Bill Waiser

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Twins pressed into service as teachers in rural school

An educated population was a priority for the new province of Saskatchewan.

One of the provincial government’s first acts was the passage of a university act in 1907. School districts also had to be organized to keep pace with the steadily growing population of rural children, while teachers had to be found to staff the small, generally isolated one-room schools. It was a formidable challenge.

During the eight-year period from 1905 to 1913, the number of elementary schools in the province jumped from 405 to 2,747.

Nor did the demand lessen for several years. For the 1916-17 school year, one-half of all registered children in Saskatchewan were in Grade 1.

The government sought to provide a steady supply of teachers by opening normal schools in Regina and Saskatoon to train teachers, as well as establishing a system of high schools.

This preparation and training may have helped teachers in rural schools better deal with the difficulty of handling eight grades in one classroom, but they still had to contend with poor pay, inadequate facilities, and uneven attendance.

Cold winter weather and the cost of keeping buildings heated often kept schools closed from Christmas until late February. Children also stayed home in the early fall to help with harvest.

Students of all ages were consequently concentrated in the primary grades, while many quit before completing Grade 8.

When Saskatchewan’s population peaked in the mid-1930s, there were an estimated 5,000 school districts in the province. Many of these rural one-room schools fell on hard times because of the Great Depression.

The buildings, never known for their comfort, were allowed to deteriorate. There was also a lack of educational materials and supplies, while teachers not only had their salaries slashed or held back, but often had to depend on the generosity of local residents to help tide them over.

Then, the Second World War took away hundreds of qualified teachers who volunteered for duty. Scrambling to keep their schools open, several district boards turned to teenaged women, with no formal training or experience, to serve as study supervisors. Many were not much older than their students.

Jean and Joan Louden, fraternal twins, were among the new crop of young teachers.

Born in Willow Heights (formerly Esplen), east of North Battleford, in 1935, the pair grew up on a family farm where education and music were valued — and hard work was a fact of life.

Despite the sacrifices of depression and war, Bill and Carol Louden made sure their daughters had opportunity. Jean and Joan both took piano lessons, first from their mother at home and then in North Battleford.

The two girls also secured their high school credits through home-schooling and a curriculum drawn from government-approved correspondence materials — again, under the direction of their mom, herself a former teacher and graduate of the Saskatoon normal school.

The 17-year-old twins completed Grade 12, with high honours, in June 1952. They also passed the Grade 10 piano exam of the Royal Conservatory of Music that same month.

What next? They were too young to start university. Besides, they lacked the requisite high school French course for admission.

That’s when they were approached by a senior North Battleford education official and asked to assume study supervisor duties at the Forest Hall rural school.

They agreed on the condition that they could split the teaching. Joan would handle the morning subjects, while Jean would take the afternoon. They both needed the extra time to continue with their piano training.

Their dad converted a newly-built wooden grain bin into a two-room teacherage and moved it next to the Forest Hall school. One of the rooms was taken up by the women’s piano, a gift from their grandfather.

Jean and Joan put their plan to work for the next two years. Despite the demands of their teaching duties, juggling several grades at once, they completed the Teacher’s ARCT Diploma piano requirements, with honours, in June 1954.

Their next stop was the Saskatoon Business College and an executive secretarial course, followed by separate careers and marriage.

In looking back at the experience, Joan admitted she was probably too young and inexperienced to be “a warmly enthusiastic teacher.” But she helped introduce her students to a world that was “pretty far removed from the reality of their lives.”

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo:Jean (left) and Joan Louden on Saskatoon’s 2nd Avenue during the winter of 1954-55.
Photo Source: Joan Sinclair

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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.