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An Oral History of Marlene Theile

Told by Caroline Theile

In the early days of the American public education system, teaching was a profession pursued by men, often as a stepping stone to more lucrative careers. In the late 1820s, noteworthy educator Thomas Gallaudet responded to the lack of dedicated male instructors by proposing that females be viewed as a possible new source of teachers.1 By the end of the 19th century, the teaching profession was female dominated–especially among younger grades. Starting in the 1950s, however, the demographics began to shift once more, as men who attended college on the GI bill started to pursue teaching again; this time, though, they often sought to become career teachers.2 The shifting face of the teaching profession, and the unique position that women held in the US education system, makes investigating the experiences and life of a career teacher an interesting pursuit.

My paternal grandmother, Marlene Hayes Theile, 85, has been involved in some capacity with the education system for over 60 years. In this time, she has taught early elementary classes in her home state of Florida, instructed children of deployed parents on a military base in Germany, and held various teaching and after school care positions in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her life trajectory has both influenced and been influenced by her career, and her stories help to illustrate the experiences of a teacher in the late 20th and early 21st century.

Even as a young girl, Marlene knew exactly what career she wanted to pursue. “I did a lot of babysitting when I was younger, working with young children,” Marlene explained, “I always wanted to be a teacher.” So, when she graduated high school, she followed in her cousin’s footsteps and pursued a teaching degree at Florida State University. FSU was historically a women’s college but recently turned co-ed after the end of World War II, as the subsequent introduction of the GI Bill led to a rise in the number of degree-seeking men. The university only had three core degree programs for women. “I went to college for teaching,” Marlene recalled, “actually, though, the only other opportunities were social work or nursing…those were the professions that most everyone in my age group went into.”

After student teaching as a university student in Panama City, Florida, Marlene worked as a third grade teacher at a school in Miami for two school years between 1956 and 1958 to fulfill a requirement for a $250 college scholarship she received. This grade suited her well: “Third grade, they were just beginning to think on their own a little bit,” Marlene explained, stating that if she had the choice, she would choose older elementary grades over the kindergarteners. The vast majority of the faculty at the Miami school were women, and Marlene’s first class had 35 students and no teaching aid. However, she remembers this class fondly: “We always began school with the Pledge of Allegiance and a Bible reading,” she said, and commented that, for the most part, the full class was well-behaved. She still recalls two of her students, Mark S. and Pepe H., as making a particularly strong impact on her. Marlene remembers Mark as being a brilliant, and recalls Pepe’s parents as being instrumental in getting her a job at a camp in North Carolina during that summer.

After her second year teaching at this same school, Marlene decided it was time she put her dreams of traveling in action, and in 1958 applied to work as a teacher in the Department of Defense Dependent Schools. After being accepted into the program, she was assigned to teach on a base in Japan, but since she had aspired to teach in Europe, she sought a reassignment. The army assigned her to a new school in Hanau, Germany, and after this position was granted, Marlene made her way across the Atlantic Ocean by boat. “I went to Brooklyn and got on a ship called the USS Patch with 350 other teachers from all over the United States; [the teachers then] went to Germany or France or…Italy,” Marlene recalled. She explained that, for her, the trek across the ocean “was just luxurious. It was an army transport ship but we had our own rooms and showers and meals. The officers were very nice; they would have nights where we would go dancing [and] go to parties on the ship.”

The Department of Defense Dependent Schools were an integral part of the United State’s post-WWII effort to maintain a global presence. Since an increasing number of military men desired to keep their families together even while being stationed overseas, the DOD was compelled to provide an education system for the children of servicemen.3 In the 1960-1961 school year, nearly 135,000 students were enrolled overseas, and in the same year the program was the tenth largest US school system. The preferred characteristics of a Dependent School teacher were “physical fitness, tolerance of differences, flexibility, and self-reliance,” according to an article on the school system.3 Marlene taught children from all across the country in her third grade classroom, and recalled that the curriculum at the school was reflective of what she taught in the states. In stark contrast to her experiences in Florida, however, the German DOD school “had a number of men on the faculty.”

In one way in particular, Marlene’s time teaching in Germany changed the course of the rest of her life. It is there that she met her future husband, Ronald Theile; he was a music teacher at the school, and after getting to know him over the first few months of the school-year, they “fell into couples.” They were married in a civil service in Switzerland in May of 1959, and had a church service in August. During her two years teaching in Germany, Marlene was able to travel all across Europe and the Middle East. These trips brought her to Austria, Egypt, Italy, Syria, and France, among many other countries. But once her time teaching on the army base was up, Marlene and Ron travelled back to the United States, and settled in Ron’s hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio.

Once back in the States, Marlene took some time away from teaching. She was pregnant with her first of four children, my father Craig, and she and Ron both agreed that it was best she stay at home with their growing family. “I didn’t go back to teaching until…the last one was in kindergarten, and even then I only substitute taught so I could still get them to school and pick them up,” Marlene continued, “I went full time when the last two went to college.” She recalled that most young mothers also stayed home with their children during this time period, with the exception being a handful of teachers who continued working while their children were young. Upon returning to the classroom in the early 1970s, Marlene found her experiences in the Cincinnati Public School district to be very different from her first two years in Florida. The children were much more difficult to work with and she even recalled a situation during her year as a fifth grade English teacher in which a group of five girls–who had known each other since kindergarten–were particularly challenging. “My principle was very supportive, however,” Marlene explained, and in response to the group’s bullying and disrespect, “[he] would come into my classroom throughout the day and let the girls know he was aware of their behavior.”

Marlene ultimately retired from teaching in 1995, but remained involved in her local Wyoming City Schools district in their after-school care program for the following 16 years and is currently a volunteer at a local Montessori school. In her extensive career as a teacher, Marlene has not felt held back simply because she was a woman. She explained that her “principals were both male and female and very supportive of their staff” and that when different job opportunities became available in the school, “women were chosen as well as men.” For example, she recalled that their union representative was a woman and that the principal who hired her for her first job out of college was female. However, she did cite that the school boards were primarily male, making her unsure how common it was for a woman to hold this position during the mid-twentieth century. In their 1979 assessment of the status of women in educational administration positions across the US, Cronin and Pancrazio acknowledge that women had recently made strides in representation on school boards and administrations, although they still only made up 18.3% of these members. They cite, then, that three primary strategies should be used make the boards more equal: “…That talent be recognized, opportunities be provided on an equal basis, and that women and men be given reasonable support and encouragement by the teaching and learning professions.”4 While career advancement at the school level was feasible during Marlene’s teaching career, it is clear that further upward mobility was still lacking.

Originally, the decision of school districts to integrate women into their teaching staff was a fiscal one. Referring to the changes spurring the move to hire women, Keith Melder writes “the educator saw that the greatest advantage they could claim for reform was economy,” because “women would teach for less money than men.”1 However, this approach changed by the time Marlene started in the school system. In fact, she explained that she “never felt held back in [her] profession, salary-wise” because the salary was based on years of experience and degree-level, and that both men and women were paid on the same scale. The primary problem that she had with this program, however, was that years of experience were not fully transferrable between school districts. “You lose a lot of salary if you change schools,” Marlene explained.

Throughout her career as a teacher, Marlene has seen the dynamics of the classroom change dramatically, and yet finds surprising commonalities as well. In addition to experiencing the changes brought about by the integration of schools, Marlene found that parts of the curriculum changed over the years as well. Citing some of the books that she now reads to her Montessori class, including those about how the LGBT movement began, Syrian refugee crisis, and engineering careers, she explained that the literature taught in schools has as “come a long way.” Additionally, in her early days of teaching, corporal punishment was used as a disciplinary method, but by the 1990s this tactic had been replaced with detentions and expulsion. One of the facets of school life that, in her experience, did not change much was the wide variety of ways children play. “I noticed that gender didn’t matter; girls were accepted in football and boys were accepted in playing with Barbie dolls,” Marlene cited, continuing that one of the boys in her after school program would even join in with a group of girls to play dress up with the dolls.

Reviewing Marlene’s career in teaching offers a glimpse into one of the most important professions of our era. Marlene recalled the field of teaching as one that allowed for equity in the workplace, particularly in terms of pay and career advancement, making it a unique profession during this time period and reflects the changes that have occurred within the field over the last 100 years. When asked if she would do it all over again–teaching in Florida, working for the Dependent Schools, her career in Cincinnati–Marlene’s answer was genuine: “I would. No regrets at all. I remember asking your grandpa…if he would change anything he’d ever done– and no, he loved every minute of it. And I did as well.”

  1. Melder, K. E. (1972). “Women’s High Calling: The Teaching Profession in America, 1830-1860.” American Studies, 13 (2), 19–32. [] []
  2. Boyle, E. (2003). “The Feminization of Teaching in America.” Retrieved November 28, 2019, from /org/w/wgs/prize/eb04.html. []
  3. Derrick, W. M. (1960). “Department of Defense Dependent Schools.” Men in Education, 42 (2), 55–57. [] []
  4. Cronin, J. M. & Pancrazio, S.B. (1979). “Women as Educational Leaders.” The Phi Delta Kappan, 60 (8), 583-586. []