Teaching Profession

A Teaching Gem

By Robert C. Johnston — September 15, 1999 19 min read

Opal McAlister was young, ambitious, and grateful when she took her first teaching job in 1923. Not only did the $810 annual salary seem like a fortune; she also welcomed the adventure of moving to a new town 18 miles from her central Ohio home. But soon, she found drawbacks to her new profession. When she bobbed her hair during Christmas break that first year, her father warned that she’d be fired for the rebellious, midneck cut.

“When I was interviewed at the school, I was told I couldn’t smoke or date during the week,” recalls McAlister, now 94. “Yes, I think they would have fired me” for the haircut. Rather than take that risk, she spent the rest of the school year covering her missing brown locks with a hairpiece.

It was in this confining but opportunity-rich world of early-20th-century teaching that Opal McAlister found her calling.

For the next 52 years, she was a dedicated teacher and pioneer who would add her unique stitch work to the vast and diverse fabric of public education. Yet, at the same time, many of her experiences parallel the twists and turns of teaching across the century.

McAlister was the first woman in her area to coach a boys’ varsity-basketball team, and the first female principal in one local school. She also taught baking and military law during World War II and championed teachers’ rights as a union official.

But, at the end of each day, she was foremost a teacher, whose unwavering passion was helping students learn.

“A good too many teachers look at retirement instead of the pupils in front of them,” McAlister says. As for herself, she declares, “I wouldn’t have taught 52 years if I felt that way, now would I?”

These days, as McAlister nears her 95th birthday, she still keeps busy. She lives alone in a neatly kept, modest farmhouse here ringed by pine trees, six miles from where she first taught. A brisk walker and tireless storyteller, she exercises daily, reads romance novels, and takes no pills. She directs a bridge club at the YMCA in nearby Marysville every Monday and speaks at local schools.

She thanks teaching for contributing greatly to her long and abundant life.

“I have a museum of gifts I could show you from wall to wall, and a great number of students who are my friends,” she says. “But the biggest thing that I got from my students was the zest, impetus, and urge to live.”

Just 18 and one year out of high school, McAlister was a fairly typical first-year teacher in her day. Enrollments were growing, and because women were forced to quit when they married, turnover was high.

After completing a one-year teacher-preparation program at Union County Normal School and passing a general-knowledge test, she was hired to teach 38 5th and 6th graders at Watkins Public School in Watkins, a tiny town about 40 miles north of Columbus. She took the test annually until earning her lifetime-teaching certificate in 1928 by enrolling in summer courses at Kent State University.

Teaching wasn’t a bad life for a young woman during the 1920s. For the first time, she had no trouble coming up with 50 cents to see a Zane Grey western movie. And a middy, pullover blouse with a pleated skirt together sold for $10 from Sears, Roebuck and Co.

Watkins was 18 miles from her family’s home, so McAlister paid $3 a week for a room and meals with a local family. Her father made the 36-mile round trip twice a week by car to drop her off and pick her up.

Housed in a sturdy two-story, red-brick building, the school’s 200 students in grades 1-12 were mostly from poor farming families. The one black family in the community sent its children there.

A rookie teacher with little supervision, McAlister was expected to get through textbooks in arithmetic, reading, history, geography, and agriculture. Otherwise, her oversight came Friday afternoons, when the superintendent reviewed the next week’s lesson plan. “If you got through the books, that was fine,” says McAlister. She favored taking her students on nature hikes and assigning them what are now called “hands on” activities over digesting textbooks.

Her first classrooms were vastly different from the ones she would later know. Students sat at oak desks bolted in rows to hardwood floors. They bought their books and wrote with pens fed by inkwells on their desks.

McAlister’s main visual aids consisted of a slate board and chalk. Former students say her most valuable teaching aid, however, was a creative personality.

“Before her, we didn’t do too many activities,” recalls 83-year-old Eleanor Conklin Heirdorn, who was in McAlister’s 5th grade class in 1926 and lives nearby. “Then Opal came along. She was a lot younger [than other teachers] and dressed nice. She didn’t let us sit around much. We went outside getting leaves. Other teachers never even brought that up with us.”

While McAlister was a strict disciplinarian, she also appreciated a good prank. One favorite local story is about the time some boys put a skunk in the window well outside her classroom. The punishment she meted out? It stayed there all day. “Boy, did it smell,” she cracks mischievously.

As McAlister talks, her hazel eyes sparkle with interest from behind pink-framed glasses. Her gesturing hands and arms are an extension of her carefully articulated message.Today, her short, curly white hair has replaced the old rebellious style of her youth. A natty dresser, she prefers bright dresses and colorful brooches. Tall and trim, McAlister also walks with the determined gait of someone who knows where she is going. Given her demeanor, it is no surprise when she talks about being at odds with administrators early in her career.

When her superiors chastised her for wasting time with low-performing students by tutoring them at home for free, she grew more determined to help.

“I defended them because, having been born into a family without too many resources, I know what it’s like to be poor,” says McAlister. Her father, who immigrated to the United States from Switzerland as a child, worked as a laborer and then turned to farming to support his three children. Her mother, born in a Conestoga wagon, was a homemaker. “But I never knew what it was to be neglected.”

There was a point halfway in her first year, however, when she was not so tolerant of struggling students and was prepared to quit. After her father reminded her that she had to fulfill her one-year contract, McAlister had an epiphany that shaped her teaching from then on. “I realized that you need to start where the students are,” she explains. “Teaching became fun. A whole new world opened up to me.”

And it was a world that held many surprises, starting that winter when her superintendent asked McAlister to take his place as the boys’ varsity-basketball coach.

“The superintendent couldn’t get along with the boys,” says the self-described former tomboy, who grew up sandwiched in age between two brothers. “He wasn’t a basketball man, so he asked me if I would do it.”

Such an arrangement was unheard of in 1924--and remains rare today. Still, she accepted the challenge, and the boys welcomed their new female coach. At one point, a male coach whose team was trounced by McAlister’s cagers complained to the county superintendent that boys shouldn’t be coached by women. Unswayed, the administrator backed her.

McAlister coached three years before moving to a school in Flint, Ohio, which is now part of Columbus. There, she started a junior high basketball program. One of her players was Frank Truitt, who went on to help coach Ohio State University to a national basketball championship in 1960.

“She got me started,” says Truitt, who also coached at Kent State from 1966 to 1974 and now owns a real estate firm in Columbus. “She taught us that basketball was a team sport. She also had command over a classroom better than anyone I’ve ever seen, including me.”

McAlister’s keen memory vividly details the sweeping changes in education dating back to the days when horses pulled the “school buses.” While they may seem trivial today, she says some of the most dramatic innovations came early in her career.

Before mimeographs and laser printers, there was the “gelatin board” in the early 1920s. The gadget was used to make copies by tracing an image onto a piece of purple carbon paper, which was pressed against a board covered with gelatin and then transferred to paper for student use. “That was a marvelous innovation,” says McAlister, who traveled 40 miles to Columbus to buy the board herself for $2. (“Teachers still pay for the extras,” she remarks.)

McAlister also remembers the joy of getting world maps--one large map for each continent--and a pointer for the teacher. “That was a real improvement,” she says. “Before that, you had a globe, if you were lucky.”

Seemingly ahead of her time during much of her career, McAlister found herself at the front of a cultural shift in how marriage was viewed. Matrimony and teaching did not go hand in hand for young women at the beginning of the century. As a result, many female teachers spent their lives as spinsters.

But it never occurred to McAlister that she would not marry. And in 1930, at the age of 26, she wed Dan McAlister, a radio salesman from Columbus whom she met as he installed a new radio at a friend’s house. By allowing her new husband to slip a wedding band on her finger, she assumed she was losing more than her maiden name of Dunn. Her teaching days were over as well, or so she figured.

She was wrong. Instead, her male superintendent asked her to stay.

“I was never so shocked in all my life as when he said, ‘We need you out there,’” says McAlister, who still seems surprised by the decision. “After that, they just stopped firing people when they got married.”

By 1942, the war sweeping across Europe and the Pacific had drawn in the United States and, with it, the dutiful educator from rural Ohio.

“One day I was holding a history book, talking about the news, current events, war, and patriotism,” McAlister recounts. “I thought to myself, ‘Why am I standing up here? Why don’t I do something about it?’ ”

In December of that year, with her husband in the Civil Air Patrol, and one year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, she reported to the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps in Des Moines, Iowa.

By February 1943, detailed to a mechanics’ group at Fort Oglethorpe in the northwest corner of Georgia, a chagrined McAlister reminded her superiors that she was a teacher. Soon, she was the head of a training division where she taught baking, military law, current events, and other subjects. “You name it, I taught it,” she says. “I had to learn new subjects very fast.”

Among her keepsakes is a graduation speech she delivered June 6, 1943, to a graduating WAAC class. The neatly penned, five-page speech implores the young cooking school graduates to dedicate themselves to their mission.

“Your first step of improvement is to keep growing because only as long as we are green do we grow. We must continue to be creative and imaginative,” she wrote. “When our foods become scarce, and they will, our troops must still be fed.”

With each successive class, McAlister hoped that she was closer to a trip to Europe. But her commanders valued a good teacher too much to let her go. “They kept telling me, ‘Just one more class.’ But I never did [get sent overseas]. I definitely wanted to go.”

As the Second World War wound down, she was put in charge of property and a restaurant at the St. Louis Ordnance Depot. Even there, she couldn’t repress her instinct to teach. She taught two Italian prisoners of war under her charge to read and write English. They rewarded her with a small replica of their former battleship, which she has today.

“I could have been court-martialed for that,” she says of her fraternization with the Italian prisoners. “But they were such young fellows. They felt just like your family.”

By 1946, the war over, Americans were turning back to domestic concerns. For the McAlisters, that meant settling into their new home and 65-acre farm about 40 miles northwest of Columbus.

But, as Opal McAlister was chopping wood in her front yard on a chilly morning shortly after they moved in, the school bell rang. Two administrators visited to offer her a teaching job at Ostrander School, which served grades 1-12. McAlister, then 42, demurred, but only briefly. She offered to teach a self-contained 7th and 8th grade classroom at the school, which was just one mile away from her home.

The administrators didn’t immediately bite. McAlister’s idea didn’t mesh with Ostrander’s organization of specialized 45-minute periods. The next day, though, the school officials were back to grant her request, as long as she’d teach home economics, too.

“The best thing that ever happened to me was when they said, ‘We need you.’ Look what I would have missed if I hadn’t gone back,” she says, waving to a stack of student photos and notes spread across her dining room table. “And I would have been here milking the cows.”

From that day on, and through three retirements, there was little time, indeed, to milk cows. And, as the McAlisters never had children of their own, students became their family.

Upon her return to the classroom, McAlister discovered another innovation: movable desks. In one of her first experiments with unsecured seats, she let students work in groups on plays for a statewide Ohio-history contest. “There was one group, and oh, were they arguing. It got louder and louder, and I remember thinking, ‘Can I just hold my own and not say anything for a bit?’ ” Finally, the students quieted down.

When the boisterous group won the competition, she learned a lesson: “If I had interrupted, the kids would have pouted, and we wouldn’t have won. You don’t hold down debate or an argument till it gets to fisticuffs, because out of an argument comes a good idea.”

An even bigger change, however, had taken place in the teacher herself. Having seen new places and prepared service-women to be sent to foreign lands, McAlister now wanted her students to see beyond their own parochial worlds. She took students on field trips and taught girls in her home economics courses how to order in nice restaurants. She urged all her students to put off marriage and think about careers.

"[The war] made me more conscious of the fact that we have to have people prepared to take their places in the communities,” observes McAlister, who has always been active in her community.

She helped lead a drive to build a library in Ostrander in 1991 and sold tickets in 96-degree heat at the town’s July Fourth picnic this past summer.

Within two years of her return to teaching, she was given the duties of vice principal--a role she held for 20 years without additional pay. She also kept score for basketball teams, advised cheerleading squads, and became the president of the local teachers’ union. And when children needed extra help, she tutored them before and after school, or during summer vacation.

Even today, she regularly shares her ear, thoughts, and lemonade with the boys who mow her lawn--a chore she did herself until two years ago. Waving her finger the way she does when she has a point to make, she adds, “You help a child when they need the help and are asking for it.”

As the postwar economy boomed and a segment of the population became fascinated with a gyrating Tennessean named Elvis, the efficiency of small school districts became a major issue in education.

Ostrander went through two consolidations between 1950 and 1962. Enrollment grew from about 400 to about 1,000 in that time, and the district’s size expanded from 25 square miles to 200 square miles, making it Ohio’s second-largest district geographically. Nationwide, the number of districts fell from 83,718 in 1950 to 40,520 in 1960.

“Our classes became so large that instead of contained classrooms for each grade, we needed four rooms for the 7th and 8th grades and were forced to departmentalize,” McAlister laments. “How can you teach your subject and understand each student as well when you are with them just 45 minutes a day?”

As student populations changed, so did teacher-parent relations. Parents were now split between two and three schools, which meant they had to limit PTA participation. “They couldn’t be as involved as when their children were at the same school,” McAlister says.

McAlister disputes popular images of the 1950s and ‘60s, which hold that nearly all mothers stayed home to care for their children after school. After World War II, more mothers took jobs, she says, thus beginning an early backslide of parent involvement in education. “When children came home, mothers weren’t there waiting for them with milk and cookies.”

Attitudes toward teachers also changed. “At the time I taught, teachers were on a pedestal,” McAlister says. “What the teacher said, the parent supported. If a child was paddled at school, they probably got paddled again at home.” (She reckons she herself paddled fewer than a dozen students in her long career.)

As teachers became more vulnerable to complaining parents or the whims of school board members, McAlister got more involved in the Delaware County chapter of the Ohio Teachers Association.

A member of the National Education Association state affiliate since 1923, McAlister was elected president of the county chapter in 1963. She keeps a faded salary schedule that shows starting teachers earned $4,650 that year, compared with $6,000 for accountants and $6,800 for engineers. “They were all above teachers,” she says.

Despite her union advocacy, she has no patience for poor teaching. Her take on teacher tenure must make some union officials bristle. “Tenure is the poorest thing that ever happened,” she argues, “simply because it means that a poor teacher can hold on to her position.”

And she’s not afraid to point the finger on occasion at teachers for students’ lack of motivation. “Teachers say kids are bored, disinterested, and don’t obey. This can be the teacher’s fault,” she says. “I think the teacher has lost respect for the child. When teachers lose respect for the child, they lose respect for you.”

McAlister saw new encroachments in schools by state and district officials in the 1960s. For example, there were repeated mandates for school counselors, but no money to pay for them.

She remains most chagrined over the state’s elimination of funding for the Ohio-history competition, which she had participated in regularly. “I’ll never forgive this one,” she declares. “I think the state forgot to talk to the grassroots when it wanted to mandate changes.”

Today’s teachers, she acknowledges, feel even more outside influences in the classroom--from state standards and exams. “When I first started, you had certain subjects, but how you taught was never questioned,” she says. “Now, there are such restrictions and requirements that come without money, it limits what they can give the student.”

By all accounts, McAlister remained a strong and respected teacher late in her career. “We got a lot more done in her class than we did in the other classes. She demanded more and didn’t waste much time,” says Bill Conklin, a 7th grade math student of hers in 1964. Adds Conklin, who taught for 17 years himself: “A lot of teachers are superstrict but don’t have any relationship with students. She could do both. She never had any outcasts.”

Later in 1964, at the age of 60, McAlister became the first female principal of what was then Ostrander Elementary School.

At the time, the civil rights movement was roiling national politics. McAlister says the almost exclusively white, rural community followed the events, but by and large felt little direct impact. “Our only opinion was sorrow,” she recalls of student reaction to the plight of African-Americans seeking equal educational and employment opportunities. “They asked, ‘Why does this have to happen?’ Even though we are mostly white, they have empathy for an underdog.”

Across the country, the tide of the youthful counterculture was also rising, and questions were growing over the escalating conflict in Vietnam.

Local unrest, though, was mild. One day, a young teacher sent McAlister a pair of rebellious boys clad in bright lavender and pink pants. McAlister asked them what she ought to do. The youths said they expected her to send them home to change, which is what she did.

“Later, they told me they just wanted to see my reaction.”

Despite enjoying her leadership role, even with the school’s chronic funding woes, she retired in 1967 to be with her ailing husband, who had emphysema. Her retirement party attracted 250 people, according to newspaper accounts. It also drew an emotional letter from John Gusler, whose daughter had studied under McAlister.

Gusler’s typewritten letter was sent from Port Royal, Jamaica, where he was the captain of a sailboat for tourists. “No matter what may present itself in years to come, the kindness and real understanding you have given so unselfishly to this very special child will be her strength, and be reflected through her to posterity. This is immortality.”

But McAlister was not through teaching yet. After her husband’s death two years later, alone and restless, she returned to Ostrander School in 1970 to teach math. She had always enjoyed that subject, and of all the curricular ideas she’s seen in her day, the move to what was known as the “new math” was the worst, she insists. “No matter what, two plus two still equals four, and students must be taught that,” she says. There is nothing wrong with teaching basic addition and multiplication skills through repetition, she adds.

In 1972, McAlister traded her math post for a long-term substitute position in order to free up a teaching spot. “There were a lot of unemployed teachers then,” she says.

While McAlister has seen innumerable changes in education during her career, one element, she says, has remained relatively constant: the behavior of students.

“At the time, and when I substitute-taught for 100 days, and even now, I don’t see a difference,” she says. “As a teacher, I guess my reputation went before me, and I never had difficulty.” Almost apologizing for her benign view of youthful behavior, she adds, “I just cannot find bad kids.”

In July 1975, she came down with pneumonia and was hospitalized for three weeks. Her doctor said she could return to school the next January. But McAlister says, “I got so busy, I just never thought to go back.”

McAlister has kept active in her latest retirement, but is always ready to talk in local classrooms about her wartime experiences or local history. Far from marveling at computers, crowded halls, and body-piercing in today’s schools, McAlister says her visits reaffirm a truth about herself, and about children.

A talk to high school students about World War II this past Memorial Day triggered a twinge of nostalgia. “When I saw those senior kids, they were so thoughtful. They didn’t push to get out of the room, but they stopped to thank me,” she says. “I’ll never forget those kids. That’s when I think, if I were just in that classroom ...”

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A version of this article appeared in the September 15, 1999 edition of Education Week as A Teaching Gem


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