UVic Torch -- Spring 2003
Autumn 2003,
Volume 25, Number 1

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Normal History Normal History

They were among BC's pioneers of public schooling. But until now there hasn't been a written record of the experiences of the young teachers who trained at the Provincial Normal School.

"YOU'D HARDLY BELIEVE IT. My father had to mortgage the farm to raise $120 to pay my tuition," Marjorie (Thatcher) King remembers from her days, in 1940-41, as a student teacher at the Provincial Normal School in Victoria. "And then I worked for my board." Her memories, and those of other surviving PNS alumni, have been preserved for the first time in a new book, Learning to Teach by Education Prof. Vern Storey.

The pages are full of personal stories, not just of the training at PNS, but also the pioneering days of public education in BC-days of one-room schools, pot-bellied stoves and Christmas concerts on makeshift stages. "I'm not a historian," says Storey, "but I felt it was important to capture the early days of teacher education."

The normal school attracted students from rural BC, or as 1950 graduate Bill Cross puts it: "from Beyond Hope." For many of these young people, coming to Victoria was their first experience away from home. Anne (Daser) Walters remembers how she "had no self-confidence.going to this strange place where everybody else seemed so polished and so well-dressed and so talented and all this. It was tough."

But there was also time for fun. Percy Wilkinson, class president in 1926-27, and one of the few male students in his class, decided to liven things up. Although the school had never before held a dance, Wilkinson asked acting-principal J.W. Gibson about the idea. "You can have your dance," Gibson replied cautiously, "but you shall have to manage it." And so he did.

Wilkinson, who celebrated his 100th birthday on July 1, remembers his experience at normal school as "a time when we young people just blossomed. We were all about the same age, all free and unhinged with similar hopes and aspirations. It was a time to reach out and make friends."

"We were well prepared for the classroom," says Marjorie Brown, who graduated in 1936. "As well as taking classes, we practiced teaching at the 'model school'" in which a class of youngsters came to the PNS to be taught by student teachers. "Because of that experience, I knew what to expect when I went out on my own-well, almost," she laughs, recalling her first year in Lac La Hache. "I thought I was ready for many things but not to have the school burn down over my head! When I lit the stove, the [new wallpaper] near it burst into flames. I taught the rest of the year in one of the family's homes. But with just 10 students, it wasn't so bad."

Their year of training prepared young teachers to handle students and parents in some of the remotest parts of the province. "In those days," says Cross, "we learned to teach the basics. We had a fixed curriculum with checkpoints to measure a student's progress. We also learned to put on plays and concerts." He recalls his first concert in South Wellington, the small mining town near Nanaimo. "Everyone got involved. A few of the miners banged planks together to make a stage, a couple of parents played the music, and some mothers made drapes for the stage from CP Rail blankets someone had pinched. Afterward, the kids went to sleep in the classroom and the parents had a dance. It was quite a time."

Storey faced two challenges in creating a written record of the early days in teacher education. "For some reason, normal school records and other memorabilia I hoped to find just weren't there. What I did find could fit in a shoebox. The story of the early days of teacher education in Victoria ran the risk of becoming ephemeral, surviving only as scattered accounts within the broader history of teacher education in British Columbia." With just a few files, letters and the "official" public records, little is known about basic chronology, the choice of the term normal school itself or the struggle for academic legitimacy. And there was another, more immediate reason to write the book. "These people are aging-anyone who completed normal school in 1956, the school's final year, would be at least 65 years old. Most who met with me are a good deal older than that. For some, their own health situation has changed even since we began the project."

Through 43 years, the normal school changed with the times. In 1942, the federal government commissioned the school building for a military hospital. Faculty and students were relocated from Lansdowne Road to temporary quarters in Christ Church Cathedral's Memorial Hall. In 1946, students returned but shared the building with students of Victoria College (which, with a large influx of returning soldiers, had outgrown Craigdarroch Castle). Icy rivalries developed between the two student groups and between faculties. "The two cultures were markedly different," writes Storey-and literally divided, with the college occupying the building's west end and the normal school in the east.

The two sides were eventually merged by the province's Victoria College Act of 1955 and a year later the Victoria Provincial Normal School graduated its last class. On January 18, 1963, Premier W.A.C. Bennett announced the formation of the University of Victoria including the Faculty of Education, with its roots in the PNS. And the old normal school classroom building? Today it's the Young Building, part of Camosun College's Lansdowne Campus. But as Storey notes, carved in stone over the main door, a visitor can still see the simple inscription: "Normal School."

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