In 1898, Rufus Halsey, taking over as the second president of the Oshkosh Normal School (ONS), had no experience working in higher education. He was formally a school district superintendent. With firsthand knowledge of the needs of working teachers, Halsey brought to ONS a new concern for students after they entered the profession.
According to University of Wisconsin Oshkosh professor emeritus and historian Edward Noyes, Halsey committed himself to “presidential counseling” of graduates to help their careers progress. He asked graduates to write him, reflecting on their experiences and ambitions. They responded by sending him hundreds of personal letters from 1905 to1907.
This exercise was cut short by Halsey’s death in a hunting accident in 1907. Still, the preserved letters in the University Archives provide a unique view in the lives of teachers at the dawning of the 20th century, when standardized education in Wisconsin was still forming.
Most of Halsey’s correspondents were writing during their first year of teaching — as well as living — in the “real world.” Some encountered rampant poverty across the state and classrooms filled with European immigrants struggling to learn English.
Others found lackluster school facilities and pay. All, however, took time to comment on their work and training. Each letter offers an intersection between expectations and reality.
After a semester of teaching 15 classes per day in the upper grades in Granton, John Lorscheter, a 1906 graduate, understated things when he wrote that teaching was “a different proposition than going to school.”
In their letters, graduates lauded the Normal School for their preparation. From Racine, Josephine Gannon wrote of the faculty that “there is not one but gave me some high ideal and enabled me to better fulfill my duties as a woman and teacher.”
However, some found their new schools’ approach to teaching conflicting with ONS education. Writing from Iron River, Mich., alumna Margaret Mathewson said her principal’s scientific and lecture approach was “contrary to everything we had been taught at the Normal School… He did not believe in the cultivation of imagination.”
Today, UWO’s Alumni Relations Office keeps tabs on graduates but not in the detail Halsey sought. Recently, the College of Education and Human Services invited recent alums to return to talk to classes about their first teaching experiences. Despite a century of changes to education, many of the comments are similar to those made in the early 20th century.
There is great respect for the training they received, especially the supervised student-teaching opportunities the school provides. In an email, alumna Emily (Heitpas) Verbruggen ’08, of Kimberly noted that in her classes she “had learned about readers’ workshops…and conferencing with students, but actually putting it into play gives you a feeling of accomplishment and worth.”
Missy Barlow, of Oshkosh, shared that, as a dual major, she was especially fortunate. “I had several opportunities to gain experience…because I was given both regular and special education placements.”
Of course, many of the realities of teaching are still present. While not the situation in 1907 Granton, Barlow concedes that the paperwork required of special education is delegated, by necessity, to “evenings and on weekends because my days are so busy working directly with students.”