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Part II of It's Elementary: A Brief History of Ontario's Public Elementary Teachers and Their Federations

Barbara Richter

Part 2: Early 1800′s to 1944

The beginnings of public education Throughout the early 1800s  the government  attempted  to establish publicly  funded education in Upper Canada but made only marginal inroads. Early teaching positions were filled by the clergy or by individuals  with few or no qualifications  to teach.  Local trustees competed with  each other not for the best teachers but for the cheapest ones. One education historian said of the period “…a teaching post was commonly regarded as the last refuge of the incompetent,  the inept, the unreliable.”1   This early perception of teachers would remain difficult to overcome and the struggle  for recognition as a profession continued into the next century.

Egerton Ryerson, appointed Superintendent of Education for Upper Canada in 1844, is generally credited as the father of public education in Ontario as he was a committed advocate of publicly funded mass education. He once wrote, “On  the importance of education generally we may remark, it is as necessary as the light; it should be as common as water, and as free as air.” He was also aware that Ontario needed a disciplined workforce to support the industrial revolution.

While Ryerson was the driving force behind public education, the  Common School Acof 1846 gave it life. Building on the previous laws, it established a series of local school districts. Each district had three trustees who were responsible for hiring, paying, and firing teachers and administering funds collected through local taxes and provincial grants. In order to provide some measure of uniformity and raise the standards of education, the Act also created a system of provincially appointed inspectors as well as normal schools, the province’s first teacher training institutions.

The  Toronto  Normal  School,  the  first  in  Ontario,  opened  in  1847. Women were allowed to attend but in 1853 school authorities established a rule that there could be no communication between male and female stu- dents. Entrance requirements were minimal. Those applying had to be over 16, be able to read and write, do simple arithmetic, and have a clergyman’s letter in hand attesting to their sound moral character. Lectures ran from 9 in the morning to 8 in the evening with a curfew set at 9:30. All students had to attend church on Sunday. 2

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