First Indiana teachers

The first teachers in Indiana appear in Vincennes, the oldest community in the southwest corner of the state on the Wabash River. I had never thought about teachers in Indiana before Indiana was a state (1816) or even a territory (1800). I just imposed the Little House on the Prairie narrative on the Indiana Territory: young, unmarried women were the schoolteachers. But who were the teachers before there were young, unmarried frontier women?

Priests. Priests and ministers had the training and knowledge to be educators.

Vincennes was a French trading post established in 1732. Jesuit priests began arriving not long afterward and a church was established by 1749. In 1779 George Rogers Clark took Vincennes from the British, who retreated to Fort Detroit.

Through the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the Congress of the Confederation (which preceded the Congress of the United States) established the Northwest Territory, which included present-day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and the eastern part of Minnesota. The west was opening up for white settlers.

The Northwest Ordinance stressed the importance of education. Article 3: “Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

In 1792, Fr. Benedict Joseph Flaget, at the St. Francis Xavier parish in Vincennes, set up a school in Vincennes. He was succeeded at the parish by Fr. John Francis Rivet.

In 1800 in anticipation of the modern-day Ohio portion of the Northwest Territory becoming a state, the Indiana Territory was formed. Vincennes became its capital and William Henry Harrison its governor. In 1801, Harrison reached out to Fr. Rivet, asking him to set up a public school, the Jefferson Academy.

Flaget is considered the first parochial school teacher of Indiana and Rivet the first public school teacher in Indiana. Thus, education—with an emphasis on Latin and French—in what would become Indiana first developed thanks to French Catholic priests—a far cry from the Little House on the Prairie narrative of female schoolmarms.

Free kindergarten

Kindergarten. It seems like a given. Kindergarten helps prepare children for first grade and gives them a head start for life. Every child attends kindergarten, right? No, in Indiana, kindergarten attendance is not mandatory.

I find this kind of mind-blowing, especially after I encountered Eliza Ann Blaker, an early pioneer for free kindergarten.

Blaker wasn’t only a pioneer in her advocating free kindergarten for all children. She was a pioneer for women. Born in 1854 into a Quaker family, she was encouraged to continue her education and to follow her interests in teaching. This is in the latter half of the 1800s. And this is in spite of the fact that her father was deceased and her labor could have helped support the family. (Did I mention that Blaker was a woman?)

The fact that she was educated and then pursued her career (while married) is a bit unusual for that time period. But she went beyond unusual: she moved her family from Pennsylvania to Indiana for her career. The Blaker family moved for her career, not her husband’s.

Blaker came to Indianapolis in 1882 to set up a kindergarten for the children of the wealthy. She quickly moved on to setting up free kindergarten for all children, regardless of finances or race.

In addition to schools for the children, she trained the teachers for these kindergartens. Eventually the teacher training she initiated was folded into Butler University.

Her teaching methodology was quite different from the norm for that time. She was inspired by early childhood educational ideas developed by Friedrich Froebel.

Her guiding principles for early education sound both cutting-edge today and hark back to a medieval time. For her, children learn best through play. She encouraged children to discover the world on their own terms. As a stunning commentary on the times, she rejected the habit of beating children when they make mistakes (!).

Blaker was quite a progressive woman who came from an environment that encouraged female education and career when women were not typically allowed to have either. I am inspired by her work but saddened that almost a century after her passing kindergarten is not mandatory in Indiana (and in many other states).

Helping young children learn is the best gift we can give them for an enriching life. And what better way than through play and exploration of the world in an environment that takes into account different learning styles and encourages growth through mistakes.