Betsey Stockton was born into slavery in 1798, in Princeton, New Jersey. Around her 20th year, she was emancipated by the family that had owned her all her life.
As a freedwoman, Stockton chose to become a missionary, travelling to Hawaii and working as an educator in various churches, despite not having any formal teacher training. As she worked hands-on with both children and adults, Stockton acquired an adaptive and flexible teaching style that showed an openness to new ideas and innovations, and she was known for her passion to work with a great variety of families and children from all cultures and walks of life.
Stockton’s remarkable 40-year teaching career saw her establish schools for Hawaiian children and adults on Maui and preschools (then called infant schools) for African American children in Philadelphia and Aboriginal children in Canada.
In her teaching, Stockton used what was called the monitorial method, a teaching approach that aimed to improve schools for children from families with low incomes and children in marginalized communities.
Although the monitorial method was effective for accomplishing the missionaries’ goals, Stockton quickly realized it did not actually provide enough developmental support for teaching young children.
Word of a new way of teaching young children reached the United States from Britain in the mid-1820s, while Stockton was in Hawaii.
A social reformer, Robert Owen, had opened a school for the children of mothers working in his cotton mill and called it an “infant school,” accepting children aged five and younger.
Although spontaneous free play was not encouraged for children in schools at the time, Owen’s infant schools did encouraged children’s activity. Here, the teachers used a mix of outdoor supervised play and indoor learning activities, and presented information to the children using the guided observation of objects.
Owen’s belief that early childhood education was a way to improve society was based on what he called the principle of prevention. The principle of prevention presented the idea that our surroundings and experiences direct our behavior. He also strongly believed that desired behaviors could be established by changing the situations in which negative behaviors arose.
Stockton adapted this way of thinking and teaching, and devoted herself to the support of Roberts’ infant schools, bringing the concept to North America.
In 1828, Stockton was recruited by the Infant School Society of Philadelphia to be the teacher at the new African American infant school. Several years later, she moved back to her hometown of Princeton, New Jersey, and spent the next 30 years teaching at the Witherspoon School for Coloured Children.
Over several decades, Betsey Stockton sustained a strong commitment to her community and desire to develop herself professionally as a teacher—she taught according to the most innovative approaches of her time.
She was the first woman — let alone a coloured woman — to take up the cause of social-emotional development in young children and apply it to early childhood education methods. The impact of her cause is felt strongly today in the way that we guide, support and nurture our children.
Betsey Stockton may not be touted as a typical heroine in the history of early childhood education, but she certainly was extraordinary and deserves to be celebrated. Having survived the harrowing experience of enslavement during the first two decades of her life, to become a missionary, to becoming a lifelong devotee to the practice of early childhood development, Betsey Stockton serves as a true inspiration to 21st-century teachers, and a remarkable figure in black history.