The books smell old. Most are bound with string because the original bindings are unreliable. More often than not, turning a page causes it to come loose in the reader’s hand. For the most part, their text is handwritten—using old-fashioned steel-tipped “dip” pens—in the sort of beautiful, flowing penmanship that most of us admire but seldom achieve. One looks through the books in vain for cross-outs and erasures, but those are nearly as rare as they would be in a medieval illuminated manuscript. These were serious people; they regarded the minutes of a meeting as a work of art, and they worked at it slowly and deliberately.
At first glance, the words of their early accounts make it clear that the organization they formed was very different from the one we have today.
For a year or two a number of superintendents and teachers of the schools, in the cities and towns of which Cleveland is the commercial centre, had been accustomed to meet frequently and exchange views on questions pertaining to their special work. These informal meetings were felt to be profitable to those engaging in them. The opinion was generally entertained that there was professional interest among the teachers to warrant an organization which should hold meetings at stated times, thus securing agreement as to time of meeting and questions to be considered. Accordingly, on Saturday, November 13, 1869, a few gentlemen met in one of the rooms of the Weddell House, and there organized the North-Eastern Ohio Teachers’ Association.
They were all men. They were “superintendents and teachers,” but most of their leaders were superintendents. Some of their names, and those of their successors, have been borne by schools throughout northeastern Ohio: Thomas W. Harvey, Painesville; W. H Kirk, East Cleveland; H. B. Turner, Warren.
They knew where to hold a meeting. The Weddell House had been built in 1847 at the corner of Superior Avenue and Bank Street (now West 6th Street), and it was described as “the best hotel west of the Alleghenies.” Abraham Lincoln and Jenny Lind had stayed there.
They knew whom to invite. The superintendent of schools of Washington, DC, was present (the record doesn’t say whether he came for this meeting or was just passing through), and they invited him to participate. The State Commissioner of Common Schools was present to present a report on “The Condition of the Public Schools of Ohio.”
They valued education.
“An earnest desire for combined and vigorous effort in educational work; an honest purpose to secure improvement in methods of instruction, in classification, and in the details of school management, called it into existence.”
They had concerns about the quality of instruction in rural schools and the preparation of the teachers they were employing.
“President Harvey called attention to the importance of considering such questions as, I. The improvement of our country schools. II. A uniform classification of our town and city schools. III. A Course of Study arranged with reference to the classification. IV. Practical and disciplinary studies. V. New Methods of instruction; and VI. Moral and religious instruction.”
They had no doubt that they knew what teachers needed: they adopted a constitution which said that . . .
“the object of this Association shall be the professional improvement of its members, the advancement, in true educational progress, of the schools of this section of the State, and the dissemination of correct educational ideas.”
They might have shuddered to know that their organization would eventually empower actual classroom teachers. Their first official action was to pass a resolution in which they congratulated themselves on effective administration: “It is believed that the progress of the schools in our cities and towns is largely due to intelligent supervision.” And, of course, since they conceived of the organization as a “teachers’ association,” they would probably be astonished to learn that it would eventually include nonteaching employees as well.
Before the evening had ended, they had elected an executive committee of seven members, at least six of whom were superintendents. They had formed committees and charged those committees with tasks to be completed before the next meeting. And they “adjourned to the parlors of the Weddell House for the purpose of social improvement, and that the members might the more easily become acquainted with one another.” One can almost smell the cigars.
The story of NEOEA is told in volumes of records stretching over the past 140 years. The earliest accounts are lost, but a few years later, the Association’s secretary, T. C. McCalmont, painstakingly reconstructed the organization’s earliest years. Here are few items from the NEOEA archives: