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Esther White looks back on long career in education

Barry McNamara
07/10/2019
Esther White is pictured in early July at her home near the College, where she had just celebrated her 99th birthday.
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MONMOUTH, Ill. – Esther White has seen many changes in education in her 99 years.

Her experience ranges from riding a horse-drawn bus to school, to teaching in two one-room schoolhouses, to preparing students to be the next generation of educators while serving as an associate professor at Monmouth College.

“I’ve never regretted being a teacher for 50 years,” said White, who was on the faculty from 1974 to 1988, working with colleagues such as George Arnold and the late Frank Sorensen. “I enjoyed teaching at all the places I taught.”

A native of southeast Iowa, White is very familiar with the issues that have faced rural school districts through the years, and she was pleased to learn that the College is placing a focus on developing some of its teachers to be leaders in their future rural communities through its Teachers Allied with Rural Towns and Neighborhood Schools (TARTANS) initiative.

“It’s a good initiative,” she said from her home across the street from the College, where she’d just finished celebrating her 99th birthday. Included among the dozens of cards she received were well wishes from some of her former Monmouth students.

Part of the teacher’s role as leader, said White, is learning how to effectively communicate with parents.

“Many people have taken issue with teachers and questioned them whether what they were doing was right or wrong,” she said. “As a result of that, I’ve seen teachers who are reluctant to work with parents. But I believe that all teachers need to be educated on learning how to talk to parents. You might say to a parent, ‘We’ve been having trouble with Jimmy’ in a certain area. And the parent might say, ‘We don’t have trouble with that at home.’ And then you say, ‘Help me with that,’ so you can work through the problem.”

That communication can help solve individual issues in the classroom, which White noted is one of the major changes she’s observed in education over the past century.

She said she started to see that shift when she taught – and later served as principal – at a school in Keokuk, Iowa, not far from the farm where she was raised near the tiny community of Argyle.

White took that job after five years teaching at a pair of one-room schoolhouses in the area. A 16-year-old high school graduate, she took courses at Fort Madison Business College until she turned 18 and was old enough to teach in Iowa.

“All you needed at the time was 10 weeks of summer school to get your teaching certificate,” she said. “You could go back each year and take another 10 weeks to get more certification.”

Educating students – and the teachers who lead them – has come a long way since then, she said, with technology playing a major role. Intentionally teaching concepts and individualizing education have also been important developments.

“When I was in school and when I was first teaching, learning was often rote,” she said, using fractions as an example. “It wasn’t the actual understanding of the concept. We’d give our students the textbook for the year, and they had to get through it. Now, we do lots more to identify the kids as slow learners, or learners who need more of a visual example. We do a lot more now with that type of thing. ... I shudder to think at what I didn’t know at the time I first started and what injustices I might have done.”

Still, a smile crossed her face when asked to remember a scene from her one-room schoolhouse. She recited, line for line, a clever poem a young boy named David wrote about having three sisters. David, she said, went on to write advertising copy in Hollywood.

White also recalled an earlier scene from her own education. Growing up the daughter of Pentecostal parents, she had never heard a curse word – that is, until the driver of that horse-drawn bus, traveling on White’s one-lane dirt road, had to stop to scrape the mud off his wheels.