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Teachers do their part

November 7, 2017 Maggie Shane, ATA Archivist

A retrospective on the impact of the world wars on the teaching profession

By Dominion Day 1918, Alberta’s sons, fathers, brothers and sweethearts had been fighting and dying on far-flung, blood-soaked battlefields for four long years. Ours was a young nation and an even younger province, and it was a time of contradictions. As soldiers, nurses, pilots, infantry and naval personnel pursued their duty in theatres of war, life at home persisted, albeit to the weary rhythm of devastating destruction and loss.

Wartime news competed with mundane happenings for column inches in the daily newspapers like the Edmonton Bulletin and the Morning Bulletin. Reports on German advances on Petrograd (St. Petersburg) and the sinking by torpedo of the hospital ship HMHS Llandovery Castle appeared beside accounts of the “glorious weather” enjoyed at Dominion Day picnics. The war permeated every aspect of life and work while, in the closing months of the War to End All Wars, the Alberta Teachers’ Alliance took up the work of establishing the teaching profession.

In a 1940 retrospective of 1917–18 published in the ATA Magazine, Alberta Teachers’ Association general secretary-treasurer John Barnett wrote forcefully of the influence of the war upon teachers’ experience. Teaching conditions and salaries were deplorable, making it nearly impossible for teachers to cobble together a decent living. The educated and talented often considered teaching a byway on the road to better economic opportunities. Moreover, teachers were leaving their classrooms to enlist in the armed forces.

Faced with a dearth of available, qualified teachers, the Department of Education allowed almost anyone into classrooms despite a lack of training, certification or qualifications. The First World War shaped the state of the teaching profession from the outset.

“Immediately after the outbreak of War many school boards, even in cities, arbitrarily cut salaries with no negotiation whatever,” Barnett wrote. “Teachers’ contracts provided for term engagements only; these engagements could be broken on thirty days’ notice before the expiration of the term with no appeal possible. In consequence, there was little continuity of service of teachers and little corporate spirit among them. If a teacher had the temerity to exercise any freedom of thought as a citizen he did so at his peril; if he had any opinions on professional matters he was brushed aside or ignored.”

Even though conditions were ripe for teachers to demand respect for their important work, the notion of collective action took time to find purchase. Two years of constant effort were necessary on the part of the fledgling Alberta Teachers’ Alliance to persuade educators that it would take more than a few board-driven meetings a year to achieve professional status and improvements to teaching and learning conditions. Alliance leaders strove to bring their message to the public, the ratepayers, other professionals and, crucially, elected representatives. Their hard work was effective and, by 1919, half of Alberta’s 4,000 teachers were members.

“When one considers that the majority of these were rural teachers located ‘miles from nowhere’ and that attending a meeting might mean walking or driving in a farmer’s buggy team, 15 or more miles, the determination and enthusiasm of the rank and file of the membership may be understood,” Barnett wrote. “ Local organizations sprang up everywhere. The capacity of the teachers to organize astonished even the leaders themselves.”

By June of 1920 the first issue of the ATA Magazine was in the hands of members and there were other signs of the Alliance’s growing influence. Membership increased steadily as teachers found themselves well protected and advised by their professional organization. Public trust in the Alliance and its stewardship of education grew apace.

The First World War was behind Albertans. The armistice had famously taken effect at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month 1918 (followed by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919). Albertans looked forward to a future of peace, prosperity and recovery. It was not to be. Within nine years Albertans were suffering in the grip of the Great Depression, and within two decades they were once again at war.

In 1939, war again called young men and women to military service and a teacher shortage threatened the stability and efficacy of public education.

Just as it had in 1914–1918, the Department of Education once again responded to the teacher shortage but this time did not attempt to fill teacher vacancies with untrained or unqualified individuals. A new teaching certificate, the junior certificate for high schools, was instituted that required post-secondary training and licensed the certificate holder to teach grades 7 to 11 for an initial period of three years.

While the rush to war was familiar, much had changed in Alberta in the 21 years between 1918 and 1939. No longer were teachers without a collective voice. Now, the ATA worked to safeguard the profession’s hard-won prerogatives while supporting those democratic ideals for which Allied forces were fighting.

Throughout the province, teachers worked to bolster active, democratic citizenship in students. Teachers’ efforts were seen as vital, not only to the war effort, but to the longed-for period of recovery to follow.

Of course, a great many classroom teachers pursued active military service, but now a balance had to be struck between maintaining continuity of education at home and supporting teachers seeking active military duty.

In response, the ATA encouraged employing boards to “top up” teachers’ military pay while on active duty and to ensure that their jobs would be secure during that service. By December 1940, the ATA Magazine was regularly printing a monthly roll of newly enlisted teachers by name and employing school board. The role of the teacher was considered important enough to incline the National War Services Board to make it possible for teachers to complete military training during the off-term summer months.

As the war ground on, a 1941 ATA Magazine article by Social Credit premier and minister of education William Aberhart exhorted Alberta teachers to continue their efforts to resist the “hideous doctrines of totalitarianism.”

The stakes could not have been higher. Teachers answered the call to service in their classrooms, on the battlefields, in the Red Cross and in every benevolent organization dedicated to the relief of human suffering borne of the war. Teachers found their common ground, put aside differences of politics or philosophy and united in the face of great calamity for their profession and, most important, for their students.

Teachers approached the war effort with determination for themselves but with dread that the ravages of war would soon be visited upon the youth of the nation.

“All thinking people know that we stand on the threshold of a year which may well prove to be the most critical in human history,” Aberhart wrote.

“Let us then go forward together into 1941 with that spirit of undaunted triumph, and with the knowledge that, beneath and around all the show of worldly power and pomp, there are those finer spiritual and humane qualities which must ultimately prevail.” ❚

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