Stepped up, then stepped on
Rather than being thanked, young women who left high school early to fill desperate need as 'permit teachers' during, after Second World War widely criticized for jobs they did
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/07/2019 (1136 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It was 70 years ago, but Karen Boughton remembers getting her first job as if it were yesterday.
At 17, she left her Grade 11 classroom in Bagot, travelling more than 80 kilometres southwest to her new life just outside Cypress River. Boughton was one of many Manitoba high school students who, during and just after the Second World War, put their own studies on hold to fill vacancies left by teachers who had joined the war effort.
“It was a real challenge,” says Boughton, now 87.
“I was in an area that I really didn’t know, with people I had never met. It took courage to do it.”
– Karen Boughton
“I was in an area that I really didn’t know, with people I had never met. It took courage to do it.”
Boughton said the students — who were called “permit teachers” because they worked on temporary permits that allowed them to teach for a year — are an important part of Manitoba’s education history that’s at risk of being forgotten. So, 15 years ago, they decided to get together to make sure it won’t be. They started organizing annual reunions, and this year the group will meet one last time before calling it quits.
“We’re getting older. I was one of the younger ones, and I’m not young anymore,” says Boughton. “We don’t have as many who are able to come, and our numbers are dropping.”
In 2004, former permit teacher and academic Louisa Loeb started looking into what Manitoba’s history books showed about the experience that defined her early adulthood. What she found surprised her: most people had never heard about permit teachers, Loeb wrote in her 2007 book, Manitoba Permit Teachers of World War II.
Soon after, she helped organize the first reunion; the annual event is named after Loeb, who is 94. Twenty-nine retired former permit teachers attended the inaugural reunion. Boughton says there were years when as many as 100 people showed up.
They shared stories of going to school during the Great Depression, rationing food during the war, pulling together during hard times and mourning loved ones who died fighting, Loeb wrote in her book, which includes stories from 21 permit teachers.
“All these memories were shared and relived as we delighted in each other’s company,” she wrote. “That afternoon we were all teenagers again, energized by that youthful euphoria.”
Boughton arrived at Richmond Hill School in 1949, its wood-panelled walls painted white, its exterior surrounded by trees and the sprawling prairie.
The tiny, one-room schoolhouse was where she would spend the next year of her life teaching students who were only a few years younger than her. Like many other permit teachers, Boughton says, she was provided with housing near the school.
Before being thrown into the job, permit teachers took a six-week summer course the Department of Education organized through schools across the province. It prepared them for the basics — math, reading and social studies — but outside of that, they had no idea what to expect, she says.
“So many of us were prepared to go and do it, knowing nothing of where we were going, where we would be sent,” she says.
They taught students from kindergarten to Grade 8 in the same class with little support and minimal training, all without having finished high school themselves, Boughton said.
Today, teachers in Manitoba need to have a permanent professional teaching certificate, which requires a bachelor of education degree earned through an integrated, five-year program, or through a two-year program completed after an undergraduate degree.
Public education was largely overlooked during wartime, which made permit teachers — who were paid only about $1,000 a year — an easy solution to the sudden labour shortage brought on by the Second World War, says George Buri, a University of Winnipeg professor who teaches the history of education.
After the war, there was a greater focus on what many saw as a crumbling education system, and the blame was often directed at the permit teachers, Buri says.
“Permit teachers became sort of an easy target of that, because they are seen by a number of different people as an example of what’s wrong with an underfunded and neglected education system letting anybody at all teach,” he says.
“There’s this desire to figure out how to get rid of the permit teacher, to have teachers with higher qualifications. They’re referred to as being unqualified teachers. There’s a lot of things written about them that are very negative, suggesting we shouldn’t have these people teaching our children if they have so little education themselves.”
The advent of permit teachers coincided with the rise of teachers’ organizations that fought for improvements such as higher pay, better working conditions and recognition as professionals. A great deal of the public criticism directed at permit teachers came from the leaders of those organizations.
A March 27, 1951 article in the Winnipeg Free Press described 250 delegates from the Manitoba Teachers’ Society voting unanimously at a convention to call on the government to end the permit teacher system by 1953. The delegates celebrated their decision “with a loud cheer” — and threatened to strike if the province didn’t comply.
Three years later, a Manitoba Teachers’ Society spokesman was quoted in a Dec. 29, 1954 Free Press article addressing charges of “incompetent and underpaid teachers” and “old and dirty schools” throughout the province to what is now the Youth Parliament of Manitoba.
Emerson Lloyd Arnett, the society’s assistant general secretary at the time, said it would be “very surprising if there weren’t a lot of incompetent teachers in the province, considering the lowered standards of education,” which he associated, at least in part, with permit teachers.
By then, tensions surrounding permit teachers had been running high for years.
In a Free Press article published eight years earlier, school inspector Archibald Adam Herriot slammed the permit-teacher system at a 1943 teachers convention.
“Half-educated people are a liability and a danger,” Herriot told the crowd of southeastern Manitoba teachers in the Oct. 28 article. “No matter how poor the district, never again will a class of 40 be entrusted to a permit teacher.”
However, Buri said his research suggests permit teachers did quite well at their jobs, especially considering they had so little training — but that didn’t fit with what teachers organizations were trying so hard to prove.
“The idea that there’s people who can take a six-week course and do the job undermines the sort of claim to professional status,” Buri says.
“It doesn’t really suit the agenda of a lot of different people who are trying to change the way that teaching is perceived.”
The fact that most permit teachers were young women — and that most people criticizing them were the usually male heads of teachers organizations — likely also played a role in public perceptions of them, he says.
“I think there’s a little bit of ageism and sexism present,” he says.
“There was this concern that it’s too easy, that anybody can become a permit teacher…. It sort of dismisses the women who did this themselves and just sort of makes these sweeping assumptions.”
But when regular teachers left their positions en masse, in order to keep schools open, permit teachers became a necessity.
The crisis wasn’t entirely caused by the war, Buri says; some of the regular teachers were asked to leave their positions for other reasons.
“There was an unwritten rule in Manitoba schools that any woman who became pregnant while teaching was expected to immediately resign her position,” he says.
“This was sort of ironic, because at the same time, they can’t find people to be teachers. They have a source of teachers, but that doesn’t fit with the gendered norms of the 1950s.”
Despite more workforce opportunities for women — out of necessity — during wartime, Buri says the history of permit teachers demonstrates how the sexism of the 20th century lingered long after soldiers returned from overseas.
“Women were treated essentially as second-class citizens within the workforce, even in the postwar world, which was very much based on the male-breadwinner ideal,” he says.
“We see (the Second World War) as a time where women make incredible inroads into a number of different areas where they weren’t allowed before. “(But) we also see that this was seen by a lot of people as being a necessary evil to win the war, rather than being accepted as a permanent change or a move toward equality.”
Eventually, the intense need for teachers dissipated, and the Department of Education in Manitoba did away with permit teaching.
Some went back to high school and pursued a different path. Others continued in their education careers by attending one of Manitoba’s six Normal Schools — the headquarters of which was renamed once when it became the Manitoba Teachers College in 1958, and again in 1965 when it moved to the University of Manitoba and became the school’s faculty of education.
Boughton was one of the latter type of permit teachers; she completed bachelor of arts and bachelor of education degrees, and eventually retired as a resource teacher in the River East School Division in 1992.
Today, a small monument stands in the spot where Richmond Hill School used to be, a plaque and a gold bell hang below an arch over a small slab of concrete. In 1959, the school closed and its students were transferred to other nearby facilities.
But for Boughton, Richmond Hill still exists, if only in her memory. It’s the place that challenged her to take a leap out of her comfort zone and showed her what she wanted out of her life.
“I think it made me stronger,” she says. “I was born a teacher…. It showed me that that’s really what I wanted to do.”
Updated on Friday, July 5, 2019 10:25 PM CDT: Adds pullquote