For more than a decade, she fought poverty and hardship to become the kind of teacher she wanted to be.
She fought during the Depression to become the teacher she wanted to be
As the Great Depression gripped America in 1930, Jean Maddock Clark entered Stanford from a community college in her native Phoenix, Arizona. She hoped to become a biology teacher in her hometown high school.
Clark’s parents lived apart while her father chased work out of town. The family’s strained finances nagged at every day of her college career, judging from the letters, now saved in the Stanford University Archives, that she sent home.
In the photos and mementos also saved in the archives to give a sense of Stanford life over the decades, the Stanford of Clark's day seems homogeneous – nearly all white, largely male, with female undergrads capped at 500. It seems luxurious, too, with horse trails, formal dances, Lagunita for swimming and boating, and gracious buildings set in oak-dotted fields. Yet looks are deceiving, and many students were poor.
Proud and defiant, Clark felt and surmounted a tension between the luxe surroundings and the founders’ intent that Stanford equip its graduates to serve the public good. For more than a decade, she fought poverty and hardship to become the kind of teacher she wanted to be.
Like most would-be teachers at Stanford, Clark majored in a discipline – in her case, biological sciences – and took coursework in the School of Education, then housed in the Quad’s Buildings 40 and 50. She lived in Roble Hall, then a women’s dorm, where she tutored more affluent but less studious dormmates in biology. At first she refused payment, so her dormmates expressed their gratitude by messengering her huge bouquets of flowers.
Like today’s teacher education (STEP) students, Clark practice-taught in public schools. Like them, she juggled teaching off-campus – in her case, at an Oakland high school – and attending Stanford classes within a single day. In that more formal era, Clark faced the added burden of assembling a dressy teaching wardrobe. In one letter, she describes how she and her mother each cut a worn-out dress in half to yield for Clark one passable classroom blouse and skirt.
“It went off beautifully & the class certainly paid better attention when I taught than when Mr. Jungerman did,” Clark wrote.
Her studies coincided with the reign of Prof. Lewis Terman’s theory of innate intelligence as genetically determined – and of the craze for eugenics, the now-discredited idea of improving humanity through selective breeding.
As a master’s student looking at Terman’s longitudinal study of gifted children, then entering its third decade, Clark critiqued many of his assumptions and wondered how much of intelligence is socially conditioned.
Could it be possible that more attention is given to the professional class of students … Environment can do practically anything to anybody, she wrote.
In her lecture notes for Educational Psychology, also preserved in the University Archives, she copied without comment Prof. Roger G. Barker’s observation that through generations of intervention:
It would be possible to eliminate undesirable elements. Which gives us best control – heredity or environment[?] May be by nutrition. Individual difference may be due to gene factors. Environmental changes are so much quicker…. He regrets the slowness of genetic changes.
To her mother, she wrote of her desire to own seven pairs of socks, “so I can get along with one washing a week.”
As the family’s finances tightened, Clark swallowed her pride. She borrowed $200 – the cost of nine months’ room and board in Roble – to complete her senior year. It took her more than six years to pay it back.
“It would be awful to have graduated from here, spent as much money as we have … and still not get [a job] for this fall,” she wrote. “It looks more and more as though I would frame my BA & sit at home & look at it.”
Despite this dire prediction, Clark found a job teaching in the Phoenix public schools soon after graduation. She longed to return to Stanford for a master’s degree in education, but was delayed while repaying her loan and funding various relatives’ dental care.
Each tooth “sets me back a year,” she wrote a friend.
Starting in 1939, money saved, Clark triumphantly returned to Stanford in graduate status. As was common, she did most of her master’s coursework during the summer, continuing to teach during the school year.
Throughout her years at Stanford, no matter how busy she was, Clark volunteered with a nearby Girl Scout troop. She saw outdoor activity as a social leveler and a means to reach children bored in traditional classrooms. Her interest in non-classroom learning, the subject of her master’s thesis, foreshadows later educational practice and research at Stanford.
The stone ring where Clark’s Scouts played still stands today, between San Francisquito Creek and the Stanford West apartment complex off Sand Hill Road.
Clark taught in her hometown public schools until her retirement in 1975. “I taught eighth grade for 19 years, until the things they did didn’t seem funny anymore, and then I taught sixth grade,” she told the Arizona Republic in 1986.
Her ideas about learning and educational access are discernible in a paper she wrote in 1939 for Prof. John C. Almack’s course in History of Education.
She wrote, citing Charles Eliot, that “Camping is the most important contribution America has given to the world,” along with “free public education … tax-supported.” She praised America because, “We have tried to educate the mass of the people, no matter what race or nationality or creed.”
Almack gave her an A minus, writing, “Excellent: I note you can apply your history.”
STORY AND PHOTO COURTESY OF STANFORD GSE 100 STORIES