Montpelier: James Madison University Magazine

A Strictly High-Grade School
Montpelier Summer 1999

Photos courtesy of JMU Special Collections
By Nancy Bondurant Jones

Ads in newspapers across the commonwealth in 1909 billed the State Normal and Industrial School as "a strictly high-grade school for the professional training of teachers." The school also enticed prospective students to Harrisonburg with "FREE TUITION TO TEACHERS AND THOSE WHO EXPECT TO TEACH."

But some of Virginia's earliest teaching contracts might make one wonder why anyone would want to enter the profession. When Inez Graybeal Roop ('35) signed with Montgomery County at $100 per month for eight months in 1936, for instance, her duties included "care of school building and outbuildings." Her contract carried the caveat that the school term might be "shortened or extended depending upon available funds." She also agreed "to attend Saturday classes or group conferences ... from time to time." In those depression years, however, Roop considered herself fortunate to have a job.

Today JMU places more than 600 students a year in 17 school systems, but, originally, South Main Street Public School provided the proving ground for future teachers. Soon after, Rockingham County accepted student teachers from the State Teacher's College, setting a statewide precedent when it cooperated with Miss Rhea Scott on teaching home economics in one-room rural schools.

M'Ledge Moffett ('11), future dean of women at Radford University, recalled those early experiments with kitchen equipment in one corner and cooking on the pot-bellied stove that heated the room. During winter, the horse-and-buggy ride to school tested good humor. She said in a memoir, "I have vivid memories of carrying yeast bread dough, wrapped in newspapers and a blanket, trying to keep it warm enough to rise."

And on another occasion, Moffett added, "I was having a darning lesson and the socks were so dirty that I took the class to a nearby branch [stream]. The darning lesson turned into a laundry lesson."

By 1958, the college bulletin continued to emphasize "The major function of Madison College is the preparation of teachers for the public schools." Job placement follow-up for the 1958 graduates indicated 152 out of 180 accepted teaching positions, with 135 in Virginia schools. Madison had supplied more teachers to Virginia public schools than any other college in the state, according to annual reports between 1943 and 1958, fielding 2,636 for the entire period.

And in 1958, Madison College opened The Anthony-Seeger Campus School to national praise. Planned by a cross-departmental committee, the building itself was awarded a prize for architectural excellence by the American Association of Architects. In addition, the American Association of School Administrators exhibited a model at its national conference in Atlantic City.

Evelyn Watkins ('26) who taught first grade there, recalls, "People were so cooperative. I always had a piano, had materials -- didn't have to buy them ourselves. Parents volunteered to help you make bread or churn butter or take you on a trip. Professors were so helpful. Dr. Wells took us to the observatory. Margaret Gordon would bring her skeletons and things over. Dr. Diller and Mr. Gill would let you invade their studio to make things. One year we had Spanish -- we learned Spanish dances, Spanish songs." The school fulfilled its mission to provide model situations where students could observe the best teaching techniques.

Charles Caldwell, head of teacher education from 1951 to 1976, wrote in the Daily News-Record, "Not only were Madison ... graduates sought, but also its program was emulated by other institutions across the state." And he considered student teaching -- placing students in real-world situations within a protected environment off campus and contracting a master teacher to supervise each as essential to success.

The program's success was apparent. Students observing and teaching under Watkins were not surprised when she was named the 1972 Outstanding Elementary Teacher of America. Professional accolades multiplied through subsequent decades. In 1998, Philip Bigler ('74/M.Ed.'76) returned to campus as National Teacher of the Year, a product of the graduate program initiated in 1954. The first master's degrees had been awarded in June 1956 to Everett E. Wilfong, principal of Keezletown Elementary School, and to Vivian Berry Fauver, a 7th grade teacher in Harrisonburg.

As state laws change, JMU adjusts its program. Since 1992, students wishing to become teachers must major in an arts and science discipline, then complete 40 hours of a teacher-licensure program. Future teachers now carry what essentially amounts to a double major. But the demands do not diminish participation.

Pat Greco, a cooperating teacher from Hunt Valley Elementary School in Fairfax County illustrates why JMU placements are so coveted. After several positive experiences, she had her first disappointing student teacher. "He simply was not ready to be in the classroom."

One phone call to JMU prompted three of his professors immediately to drive to Fairfax. "I was very impressed. First of all, it's not 15 minutes away, and it was a cold, wintry day," Greco says. "I was impressed that three of them would re-arrange their schedules, drop everything to come sit with us and talk about the situation and ways to help him -- and whether he wanted to really be in the classroom. They listened and made suggestions, gave him lots of encouragement."

Because of early field experiences and instruction, Greco says, "Students from JMU come very prepared, have a more realistic idea of what's expected of teachers. They're the most desirable placements in our school."

  • Story by Nancy Bondurant Jones

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