William F. Phelps

Ed’s note: This article is excerpted from one that appeared in the spring 2005 issue of TCNJ Magazine. It was written by the magazine’s former editor, Bruce Van Dusen.

william phelps
William F. Phelps, first principal of the New Jersey State Normal School.

William F. Phelps [was] the first principal of the New Jersey State Normal School. The term “principal” was the 1855 equivalent of today’s “president” or “chancellor,” and was the title of the person who hired the faculty, managed the property, and ran the school under the guidance of a board of trustees and the state commissioner of education.

Phelps was a product of the brand new Normal School movement in the United States, having attended the first class of the Normal School in Albany, NY, in 1845, and taught in its Model School. He served as principal in Trenton from October 1855 to March 1864, when he took a similar post in Minnesota.

His philosophy, he once said, was that “education, true education, the only education that is worthy of the confidence and support of either citizens or the community, deals with the entire being of man, physical, emotional, intellectual, and moral.” In his nine years in Trenton, he continually sought to broaden the curriculum, and to strengthen his students’ social and intellectual skills, as well as their values and leadership abilities.

Everything he did, of course, was being done for the first time in New Jersey. While he was hired to head a public school, he instituted a program of selective admission to ensure that future graduates would be highly skilled. Even so, he found most of his early students needed a stronger basic education themselves before they could be allowed to take over a class. He instituted the Model School and used it to expose Normal School students to good teaching practices. In time, these students would go on to demonstrate the value of this approach. When they did, Phelps turned to research-based marketing of his product. He sought out and analyzed data on what impact Normal School graduates were having as teachers, and used those encouraging results to convince the legislature to renew the school’s charter for another five years.

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