The Golden Age Of Teaching

Imagine! Just 19, and soon to have a newly-minted teaching certificate in my back pocket! It was the spring of 1955. My Ottawa Teachers’ College year was coming to a close. I did not realize at the time that I was on the threshold of a 34-year career during one of the most exciting times in education. Without question, for a beginning teacher in Ontario in 1955, teaching was the opportunity of a lifetime for young people. I had opted for a profession with endless opportunities and great potential, if one was willing to make the effort to succeed.

There were hundreds of teacher ads for positions filling several pages of the major newspapers every single week from every school board in Ontario. I had no idea where I wanted to teach, and so I was literally waiting for something to fall into my lap. It did!

One memorable day, while still in class, the college principal called me out of class with a surprise. Knowing that I had been a keen army cadet throughout high school, he suggested that I attend an interview with officials who were recruiting teachers for the Camp Petawawa army schools at that very moment in his office.

The details of the interview are now foggy, but I do remember one of the interviewers asking me what my hobbies were. Hobbies? I was a greenhorn kid from a dairy farm in Eastern Ontario where work was the only hobby I knew. I blurted out, “Hunting and fishing.” He sarcastically remarked, “That should go over well in the classroom”. After hearing his response, I felt my chances were pretty slim. I got the job, teaching grade 4!

I was thrilled to have my very first job, with its starting annual salary of $2,400. Although this was slightly above the going rate of other school boards in the area, the pitiful stipend was equivalent to an unskilled labourer’s wage.

But I was in on the ground floor of my career. It was a time of unprecedented expansion. During my first 15 years of teaching elementary school, enrollment in Ontario grew by almost 600,000 students before tapering off in the 1970s. Little one-room schools were closing and thousands of new schools were being built. Teacher shortage became a serious problem, forcing school boards to compete aggressively to hire new staff.

The two schools in Camp Petawawa enjoyed an excellent reputation under the leadership of a strong-willed, dynamic supervising principal. The schools were well-equipped, and well-organized, with effective discipline standards. The children came from fairly advantaged homes, with stay-at-home mothers on hand when they went home at noon for their lunch break. They were a pleasure to teach. At that time, words such as autistic, hyper-active, attention deficit disorder, when referring to students, were not part of our vocabulary.

I taught grade four 4 for two years in the junior school and in my third year, grade 6 in the senior school. In my second year I met my future wife, a new teacher on staff. We married in September of 1957. After completing my very first university course by correspondence from McMaster University, I quickly decided that there had to be a better way to obtain a degree.

Queen’s University appealed to me as it was in familiar territory. In the spring of 1958, I saw an opportunity to move to Kingston after spotting a teaching ad from Fort Henry Heights army schools located nearby. I applied and obtained a vice-principal position in its junior school.

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Dr. James F. McDonald is a retired elementary school principal who lives in Dundas, ON.
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