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Jennie Wahlert: woman of achievement.

Jennie Wahlert's professional life could be categorized by many roles. A remarkable woman, she excelled as teacher, principal, supervisor, teacher educator, community leader and humanist.

Early Years

Wahlert was born in 1883 into a cultured family of German ancestry. She was the oldest of five children born to Henry Wahlert and Anzella Snodgrass. Her great-grandfather emigrated from Germany in 1848 and established a German school in St. Louis. His daughter, Jennie Wuerpel Wahlert (Jennie Wahlert's grandmother), followed him to America and ultimately taught German in the St. Louis Public Schools.

"Grossmama" Wahlert lived on the same property as Henry and Anzella Wahlert in her own little house. The children visited their grandmother every evening where they listened to beautiful music and fascinating stories. Later, when their mother died at a relatively young age, Grossmama helped raise the five youngsters. She lived out her years in that little house, loved and nurtured by her granddaughter and namesake, Jennie Wahlert.

Wahlert attended Irving School and Central High School, the only public secondary school in St. Louis at the time. She graduated in 1904 as vice-president of her class, the highest honor accorded a girl in those days. By attending Saturday classes in drawing in 1905, Wahlert qualified as an apprentice in her own Irving School.

Her first Principal, T. E. Spencer, filed the following official report in 1907: "I take pleasure in assuring you that the appointment of Miss Jennie Wahlert will not only be satisfactory to me, but gratifying as well. She is capable and efficient for one who has had such short experience."

Classroom Teacher

Wahlert spent much of her time between 1905 and 1927 teaching and attending college. She received her B.A. degree from Harris Teachers College in 1924, attended Washington University between 1922 and 1924 and earned an M.A. from Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1927.

Evaluations by her various principals show Wahlert's progress as a classroom teacher:

In management of children, Miss Wahlert is superior. She has a rare faculty of allowing children a high degree of freedom without its generating into disorder.... Miss Wahlert makes mental notes of the progress of each individual pupil, and avoids the common error of teaching a group, rather than individual children. (H. H. Ryan, 1919)(1)

...In my estimation, she has but a few equals among teachers of our public school system. Her management and control of children are characterized by the sympathy and forbearance that come through a thorough understanding of child nature. Her classroom was at all times a model of primary practice and a source of inspiration and help to her colleagues and to visiting teachers.

Her ability as an instructor and the skill with which she applied means and methods; the resourcefulness of her nimble mind; and the inventive powers displayed in developing new types of approach are rarely met with in a classroom. I have never seen better teaching, nor better results attained.... As for her splendid professional equipment, Miss Wahlert has a liberal education and a wide range of interest. Her outlook upon life is not confined to the walls of a classroom. (A. O. Leuttheusser, 1922)(1)

The latter evaluation concerned the year Wahlert worked as a demonstration teacher in Wyman School, which served Harris Teachers College. In 1923, Wahlert was appointed Primary Supervisor in the St. Louis Public Schools, a position she held until 1934. From this post, she influenced teachers in schools throughout her assigned territory. Many years later, Thelma Meaux, one of the teachers influenced by Wahlert, recalled: "Her comments, suggestions, remarks were positive, constructive, supportive and always conducive to greater efforts of accomplishment and achievement."(2)

Principal

From 1934 to 1948, Wahlert was Principal of Jackson School, located in a poor section of St. Louis, where she managed to enrich both children and faculty. She implemented a school breakfast program because, she said, "Hungry children can't learn." The school boasted a garden, plays and musical programs, bringing beauty to a meager environment. And, of course, there was learning. Many years after Wahlert retired, a successful bank president encountered her one day in his bank.

I'm sure you can't remember me, but many years ago I was sent to your office in Jackson School for misbehavior. You put one hand on my shoulder, the other on my head and said, "You have fine stuff up there, now go back to your room and use it." I have felt that hand on my head ever since. (Manley, 1972)

During much of Wahlert's service, the St. Louis Public Schools were racially segregated. Wahlert couldn't change that policy, but she did build bridges. She arranged for student exchange visits, treated everyone with respect, and helped black and white teachers meet as equals to discuss professional problems. Thelma Meaux wrote: "She opened doors of integration, opportunity and inspiration when it was not popular to do so...."(2)

College Professor

During these years, Wahlert taught summer sessions and extension courses at Redlands, California; Maryville College Nursery School, Sacred Heart Academy, Washington University and Stowe Teachers College in St. Louis; Drake University; Stanford University; Teachers College, Columbia University; and John Burroughs High School, St. Louis County.

In 1948, Wahlert became a Professor of Education at Harris Teachers College, where she taught until her retirement in 1953 after 48 years of remarkable service to the St. Louis Public Schools. No one was surprised, however, when, in her 70th year, she resumed teaching at the University College of Washington University and also directed the university's nursery school. This dual assignment continued for eight years.

Continued Service

After 1961, Wahlert lightened her schedule a bit. She dedicated three mornings a week to teaching foreign-born children and adults at International Institute, but also devoted more time to gardening, antiques, concerts, operas and lectures. She continued to support many civic organizations and agencies.

She was organizer, president, chairperson, honorary member or consultant of many organizations, including the following: American Association of University Women, Girl Scouts, Nursery Foundation, Missouri State Teachers Association, Kappa Delta Pi, Delta Kappa Gamma, International Institute, Missouri Association of Social Welfare, Mental Health Association of St. Louis, Grace Hill House (a settlement house), League of Women Voters, Municipal Nurses Board, Civic Music League and People's Art Center.

Understanding the interrelationships of such organizations, Wahlert helped them work with each other. She knew when to take the lead and when to relinquish it in order to bring others into active service. Because of her involvement with so many individuals and organizations, her influence was multiplied many times.

Wahlert was a leader in the National Council of Primary Education when it merged with the International Kindergarten Union in 1931 to become the Association for Childhood Education. She supported and served the Association at local, state and international levels and was President from 1937 to 1939. She attended most of its annual conferences for many years, filling a variety of leadership roles. She served as member of the ACEI Early Leaders in Childhood Education Committee from 1963 to 1969 and was Chairperson of the Committee on Gifts and Bequests from 1969 to 1973.

Philosophy

Wahlert followed the education philosophies of John Dewey and William Heard Kilpatrick. In turn, she inspired devoted and skillful teachers. Some of those who worked with her at Jackson School later made the following comments:

Only a few years with Jennie as principal, but impact lasting throughout careers.

--Maxine Hopper; Frances Perricone

She had the ability to discover people's strengths and skills and motivate full usage of them.

--Maxine Hopper; Frances Perricone

She was so dedicated to serving mankind that, in spite of being a person of renown, she could bend to the most menial of tasks.

--Maxine Hopper; Frances Perricone

She was a forerunner who sounded the clarion call for all to embrace the oneness of mankind. She was constantly working to remove barriers between ethnic groups and promote understanding and appreciating by exposure and exchange of the various customs and cultural aspects of these groups.

--Maxine Hopper; Frances Perricone

I often thought of the influence she had on my teaching. I learned so much in the years I was with her about looking at the individual child and trying to see how each child is different and all the background that a person needs to do a really fine job of teaching--for a young teacher that was very important to me.

--Georgia Flowers

My personal feeling in retrospect is that she was before her time. We need Jennie right now--a stimulator of her teachers, a professional at all times, a worker beyond a set amount of hours, an innovator, a leader who was available to her followers, a dear friend to many.

--Helen Rounds(2)

Wahlert was loved and appreciated by her many friends and colleagues and was also recognized publicly. She received a Doctorate of Humane Letters from Principia College, Elsah, Illinois, in 1946. When she retired from the public schools in 1953, the Missouri Association for Childhood Education honored her. The group presented her with a book of letters. In 1958, Wahlert received the St. Louis Globe Democrat "Women of Achievement" award in education.

On her 80th birthday, the Missouri chapters of The Delta Kappa Gamma Society held a tribute dinner. When she was given 80 silver dollars, she promptly announced that she would use them "as postage to let the Missouri voters know we need state support for kindergartens."

Alberta L. Meyer, of St. Louis, Missouri, is Executive Director Emeritus, Association for Childhood Education International.

References

Bethel, E. B. (1966). Jennie Wahlert. Our state founders: Delta State, Missouri. Austin, TX: The Delta Kappa Gamma Society.

Manley, H. (1972). A tribute to Delta State founder. Deltagrams. Austin, TX: The Delta Kappa Gamma Society.

Footnotes

1 St. Louis Board of Education official records.

2 Letters in ACEI Archives.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Association for Childhood Education International
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:leader in education, 1892-1992
Author:Meyer, Alberta L.
Publication:Childhood Education
Article Type:Biography
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Words:1636
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