TT #18 – Good Night, Miss Dove

It is perhaps not surprising that one of Traditionalist Teacher’s favorite movies is one about a traditional teacher. The film is 1955’s “Good Morning, Miss Dove” starring Jennifer Jones in the title role.

Traditionalist Teacher will not be surprised if most readers have not heard of the film, or perhaps even of Miss Jones. Jennifer Jones is best known, to the extent that she is known today, for playing the 19th century French visionary Bernadette Soubirous in The Song of Bernadette.   Her entry on the Internet Movie Data Base shows 27 credits.

But enough of this – Traditionalist Teacher is here to talk about the film, not its star.

The kind of character that Miss Dove represents has all but disappeared from American education. Her type, the no-nonsense spinster schoolteacher, was once common.  Traditionalist Teacher is certain that everyone over a certain age has a story about some such teacher.   They entered the profession before World War II, so most of them had retired by the 1980s.

In large part, they were products of their times. During the first half of the twentieth century, career options for women were few.  Basically, those educated women who needed to work for whatever reason could choose between nursing and teaching.  Those with some interest in the natural sciences became nurses, most others became teachers.

Before World War II, it was a matter of course that a female teacher who married would resign her position. Pregnant teachers (and most newly-married women were pregnant within a year of their weddings) could raise uncomfortable questions in a world in which the word pregnant was not allowed in movies.  Traditionalist Teacher actually worked with a teacher who was married secretly for three years (1939-1942) because her graduate student husband could not afford to support her.   They pretended to marry shortly before he shipped out in early 1942, and she was able to continue working because her husband was off at war.

These women made massive personal sacrifices for their profession, and they took it seriously. Their standards were high, their methods were rigid.  In many communities, they were legendary.  They were often the best educated women in many small towns, and their opinions were respected.  It was quite possible for them to have taught three generations of the same family over careers that often spanned four decades.  Because they usually lived simply, their meager salaries often allowed them to travel during the summers – with the result that they had often seen more of the world than anyone else in town.  Their diction and grammar were perfect, they dressed in a style that was both professional and conservative, and they knew everyone in town.

Such a woman was the movie’s Miss Dove. Every student was met at the classroom door with a curt, “Good morning, William” or “Good morning, Susan” – no nicknames allowed.  Miss Dove sat at her desk while she addressed the students. Paying attention was expected, talking out of turn intolerable.  A fact was not assumed to have been learned until it could be cited from memory.  Slouching or putting your head down in class meant time spent on the “posture correction stool.”  An inappropriate word that slipped out yielded a trip to the restroom where a bar of soap would be used to cleanse the tongue.  Every student understood what was expected of them, and the teacher’s disciplinary decisions were final, without appeal to either principal or parent.

While such a classroom may sound like a nightmare to many ‘progressive’ educators, it had its compensations. Miss Dove’s room was a truly safe space, in which students were treated fairly.  Having no family of her own, Miss Dove was available after school for students who needed extra help.  Compliments were rare, but genuine – and receiving one of them could leave that child smiling for weeks.  She knew her students’ parents, and that gave her powerful insights into the lives of those children.  At one point in the film, she hears that a former student has recently given birth.  She calculates that she has thirteen years left before retiring, enough to see the child through elementary school – “That child will need me,” she says to herself.

As the plot develops, Miss Dove is stricken with a potentially fatal illness. Both her doctor and nurse are former students.  The local Rotary club offers to pay all expenses to get her the best medical care possible at Johns Hopkins or the Mayo Clinic.  She refuses, placing absolute confidence in the caregivers that she helped raise and mold – knowing both their abilities and shortcomings.  Life in that town stops while Miss Dove is in surgery, with a doctor giving regular reports to the collected townspeople from the steps of the hospital – as though Miss Dove shares the status of Michael Jackson or Princess Kate, which is not quite true.  Miss Dove is far more important.  Knowing that she, in her way, has cared for them; they now care for her.

Traditionalist Teacher is not mourning for a past that can never be recovered. We will never again see the Miss Doves of the world, because the conditions that created them are gone – and that is for the best.  It is, however regrettable that our rage for ‘being on the forefront of educational reform’ has caused us to forget so many of Miss Dove’s simple lessons.  We have forgotten that knowledge means actually KNOWING things like facts, laws, theorems, and principles.  We have forgotten that good teachers can be trusted to make good decisions.  We have forgotten that the best way to manage a classroom is with rules that are understood by the students, and enforced quickly and rigidly, but fairly.  We have forgotten that the school rules are not just about keeping it together in the classroom, but giving students a foundation for their lives.

One last thought for now. During the tenth (at least) time that Traditionalist Teacher watched the film, the thought occurred that Miss Dove would have retired in 1968, when TT was in sixth grade and the world was falling apart.  The question occurred as to how Miss Dove would have reacted to the zeitgeist of the ‘Summer of Love’. She was right – the child referred to a few paragraphs ago DID need her, and so do the rest of us.

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