Willard's Pioneering the Education of Young Women

Pioneering the Education
of Young Women


Emma Hart Willard

Excerpted from an autobiographical sketch by E Willard (1787- 1870) which describes her first challenge at 17 as a teacher. No training was required, no mandated taxes, she was unconstrained. She began Troy Female Seminary in 1821 where she taught subjects believed beyond girls grasp like science. In 1838, she turned the school over to her daughter-in-law and son. She was a superintendent for Henry Barnard in Hartford, CT.

None of my teachers so understood me as to awaken my powers or gain much influence over me. THAT IS A HELL OF A STATEMENT!! My father taught us by reading to us each eve. Village library: Plutarch, Rollins, Gibbons, travel, Brit Lit.
At 15, new academy run by Thomas Miner was opened. From mother's inheritance Emma's sister, Nancy, spent part to attend. Emma chose to visit relatives instead after giving an eloquent oration about "the folly of seeking to be educated above one's means." Upon return after a fortnight she saw the books of her sisters and heard of the lessons and decided to attend the next day, Saturday. She worked and overtook her class. SHE IS A DRIVEN COMPLETIVE WOMAN. She consumed Webster's Grammar and Morse's Geography. She studied in difficult situations under dire circumstances. "Lessons so learnt are not easily forgotten." I never failed. She attended the academy for 2 years and couldn't have received a better education for girls. She met a lady named Mrs Peck, 40, who treated Emma as an equal. They shared dreams and secrets. In 1804, at 17, Emma was offered the village children school.
Her first day started at 9 am. I seated myself among the children to begin the profession that lasted 40 years. In the longest morning of her life, she attempted to evaluate her charges, who had gained bad habits from her predecessor. Talking did no good, reasoning and pathetic appeals were useless. At noon, she spoke to Mrs Peck who suggested the rod, "Oh no, I would never use the rod," protested young Emma. The school was a scene of confusion when she returned. Mrs Peck's son soon appeared with 5 rods. She threatened, but used to threats, the kids soon were acting up. She mildly flogged one and more severely another and so on with increased severity until they quieted down. I must and would have their obedience. The next morning she had docile and orderly scholars. They had recreation (recess), pleasant and interesting studies, constant praise, good reports home. Soon the school was admired in neighbourhood. Literati came to visit.

Her new boarding school in Middlebury (1814) was to relieve husband of financial burden and to do better than other schools about her. Within a couple of years she had a school better than any. Middlebury reminded her of the disparity of education between the sexes. She was going to correct the error. She wrote a plan on "Improving Female Education" she proposed to give to a legislature. She feared her vision, she would be called insane, for the expectations she entertained on this matter. To achieve this, she continued to educate herself, to gain fame as a teacher and have personal influence, and be sought in other places, where influential men would carry her project to some legislature for the sake of making a good school.
Her exertions became intense as she spent 10-12 hours a day teaching; started new courses each term which she learned simultaneously as she taught; offered each course with a certain expectation (an exam); labored to make each student understand their subject; get warmed to it; to see the beauties and advantages of it. It was a 3 step process: 1) Lecture sprinkled with questions and short answer class discussion, "if attention fails, teacher fails"; 2) scholars recited to show understanding without mistake, they could remember; and 3) scholar could communicate her understanding via exam.
Reputation as teacher gains: drill and practice exercises; pupils acquired character and confidence; scholars capable of teaching; some aided in acquisition of new courses. She set out to improve geography which resulted in Woodbridge and Willard's Geographies. Professors from the college observed her classes, but she did not observe theirs. CURIOUS!! She had no model except her own faith of her own convictions of her mind. GUTS!!
A proposal to use some of the vacant dorms at Middlebury as a seminary was proposed but eventually failed. She considered a geographic point in NY convenient to the females (5) who expressed a desire to attend such a seminary and wrote to Gov Clinton asking for a "charter." The letter and "plan" she sent to the Gov was received warmly and acted on quickly. The result was creation of the Troy seminary, later named the Emma Willard School, and was the first law whose sole object was to improve female education.