Betsey Stockton, Pioneer Early Childhood Teacher
You are here
The story of early childhood education history is often told in terms of prominent men like Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget, but there are also neglected stories, those of lesser known individuals—mainly women teachers (Clifford 2014). Even more neglected is the history of African American women teachers. This column provides some much-deserved recognition by telling the story of one teacher, Betsey Stockton, an African American freedwoman living in the 19th century.
Stockton had a remarkable 40-year teaching career. Early on, she traveled extensively, establishing schools for Hawaiian children and adults on Maui and preschools (then called infant schools) for African American children in Philadelphia and Aboriginal children in Canada. Then, settling in Princeton, New Jersey, she organized and taught in schools for African American children for 30 years, until her death in 1865. Her story shows how one teacher engaged with new approaches to teaching young children to forge a wholly unique teaching life.
The importance of making her experience visible was emphasised in a profile of Stockton for Princeton University’s Princeton & Slavery Project:
Stockton was a school teacher and a church member, a woman who worked tirelessly and effectively at the local level, but who has remained largely lost in the historical record. But that’s the important point. Betsey Stockton’s story invites us to take a more inclusive view of the less prominent people who helped propel the movement for emancipation and equality, sometimes simply by working diligently and consistently to make a difference in the lives of others around them. (Nobles 2018)
During her long teaching career, Stockton positively impacted the lives of hundreds of children and their families over several generations. And while she no doubt influenced teaching in her time, she is not known to have written about her work. Instead, the history of Betsey Stockton’s teaching is based on an assemblage of scattered traces and fragments. Nevertheless, her teaching life serves as an exemplar for teachers in the present in two powerful ways: she had an adaptive and flexible teaching style that showed an openness to new ideas and innovations, and she had a passion to work with a great variety of families and their children, including Hawaiians, Aboriginal Canadians, and African Americans.
Becoming a teacher: Stockton’s early career
Stockton’s story began in Princeton, New Jersey, where she was born into slavery in about 1798. From childhood, she was enslaved to Elizabeth Stockton, the first wife of Ashbel Green. Green was a Presbyterian minister, a professor, and later a president at Princeton University (then called the College of New Jersey); he was one of nine slave-owning presidents of Princeton. Betsey Stockton was privately educated in the Greens’ home.
Stockton’s circumstances changed dramatically when she was about 20 years old. Under Green’s leadership, the college underwent a religious revival, part of an evangelical movement known as the Second Great Awakening (Shi & Tindall 2016). At that time, Stockton had a religious experience that prompted the desire to become a missionary. Her aim to do mission work was true to the idea of the Second Great Awakening—that religious salvation was not just for individuals, it was for the nation and beyond (Nelson 1997). The next year, Stockton was emancipated by Green, a move that historian Lydia Kualapai (2001, 71) suggests Stockton “engineered” because Green did not feel he could keep “a willing missionary in domestic bondage in New Jersey.”
In 1822, Stockton travelled to the Sandwich Islands (Hawai‘i) to serve as a missionary to Hawaiians and as an assistant to Rev. Charles Samuel Stuart and his wife, Harriet Bradford Stuart. Stockton’s relationship with the Stuart family would be important to her for the rest of her life. Others in the group included Hawaiians who were graduates from the Foreign Mission School in Connecticut. Stockton would likely have learned some Hawaiian language from them on their five-month trip to the islands.
Though Stockton had no formal training as an educator, she began teaching almost immediately when she arrived in Hawai‘i, learning by doing. First, she taught Hawaiian and missionary children in the mission house; later, she organized and taught at a school in the church for about 30 adults and their children. During Stockton’s time at the mission, classes were conducted in English.
In her teaching, Stockton used what was called the monitorial method (Beyer 2004), a teaching approach invented by Joseph Lancaster and Andrew Bell to improve schools for children from families with low incomes in Britain and to use in schools for indigenous students in British colonies (Kaestle 1973). In monitorial schools, children were placed in ability groups led by slightly older, more experienced pupils, called monitors. In Hawai‘i, the curriculum focus was on reading, writing, and spelling, which fit the missionaries’ goal that Hawaiians be able to read the Bible.
Becoming an early childhood teaching specialist
Although the monitorial method that Stockton used was effective for accomplishing the missionaries’ goals, its main teaching strategy was rote learning and memorization reinforced by competition between students. This method was unsuitable for teaching very young children, but learning to read and write by rote memorization was common at the time (May & Vinovskis 1976).
Word of a new way of teaching young children reached the United States from Britain in the mid-1820s, while Stockton was in Hawai‘i. Social reformer Robert Owen had opened a school for the children of mothers working in his cotton mill in Scotland in 1816. He called it an infant school and admitted children from the time they could walk until about age 5. Although children did not engage in spontaneous free play in a 21st-century sense, the infant schools encouraged children’s activity. For example, teachers used a mix of supervised play in the school’s outdoor playground and indoor learning activities in which children gained information from the guided observation of objects (called object lessons) or from pictures printed on cards (called picture lessons) (Carter 2018). For Owen, early childhood education was a way to improve society based on what he called the principle of prevention, which followed on the idea that our surroundings and experiences direct our behavior (Carter 2018). Owen believed that desired behaviors could be established by changing the situations in which negative behaviors arose.
Versions of Owen’s school were soon established around the world. Many had different objectives: some were started as education experiments, others to train children in morals and manners, to prepare children for future work in factories, or to provide child care for wage-earning mothers (Beatty 1995; Prochner 2009). In each case, infant schools were regarded as an investment for the future, with the expectation that early childhood education would reduce social problems such as poverty and crime. The main child development idea at the time was that children’s minds were moldable in early childhood but quickly hardened as they got older. Supporters of infant schools used popular analogies to make the point, such as comparing young children’s minds to soft clay that could be easily formed by a skilled potter (the teacher) until the clay hardened (around age 7) and became resistant to impressions.
In the United States, teachers and social reformers started to experiment with different types of infant schooling in the 1820s, matching them to local interests and concerns. Many infant schools were founded by charities in the country’s burgeoning eastern cities—Boston, Philadelphia, and New York—and some were established in rural areas (Winterer 1992). Most of the schools eventually lost their play orientation in favor of academic learning, with memorization and recitation being the common learning strategies. Teacher training typically came from one of the many books published in the 1820s on infant schooling or from trainees briefly observing a school in action, which is how Stockton would learn about infant school teaching.
When Stockton returned to the United States from Hawai‘i in 1826, she worked for the Stewart family in Cooperstown, New York, caring for the Stewart children and their mother, who was ill. In 1828, Stockton was recruited by the Infant School Society of Philadelphia to be the teacher at the new African American infant school (Infant School Society of Philadelphia Papers 1828). It is likely that Stockton had not seen an infant school prior to this time. An infant school in New York City—generally recognized to be one of the first in the United States—had just opened in 1827 under the direction of the philanthropist Joanna Bethune (who acquired her own knowledge of the approach from books).
An African American infant school society was formed in New York the same year. The managers of the Philadelphia society asked Stockton to spend a few days observing in the New York school and the existing Philadelphia school for Euro-American children. In their words, this brief training would provide her with “a complete knowledge of the mode of instruction” (Infant School Society of Philadelphia Papers 1828).
The drawings of the New York school (shown at right) were completed in the same year as Stockton’s visit and resemble what she would have observed. In the drawing at the top, children are grouped at the back of the classroom in tiered seating, called a gallery, where they answered their teacher’s questions using a choral response. In the drawing at the bottom, children are shown marching to their lessons. Unfortunately, Owen’s idea for an education for children suited to their age had been set aside for a far more regimented approach.
After Stockton’s brief training in New York, she returned to Philadelphia to set up a highly successful school for African American children. She taught in it for about one year before returning to mission work. Considered an expert in the new infant school approach, Stockton was recruited by Methodists in 1829 to introduce the approach to their mission school for Ojibwa children on Grape Island in the Bay of Quinte in Upper Canada (May, Kaur, & Prochner 2014). She spent about two months there, training the mission’s teachers in methods such as picture lessons. Picture lessons were believed to be especially useful for Aboriginal children, who were learning English. She also oversaw the construction of a gallery for the school, like the one in the drawing of the New York school, and separate classrooms for students of different abilities. Although Stockton’s time there was brief, she had substantial influence as other mission schools in the region grew from her work at the Grape Island mission.
Stockton returned to teaching at the infant school in Philadelphia, remaining until 1830, when she resigned “owing to private duties” (Infant School Society of Philadelphia Papers 1830); she moved back to Cooperstown to care for the Stewart children after their mother died. Starting in 1833, Stockton taught in Princeton, including devoting almost 30 years to the Witherspoon School for Colored Children. Her methods were likely similar to those used by teachers elsewhere in segregated schools in New Jersey, which also involved picture lessons (Anderson 1972).
Over several decades, Betsey Stockton sustained a strong commitment to her community and desire to develop herself professionally as a teacher—she taught according to the most innovative approaches of her time. As a figure in preschool history, she was not a typical heroine, but she was extraordinary, having survived enslavement during the first two decades of her life, become a missionary, and settled into a long career as a teacher in Princeton. Her life serves as an inspiration for 21st-century teachers, and she was recognized by Princeton University in 2018 with a garden created in her name (Princeton University 2018).
Want to Learn More about Betsey Stockton?
- The diary Stockton kept during her time in Hawai‛i was edited by Ashbel Green and serialized in the missionary periodical The Christian Advocate, which he published. The Christian Advocate is available at the Hathi Trust Digital Library. www.hathitrust.org/
- Stockton’s missionary agreement, extracts from her published diary, and her photograph can be viewed at the Hawaiian Mission Houses Digital Archives. https://hmha.missionhouses.org/
- The records of the Infant School Society of Philadelphia are held at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. https://hsp.org/
- The Princeton & Slavery Project, which is ongoing, includes material on Betsey Stockton, Ashbel Green, and the Witherspoon School. https://slavery.princeton.edu/
Anderson, J.R. 1972. “Negro Education in the Public Schools of Newark, New Jersey, During the Nineteenth Century.” EdD diss., Rutgers University. Camden, NJ.
Beatty, B. 1995. Preschool Education in America: The Culture of Young Children from the Colonial Era to the Present. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Beyer, C.K. 2004. “Manual and Industrial Education for Hawaiians During the 19th Century.” Hawaiian Journal of History 38: 1–34. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/5014768.pdf.
Carter, S.A. 2018. Object Lessons: How Nineteenth-Century Americans Learned to Make Sense of the Material World. New York: Oxford University Press.
Clifford, G.J. 2014. Those Good Gertrudes: A Social History of Women Teachers in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Infant School Society of Philadelphia Papers. 1828. Secretary of the Committee for the Establishment of a Coloured Infant School to Betsey Stockton, Apr. 1, 1828. Coloured School Committee Letterbook, Box 1, File 2, (PHi) 1665, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
Infant School Society of Philadelphia Papers. 1830. Meeting minutes, Oct. 4, 1830. Minutes of the Managers, Box 2 (PHi) 1665, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
Kaestle, C., ed. 1973. Joseph Lancaster and the Monitorial School Movement. A Documentary History. Classics in Education series. New York: Teachers College Press.
Kualapai, L.K. 2001. “Cast in Print: The Nineteenth-Century Hawaiian Imaginary.” PhD diss., University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Lincoln, NE. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/dissertations/AAI3034383/.
May, D., & M.A. Vinovskis. 1976. “‘A Ray of Millennial Light’: Early Education and Social Reform in the Infant School Movement in Massachusetts, 1826–1840.” In Family and Kin in American Urban Communities, 1800–1940, ed. Tamara K. Hareven, 62–99. New York: Watts.
May, H., B. Kaur, & L. Prochner. 2014. Empire, Education, and Indigenous Childhoods: Nineteenth-Century Missionary Infant Schools in Three British Colonies. Farnham, UK: Ashgate.
Nelson, J.R. 1997. “Second Great Awakening.” In The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery, ed. by Junius P. Rodriguez, 568–69. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio.
Nobles, G. 2018. “Betsey Stockton.” Princeton & Slavery Project. https://slavery.princeton.edu/stories/betsey-stockton.
Princeton University, Office of Communications. 2018. “Trustees Name Garden for Betsey Stockton, Arch for Jimmy Johnson.” www.princeton.edu/news/2018/04/17/trustees-name-garden-betsey-stockton-arch-jimmy-johnson.
Prochner, L. 2009. A History of Early Childhood Education in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
Shi, D.E., & G.B. Tindall. 2016. America: A Narrative History. Vol. 2. 10th ed. New York: Norton.
Winterer, C. 1992. “Avoiding a ‘Hothouse System of Education’: Nineteenth-Century Early Childhood Education from the Infant Schools to the Kindergartens.” History of Education Quarterly 32 (3): 289–314.
Note: Photograph: public domain. Illustration: Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY.
Larry Prochner, EdD, is professor of early childhood education and chair of the Department of Elementary Education at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton. Larry is working on a history of early childhood teacher education, with a focus on the role of laboratory schools. firstname.lastname@example.org