Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Margaret Haley calls for teachers to organize

In 1904, Margaret Haley (1861-1939), a school teacher from Chicago, spoke at the National Educators Association (NEA) convention in St. Louis, on "Why Teachers Should Organize." In her short but insightful address, wherein she cited Horace Mann and John Dewey, Haley talked about democracy, equity, citizenship, and discussed the importance of teachers' autonomy and professionalism. She criticized state subsidies to corporations, budget cuts to education, the routinization of teaching and learning, the corruption of the press, the deterioration of teachers' salaries, the subservience of elected politicians to lobbies, and the push towards commercialism in public schools. She advocated progressive education, a more fair distribution of wealth, and a strong unionism encompassing mental and manual laborers.

The teachers who Haley was attempting to organize were primarily young females who were usually forced to resign after marriage. They were supposedly professionals, but seldom treated or paid as such. Not only were their salaries low, but they were paid less than their male counterparts. Within their classrooms, they often had the task of educating more than sixty students with little support.

In her speech, Haley expressed deep concern about the increasing deprofessionalization of teachers, and listed four major obstacles to efficient teaching: 1) inadequate teachers' salaries, clearly inappropriate to meet the increasing cost of living and the demands for higher standards of scholarship and professional attainment; 2) insecurity regarding tenure of office and lack of provision for old age; 3) overwork in overcrowded classrooms, exhausting both mind and body; and 4) lack of recognition of the teacher as an educator, due to pressures to transform schools into factories.

Indeed, in a context marked by increasing centralization of authority in school administrators, Haley claimed that teachers were becoming "factory hands" or "automatons" who were expected to "mechanically and unquestioningly" carry out the ideas and orders of those vested with authority but not necessarily with the knowledge about children's needs or the best ways to respond to them. She contended that since an environment in which it is easy to teach is also an environment in which it is easy to learn, and since lack of freedom restricts both the teacher and the child, the undermining of teachers' initiative constituted an attack on learning itself. She stated that the destruction of teachers' individuality and creativity was leading to "courses of study, regulations, and equipment which the teachers have had no voice in selecting, which often have no relation to the children's needs, and which prove a hindrance instead of helping in teaching" (p. 283).

After outlining these and other problems faced by teachers, Haley called for an organized effort of mutual aid, and delineated the main tasks for such organization. She argued that teachers should develop expertise in educational theory and practice, ability to do scientific teaching, knowledge about the conditions under which good teaching is possible, and skills to reach the public with accurate information. In this speech, Haley raised a concept that would resurface many decades later in the debates on the role of teachers' unions: professional unionism. She argued that teachers' organizations must promote both professional development and the improvement of working conditions, and that the two functions should be pursued simultaneously. In her words,

    The success of the one is dependent upon the success of the other. Unless the conditions for realizing educational ideals keep pace with the ideals themselves, the result in educational practice is deterioration. To know the better way and be unable to follow it is unfavorable to a healthy development. To have freedom in the conditions without the incentive of the ideal is no less harmful. (p. 280)
Hence, Haley claimed that there is a correspondence between "the principles underlying a rational system of teaching and those underlying the movement for freer expression and better conditions among teachers" (p. 280). Haley was aware that a strong emphasis on unionism could eventually lead to corporate dynamics in which the interests of the group are put forth before the common good: "The element of danger in organization for self-protection is the predominance of the selfish motive" (p. 281). However, she argued that in the case of teachers, the need for professionalism constitutes a natural check upon this motive.

Haley believed that the struggle of public school teachers was part of the struggle carried out by manual workers to improve working and living conditions, to protect human rights, and to achieve a more equitable distribution of the products of their labor. Thus, she brought teachers into an alliance with the labor movement and liberal reformers, and under her leadership the CTF joined the Chicago Federation of Labor. In her view, only through these alliances could teachers become free to save the schools for democracy and to save democracy in the schools. At that time, militant teachers tended to ally with organized labor, and school administrators tended to ally with business interests.

In Haley's perspective, two ideals were contending for hegemony in American life at the beginning of the century: the industrial ideal, which culminates in the supremacy of commercialism; and the ideal of democracy, which places humanity above machines, and demands that all activity should be the expression of life. In her address, she cautioned that if educators were unable to carry the ideal of democracy to the industrial world, then the ideal of industrialism would be carried over to the school. Moreover, "if the school cannot bring joy to the work of the world, the joy must go out of its own life, and work in the school as in the factory will become drudgery" (p. 286). Echoing the voice of progressive educators, Haley stated that the industrial model is observable in a narrow conception of education "which makes the mechanics of reading, writing, arithmetic, and other subjects, the end and aims of the school, instead of a means to an end" (p. 285). Such a model produces "the unthinking, mechanical mind in teacher and pupil, and prevents the public school as an institution, and the public-school teachers as a body, from becoming conscious of their relation to society and its problems, and from meeting their responsibilities" (p. 286). These responsibilities deal with the pursuit of societal welfare, and especially with raising the standards of living of the poorest and weakest members of society. Haley thought that public school teachers were the most appropriate social actors to advance this agenda:
    "If there is one institution on which the responsibility to perform this service rests most heavily, it is the public school. If there is one body of public servants of whom the public has a right to expect the mental and moral equipment to face the labor question, and other issues vitally affecting the welfare of society and urgently pressing for a rational and scientific solution, it is the public-school teachers, whose special contribution to society is their own power to think, the moral courage to follow their convictions, and the training of citizens to think and to express thought in free and intelligent action" (p. 285).
This was not the first time that Haley spoke at a NEA convention. Three years before this intervention, at the 1901 NEA meeting in Detroit, Haley became the first woman to speak at a general meeting of the National Education Association, and the first grade teacher who dared to speak at all in the NEA (see 1901). However, then she spoke from the floor; this time she was officially on the agenda.


Haley, Margaret (1982). Battleground: the autobiography of Margaret Haley (edited by Robert L. Reid). Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

See also:

Haley, M. (1904). "Why Teachers Should Organize." NEA Address and Proceedings, 43rd Annual Meeting, St. Louis, 145-152. Washington, DC: The Association.

Herrick, M.J. (1971). The Chicago Schools: A Social and Political History. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Lazerson, M., Ed. (1987). American education in the twentieth century. New York: Teachers College Press.

Nelson, F. Howard (1990). Labor Relations In Education In the United States.

Tyack, D.B. (1974). The One Best System: A history of American Urban Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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