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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Portraits in the first person: an historical ethnography of rural teachers and teaching in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley in the 1920s Stephenson, Penelope S.


This study is a micro-analysis of a particular educational milieu: a history of the development of rural schools and community in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia from 1874 until 1930, focussing mainly on the period from 1920 to 1930. The teacher, or more specifically the female teacher, is the main subject. A series of oral interviews conducted with surviving rural teachers and pupils from the 1920s comprise the primary data. Personal narratives form the core of the text. Also used were the pertinent printed and manuscript records of the Department of Education, penned by teachers, school inspectors and other officials, local histories, the 1931 Census of Canada and photographs. The purpose of the study is two fold. First, it is to delineate what the job of teaching in a rural school in the 1920s entailed. The physical and pedagogical conditions of that work are described. The role and status of the teacher in the local community are also highlighted. Teaching in an isolated community, especially for the novice, was an arduous assignment and one that demanded the acceptance of considerable physical, professional, mental and emotional hardships. The underlying relationship that existed between the individual teacher and the local world of education in rural districts and how the nature of that relationship influenced the quality of teacher experience is a central theme of the study. Social background and up bringing, as well as personal disposition, were found to be key variables determining the extent to which teachers were able successfully to adapt to living and working in a remote rural district. Second, the study examines the social context and meaning of the experience of teaching as work for women. By focussing on how involvement in the profession fitted into the larger structure of the female life course, a more complex, yet clearer, vision emerges of what teaching actually did for women in terms of how they used the profession to accommodate their own personal agendas. For many women their experience as a teacher, albeit brief, played an important, and for some a profound, role in their lives. Despite the strenuous and often frustrating nature of their working and living circumstances many teachers enjoyed their jobs. Motivated by a determination to succeed many regarded their experiences in rural schools as a challenge. They had their sense of self-worth and confidence enhanced by their ability to prove to themselves that they could survive under such adverse conditions. Teaching also afforded women economic independence and relative autonomy and thus expanded their personal and career horizons beyond the traditional domestic roles. Moreover for a substantial number of women teaching was by no means just a prologue to anticipated marriage but rather a life-time commitment. At the same time women's career pathways, unlike that of the majority of their male collegues, were not organised to enhance career aspirations. Women negotiated their work interests with traditional sex role and family expectations. Decisions concerning work were deeply entrenched within, and contingent upon, their changing personal and family circumstances. Home and family obligations, both real and perceived, defined their lives and played a key role in their life planning. Pursuing a "career" as a teacher in the traditional sense was not necessarily always the main priority in women's lives and certainly had little to do with what they viewed as commitment to the job. The study contributes to a fuller understanding of the phenomena of rural schooling and teaching in British Columbia and provides some insights into rural life itself. It also raises important questions as to the meaning of teaching as work to women and the nature of their participation in the workforce. It demonstrates that any evaluation of women's work must be derived from women workers' own perceptions and definitions of work and career.

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