics such as “Practice of Teaching” and “Theory of Teaching” to topics concerning literacy (reading, writing, grammar, and orthography) and math (written arithmetic and mental arithmetic). To see how well you would do on such an exam, I have prepared a little quiz to test your knowledge on the kind of questions teachers had to know at the time.





As for our man McFerren, unfortunately, it is not known how long he taught, or if he ever taught. He was 25 in 1864 and was from Guilford Township. While it is not known how many schools there were in Guilford in 1864, by 1876 there were 19, so there should have been a number of different schools where he could have been the teacher. From 1864 to his disappearance from the tax records in 1878, McFerren was always listed as a farmer or a laborer and never a teacher. He appears to have ended up living the rest of his long life in Rinehart, Kansas.

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