Susan Mills: The science teacher who founded the first women’s college in California

American history offers many examples of extraordinary educators. This blog spotlights just a few of them. Today’s focus is on Susan Tolman Mills, a secondary school teacher who established the first women’s college in California.

Susan Tolman was born in Enosburg, Vermont, on November 18, 1825. One of eight children, she was the daughter of homesteaders who operated a thriving business. Her father owned a tannery and her mother was a homemaker. Susan’s mother was especially insistent that her six daughters become educated, and after the family relocated to Ware, Massachusettes, all the daughters attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Following her graduation, Susan taught classes in science and theology there for three years.

In 1848, the young educator married Cyrus Taggart Mills, a Presbyterian missionary. The adventurous newlyweds traveled to Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka. Cyrus became the principal of a seminary for boys, while Susan taught domestic skills to girls in the local schools.

In 1860, the couple moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, where they took charge of the Punahou School. There Susan taught geography, geology, chemistry, and botany. She introduced physical education to the female students. She also dedicated her energy to improving the food choices and other amenities provided by the school.

In 1864, Susan and Cyrus relocated to California, with ambitions of establishing a school of their own. Their goal was to provide equal education and opportunities for women. The year after their arrival in the state they purchased a girls’ seminary in Benicia, just east of Vallejo in Solano County. They named their institution Mills Seminary. The couple spent several years improving their school by expanding the number of course offerings and recruiting qualified teachers. In 1871, they sold this property and moved their school to Oakland, on the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay. This new facility, with four-story buildings, dining halls, and a high central observatory named Mills Hall, was long considered the most beautiful education building in California. Eventually the girls’ school established by the Mills was transformed into Mills College, the first women’s college in the state. The college still serves young women as a liberal arts college to this day. After Susan’s beloved husband passed away, Susan continued to serve as the principal of Mills College, expertly performing her administrative duties.

In 1901, Susan was awarded an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, Mount Holyoke, recognizing her extraordinary contributions to education. At the time, the trustees of Punahou commented that Susan, “met and overcame obstacles with equanimity; she accomplished great work with poor facilities; she drew her inspiration from the dull routine of a busy life.”

Susan Mills retired in 1909 at the age of 84. She passed away three years later, on December 12, 1912, in her home, the Vermont cape house she and her husband had built on the Mills campus. This talented and industrious educator was interred at Sunnyside Cemetery, located on the college grounds.

Flossing and the Frustration of Undone Homework

Homework. Hmmm…yeah. The topic is as controversial today as it was when I began my teaching career 36 years ago. Although I am now retired, this exasperating subject surfaced the other day when I was veritably blasted by my periodontist for failure to floss. Let’s just say I really got schooled. In a nutshell, he said he was a highly trained professional, and furthermore a very busy man, and if I couldn’t be bothered to do my share of the work at home, then I should not come back. Wow. I mean double wow.

So let’s be honest. Hasn’t every teacher run those same thoughts through their head when confronted by a recalcitrant student who refuses to do their homework? Educators everywhere have wrestled with this problem for decades. Every teacher knows that there are some students who will do all their homework, some students who will do some of it, and some students who will do none of it. And in my experience, unless you’re teaching an honors class, the amount of homework that doesn’t get done is greater than the amount that does.

So what strategies can the teacher use to increase the amount of homework that gets turned in? We’ve all experimented. Here are a few I tried. First, I increased the weight of the homework category so a student could not pass my class unless they completed at least a large percentage of it. The result? The students still didn’t do their homework, and tons of kids were failing. Then I tried reducing the number of assignments from four nights a week to two nights a week. That helped with their grades, but it did not increase the number of assignments that got turned in. Next, I tried giving assignments that couldn’t be quantified, such as, “Your homework tonight is to study for your test tomorrow.” And then I just hoped they would do this, although I was pretty sure they wouldn’t. Finally, I gave them classwork assignments and told them if they didn’t finish in class, they should finish for homework. And then I gave them enough time to finish in class.

I can’t say I felt very professionally satisfied with any of these strategies. One thing I can say with certainty, though, is that if I had given voice to my frustration in the same way that my periodontist did, if I had pounded them into the ground for their errors, I could add another failed strategy to my list. Even if my students showed up empty-handed, I was always glad to see them come back the next day. Because every day a student shows up to class is a new opportunity to guide them, to help them be more successful, and to lovingly plant that suggestion one more time that, yes, homework is an important part of continued progress. And seizing these opportunities is never a waste of time or energy, even for a busy, well-trained professional.

I understand full well my periodontist’s exasperation. I empathize. I am truly sorry that my failure to floss provoked such an angry outburst from him, and I forgive him for losing his temper. After all, I’m not a kid. I know the man is right. Since that day I have attempted, in New Year’s resolution fashion, to mend the error of my ways. But I also found a new periodontist.

Chalkboard Champions and Hurricane Harvey: Wading into Rising Waters

As empathetic Americans look for ways to help fellow citizens forced to cope with the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, Texas teachers are undoubtedly wondering what they can do to help ease the distress of their precious kids when they return to the classroom.

As usual when I hear news stories about storm damage, I am reminded of a book I read which tells the tale of a remarkable teacher who opened a school for New Orleans evacuees following Hurricane Katrina.

When surging flood waters from Hurricane Katrina forced thousands of families to flee from their homes, New Orleans residents had their minds more on survival than on whether their children would be missing school. But when a group of evacuee parents who landed in New Iberia, Louisiana, realized they would not be returning to their homes any time soon, they knew they had to find a strategy to help their children cope with their enforced and unexpected exile. They pooled their financial resources and hired a fellow refugee, teacher Paul Reynaud, to establish a one-room school for their children in an abandoned office building. The story furnishes valuable lessons for dealing with this latest example of nature’s fury.

The book is entitled Sugarcane Academy: How a New Orleans Teacher and His Storm-Struck Students Created a School to Remember.The author of this intriguing true story is journalist Michael Tisserand, and the volume was published in 2007 by Harcourt. You can find the book on amazon.com at the following link:

For other intriguing stories about remarkable teachers in America’s sometimes turbulent history, check out my book Chalkboard Champions. You will find it on the web site for Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

Dr. Kim Lawe: From Her Escape from Communist Viet Nam to Her Work in the Classroom

Here is the inspirational story of a very amazing educator, Dr. Kim Lawe. I worked with her at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Eastvale, CA, before I retired last June. In this brief video she shares a little about her family’s escape by boat from Communist Viet Nam following the fall of Saigon, and her work as an educator.