Mary Lyon, Student and Teacher

Student and Teacher

In 1814, townspeople offered Mary Lyon her first teaching job at a summer school in Shelburne Falls, a town next to Buckland. She was 17 years old. At the time, teachers needed no formal training--young Mary Lyon's reputation as an excellent student years earlier was enough of a qualification. Female teachers were especially in demand due to a growth in population and large numbers of men moving west in search of better opportunities.

The job paid 75 cents a week, far less than the $10 to $12 a month a man received to teach the winter term. As was the custom of the day, Lyon "boarded around" in her students' homes--an arrangement that meant moving as often as every five days. For the inexperienced Mary Lyon, maintaining discipline in the crowded one-room schoolhouse and teaching the "3 Rs" to pupils, ages four to ten, were difficult tasks. On rainy days, when older boys came in from the fields, the job was even harder. Nevertheless, Mary Lyon worked hard to improve her teaching skills and her ability to keep order in the classroom.


Two small drawings Mary Lyon made for a child. In Lyon's day, painting and needlework were considered the proper school subjects for girls.

Teaching fired Lyon's desire to continue her own education, a goal not easy to achieve in the early nineteenth century for an intelligent young woman with little money. Although private female academies, often called seminaries, were springing up in New England, women of modest means, like Mary Lyon, could not afford their fees. Moreover, the curricula, which included "ladylike" skills such as drawing and needlework, were far less challenging than at male schools where students studied such subjects as geometry, science, and Latin.


Horseshoes from a pony Mary Lyon rode to school. Sometimes, she had to travel three days by carriage just to enroll at a school.

Despite the financial burden and a busy teaching schedule, Mary Lyon was determined to further her learning. In her own words, she gained "knowledge by the handfuls." She alternated time spent in classrooms and at lectures--sometimes traveling three days by carriage to enroll at a school--with teaching and running a school. Against the advice of her family, Lyon paid for her education by cashing in a small inheritance from her father. Ever frugal and resourceful, she saved a portion of her small salary and traded coverlets and blankets she had woven for room and board.

Mary Lyon's reputation as a gifted teacher spread far beyond the Buckland schoolhouse. Over the next 20 years, she taught at schools in western and eastern Massachusetts, and in southern New Hampshire. She became an authority on the education of women. These were the years when Mary Lyon developed her educational philosophy and gained experience in managing a school. Inspired by her own struggles to obtain an education, she worked hard to expand academic opportunities for young women and to prepare them to become teachers, one of the few professions open to women.