The classroom was her calling

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The classroom was her calling

2016-02-09 12:06

The School District of Philadelphia may lack proper funding, but the United States' eighth-largest public school system has never wanted for dedicated teachers. For many of the city's Cold War kids, Helen Cheyney Bailey stands at the front of the class.

Born in Philadelphia and educated in its public schools, Bailey (1897-1978) initially dreamed of being a writer. A scholarship to Radcliffe College seemed to offer the Philadelphia High School for Girls graduate a chance at a life of letters. Gender conventions got in the way.

"In those days, families didn't like to let their daughters go away from home, so I went to the University of Pennsylvania instead and fell in love with it," she recalled. The aspiring writer began studying for her 43-year career as an educator by default: "The only full-time course [for women] there at the time was in education, so I had to take that."

She returned to Girls' High School for her first gig, teaching math, in 1920, and her calling soon sounded. "After I began to teach, I enjoyed the children so much that I decided to stay," she recounted. Described in a later Inquirer profile as a "tiny, delicate, warm-voiced and white-haired lady" who was "dynamic, five feet tall, [and] 100 pounds of enthusiasm and energy," Bailey soon rose to become the school's principal.

In 1953, she was named associate superintendent of schools, becoming one of only two women - whom she knew of - to hold such a position in a large U.S. school district. In this role, Bailey oversaw the schools' curriculum, instruction, and teacher education. Believing "the broad cultural background acquired by the teacher in college is not enough," Bailey pioneered in-service training, after-school courses, and other professional development for the city's educators.

While insisting that "there must be on-the-job training" for teachers, Bailey also excelled at developing student curriculum - "not for the dull at the expense of the bright, not for the bright at the expense of the dull, or the underprivileged, but for everyone."

At a time when many Americans were spooked by Sputnik and anxious about the quality of public education, Bailey's efforts drew praise beyond the classroom. In 1958, she received the prestigious Philadelphia Award for outstanding service to the city. "It doesn't really go to me," she deflected. "It is an award to the 10,000 members of the public school system."

For Bailey, what made a great teacher was no mystery: One "must understand children and love the subject she teaches . . . and have a sense of humor with which to meet the inevitable frictions among faculty, parents, and community. And the life has to be exciting to her. There is tremendous drama in the schools!"

The authorial ambition never quite left the educator. "Now the one thing I'd like to write is a good book about teaching. . . . No one has ever shown teaching as the two-fisted he-man job it is - even for women."

HSP offers Act 48 credits to educators through workshops, programs, and more. On March 23, HSP will host The Awful Harvest of Gettysburg and the Remarkable Year at Turner's Lane as part of the city-wide One Book One Philadelphia. This program is in conjunction with the April 14 Bloodletting and Homeopathy teacher workshop. Register for both programs and receive a discount. 

Click here to visit HSP's education portal or visit for unit plans, field trip and outreach information, and additional resources for students and educators. 

This article originally appeared in the February 7, 2016 Currents section of the Philadelphia Inquirer as part of HSP's weekly series, Memory Stream.

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