“Following No Mean Task”: The Edmonton Normal School by Marjorie Scott

Highlands Junior High School students and staff have returned. And the building is growing. This article looks back at this building’s proud past. It is from the Highlands Historical Foundations Newsletter, Spring 1999.

It’s hard to believe that the spacious Education Building at the University of Alberta had its origins on the second floor of Highlands School.

The Edmonton Normal School survived suspension, relocation and budget cuts to eventually develop into the present-day Faculty of Education.

By 1912, normal schools (a then-common term for teacher-training institutions) had been established in Calgary and Camrose, and the course of study had been lengthened from three months to eight months. As this extended course resulted in fewer graduates, the Edmonton Normal School was opened in 1920 to meet the demands of a booming population, and to help compensate for the high turnover in teachers.

Then, as now, teaching was an occupation dominated by women, many of whom had the effrontery to marry, an act which immediately disqualified them from the profession. Alberta’s deputy minister of education noted at the time, “The male teacher stands for permanency in the profession, while in this province the majority of our female teachers are transient.”

In addition to meeting staffing needs around the province, increasingly comprehensive teacher training schools were established to attract “manly men” who would “be induced to engage in teaching as their life work.”

Suitable space for the Edmonton Normal School was found in the Highlands School, which had recently had a second storey added. The Highlands Cottage School, a temporary precursor to the Highlands School, was set aside as a study centre for the “Normalties”.

In the Edmonton Normal School’s first year of operation, 110 students, each possessing a minimum of a Grade 11 education, enrolled in a 13-week course that would give them a temporary, third-class teaching certificate. (A permanent certificate could be obtained by attending another full session.)

Students enrolled in January were ready to take their place in the classroom by May, largely in rural districts, where they were likely to instruct only the lower grades.

Respecting the rural origins of many of its students, the school granted males three weeks’ harvest leave.

The provincial government underscored its commitment to the school by underwriting student loans in the amount of $28,000. Students could borrow up to $400, repayable in four half-yearly instalments.

The Normal School at Highlands prospered for three years, until 1923, when the provincial government discontinued its operation due to budget constraints.

By the time the school shut its doors, it had graduated some 1000 students.

In 1928, the Edmonton Normal School re-opened, this time in King Edward School.

The motto of the newly re-opened institution was “Following No Mean Task”. This motto emphasized both the graduates’ pride in their chosen profession and the expectations attached to their role.

G.F. McNally, Principal of the Camrose Normal School made this statement in 1917:

“Rural teachers must lead first of all in a better way of teaching. They must make the boys and girls realize the full, rich possibilities of life on the farm. They must make the school a social centre by first socializing the school itself and then extend their influence to the community generally by leading in such organizations as are best adapted to the needs of the Community.”

A teacher’s work, apparently, was never done. Fortunately, graduates did not expect a bed of roses.

They had to teach all subjects in a wide range of grades and their students were frequently recent immigrants who spoke no English. Living conditions could be spartan.

Pearl Shandro, a 1931 graduate who later married Edmonton Mayor William Hawrelak, lived in a converted chicken coop while teaching near Vilna. She considered herself fortunate; some other lodgings did not offer that level of comfort.

Despite the long hours of study, and the rigors facing them upon graduation, Normalities seem to have found time for fun and edification. The 1928 school yearbook lists such activities as choral concerts, debates, receptions, tea dances and, prophetically, a “Poverty Ball”, for which students donned rags.

The same year the school reopened, the provincial government, enjoying the benefits of a worldwide economic boom, voted $200,000 to build a new normal school “On the University grounds at a point facing directly on the western end of Whyte Avenue”.

The same amount was allocated the following year, with intention to create a state-of-the-art training facility whose design was based on the most modern pedagogical thinking available. An official who visited various normal schools in the United States and Canada recommended that the new building contains a practice school, a library, a gymnasium, a 700-seat auditorium and an “abundance of sunlight”, all accessible with as little stair-climbing as possible.

The innovative new facility was officially opened with great fanfare in January 1930. At the opening, University Librarian D.E. Cameron praised the provincial government, then formed by the United Farmers of Alberta, for having the foresight to create such a well equipped facility. The government, he proclaimed, had “steadily maintained a front rank position among the provinces with respect to efficient, enlightened legislation.”

In 1933, citing budget constraints resulting from the worldwide economic depression, the UFA government closed the school, to the great consternation and disappointment of potential students, the Trades and Labour Council, Edmonton’s Public and Catholic School Boards, and “interested citizens.” Premier J.E. Browlee stated that the closure would save the provincial exchequer approximately $41,000 and that students could easily be accommodated at the Camrose Normal School, which was cheaper to run than its Edmonton counterpart.

There was also some question about the wisdom of graduating so many teachers as only one-third of the class of 1933 found work that year in their profession.

Between 1933 and 1935, the Normal School building housed Edmonton Public School classes, the school board having paid a yearly rent of $3500. In 1935, plans to re-open “Alberta’s most modern educational institution” were scuttled briefly by the city health department. Banning large gatherings due to a polio epidemic, they delayed the commencement of the school year by three weeks. Higher enrollment standards were introduced, streamlining class sizes to a mere 150 students, all of whom had a minimum of grade 12 education and lived only in the Edmonton area.

One might think that, having survived two closures, the Normal School on the university campus would be allowed to continue its business in peace. In 1941, however, it was forced to relocate when the federal government took over its building for “the duration” as a training facility for the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Normal School classes carried on at Garneau public and high schools.

The Normal School was renamed the Education Building after the University of Alberta assumed responsibility for teacher training following the Second World War.

Currently known as Corbett Hall, it was occupied by the Faculty of Education until a new Education Building was constructed in 1963.

The rigors of training and professional duties seem to have created tightly-knit bonds among former Normalities. In 1935, a large group of alumni attended a dance at the MacDonald Hotel which was duly reported in the Edmonton Journal under the headline “Normalities Meet Again at Gay Ball.”

In 1963, the Journal noted that one group of women who had graduated together in the 1930s were still meeting monthly. Those who no longer lived in Edmonton made a point of timining their visits to Edmonton to coincide with the meetings.

As well as maintaining ties with their contemporaries, some graduates made a commitment to bettering their profession. Marian Gimby, a Highlands resident who took her teacher training at the Highlands School in the early 1920s, distinguished herself as the first female president of the Alberta Teachers Association.

In 1993, two students who had met at “The Normal” in 1922 were married; they had rekindled their friendship at a 50th anniversary reunion.

The widowed Pearl Shandro Hawrelak married a fellow member of the class of ’31.

When asked at her 50-year reunion why Normal School friendships endured, 1941 graduate Betty Gilchrist explained that adversity had fostered close bonds: “We had to make our own fun. We went on picnics and hikes and we had dances. We had to do everything for ourselves because we were so poor.”

Since the 1920s teaching has assumed the full status of a profession. Beginning teachers possess at least one university degree, and must meet high standards to obtain certification. Chicken-coop teacherages are a thing of the past.

Graduates of those first classes at Highalnds School would no doubt appreciate the advances made in teacher training in the 78 years since their graduation. But they might also feel the loss of the camaraderie and pioneering spirit that they were so fortunate to experience.

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