Karen’s Classroom


What is life really like for the country school teacher?

This page will keep us up to date on Karen’s adventures as she settles fights, plans the fall party, and deals with an unwanted suitor.


In 1910, the teacher lived under quite a few stringent guidelines on behavior, dress, and social expectations. They couldn’t dress in bright colors, dye their hair, or wear skirts shorter than two inches above the ankle.

They had to act as janitor in addition to teaching the students. The floor had to be swept every day and scrubbed weekly. They had to start a fire in the potbelly stove early in the morning so that the room was warm by the time students arrived.

They were not allowed to smoke cigarettes or loiter in downtown ice cream stores.

Women school teachers were not allowed to marry during the term of their contract.

They were expected to become a member of the community in which they taught by attending church and even teaching Sunday School, and also to board with a local family.

country school desks

On a recent trip to De Smet South Dakota, where Laura Ingalls Wilder lived, I discovered a living history farm on the site where the Ingalls family farmed in the 1880’s. A country school was included in this complex. We rode in a wagon pulled by two horses out to a little white school house where a teacher waited for us, her “class,” to arrive. One of the things I remember from that school is the responsibility the teacher had.

The teacher was a teenager and chosen to teach school because she (most of the time, country school teachers were young women) could count change at the local store, read, write, and speak English. Those were the requirements. Nothing too advanced.

Some of her students might speak English, but chances were good that not all of them could. The  teacher had to figure out ways to not only communicate with these immigrant students, but also teach them a new language.

In addition to a language barrier, all of these students had the challenge of long distances to travel to attend school. The woman on our tour in De Smet mentioned that South Dakota had schools accessible every six miles. This secured a child’s walk to school as no more than five, possibly six miles one way. Winter. Blizzards. Deep snow and cold. Wind and rain. Children walked to school three, four, even five miles one direction each day.

Because of the distance between farms, the teacher was alone with this group of children for several hours each day. If someone received an injury or a storm came up, the teacher had to improvise so that the children stayed safe.

This living history farm was really helpful to me as I work on my story. Karen Millerson, the upper class teacher from Chicago, acquires a teaching job–by accident–in a small farming community. She encounters tornados, fire, and bitter cold winter weather in addition to all of her other adventures.