Teachers of the Seattle Way

During the school’s first fifty years, most of the teachers were single women. Few professions were open to women, and teaching attracted the brightest and most ambitious. Although Frank Cooper resigned as superintendent during the less progressive decade of the 1920’s, he had hired many of the women who would bring the Seattle Way to the classroom. As long as they remained unmarried, teachers could stay for years, and most did. In the period between the two world wars, only 5% resigned to be married. (7)

Long-time teachers like Jennie Jones and Florine Bassett taught multiple members of the same families. Miss Jones, from Wales, started the Glee Club, and many students remember her encouragement and kindness. “She was a wonderful teacher when it came to singing” (Hendron).

Many alumni spoke of Miss Bassett with awe. “I don’t ever remember that woman smiling,” said Iris Nichols.

“Teachers…were thought much higher of than they are now…. They were the ones that you looked up to,” confirms Dale Corliss. When Nick Skalabrin’s kindergarten teacher claimed he was talking baby-talk, his parents began speaking English at home instead of Croatian.

Teachers traveled–to Mt. Rainier, to Europe, places most of their students didn’t visit. Jessie Williams brought back ivy from her trip to Mt. Vernon and planted it on the school grounds. The teachers commanded respect, well into the 1950’s. “We had good teachers,” Darlene Allen said. “You never challenged.”

“Your parents never talked about teachers not being good…. Kids behaved because if you didn’t behave, someone in the neighborhood would tell on you,” added Pat Schille.

Students were loyal to their teachers, and newcomers who didn’t know that could face a tough reception. A 16-year-old boy who came to the school in the 8th grade insulted Dorothy Hoff, who was a very popular teacher, known for singing “Ave Maria” in a beautiful voice. A 13-year-old confronted the older boy over his disrespect, and the two decided to settle their differences in the park. The whole eighth grade class, along with the teacher, showed up, with the students cheering on the younger student. “It was kind of an epic for the school,” recalls Clifford Davidson, a student there in the 1940’s.

Like the brazen newcomer, “All of the problem kids got dumped at Cooper,” Davidson claimed, “maybe because we were tough.” For years the school was the site of “adjustment” classes, later called special education. “The adjustment classes weren’t a problem at Cooper, but the tough kids were,” Davidson said.

Youngstown’s principals, too, made an impact. Worth McClure went from principal at Youngstown to become the Seattle superintendent in 1929. Stately, short and roundish, Principal Bella Perry was known for humming, for walking the halls, and for the razor strap she wore on her wrist. John Hendron remembers her as “a dignified lady from the South” who had a bit of an accent, was very cultured, and drove an impressive car. Georgia Baxter remembers her as a “gruff person” who shamed her because she did not read well.
“She turned me over her knee once and paddled me because I had spoken back to the teacher,” Dale Corliss remembers. “I was so shocked that she put me over her knee! But from then on, she was the most wonderful person that I could imagine.”

Hendron did not experience Miss Perry’s strap, but he does remember being swatted by Principal Aaron Newell when he tried to block the door to the boys’ restroom. “I came out of the boys’ room, pushed the door open—it was a swinging door—when I got outside, I was leaning against the door and holding it shut, so my friends on the inside couldn’t get out. They were banging on the door and hollering. I was on an angle, so I had it pretty well stopped up. Had my legs kind of apart, really pushing on that door. All of a sudden I went up that door three or four feet. I had been swatted on the bottom by Mr. Newell. He came up behind me and just lifted me right off the ground with that swat.” Click for audio

7. Pieroth, Doris Hinson. Seattle’s Women Teachers of the Interwar Years. (Seattle and London: U. of Wa. Pr., 2004) 16.