Vail at Westtown: Student to Teacher
"It was the time when its pupils entered or left at all seasons, at the convenience of those who sent them; when school years, and their division, were there unknown; before terms and sessions had been invented, and its domestic arrangements equaled in simplicity those of the plainest country bumpkins; when its viands were served from pewter or rusty tin plates on unclothed tables; when pewter porringers served for milk and coffee, and a single mug did duty for half-a-dozen mouths..." History of Haverford College, 189-190.
Following the panic of 1837, Vail returned to the Westtown School as a professor of mathematics. Originally considered for the position by his cousin who was serving as director of Westtown, he was appointed by Thomas Kite and Thomas Kimber following the resignation of Enoch Lewis. Vail initially began as a general reading teacher so that he could have some extra time to fine tune and refresh his knowledge of mathematics.
In order to prepare for his new position, Vail took lessons in elocution from a popular professor of the time, and was officially installed by Superintendent Samuel Hilles. Mathematics was reportedly one of the most engaging departments at Westtown, and Vail was able to gain valuable experience and knowledge from the opportunity (History of Haverford 190, 192). According to Helen G. Hole, "A succession of great teachers of mathematics, beginning with the very earliest days of the School and continuing well into modern times, has opened to Westtown students the wonders of the mathematical universe... The emphasis is on thoroughness and complete understanding of the fundamental reason for each process; a mere parrotlike memorization of the rule will not satisfy the master" (75-76).
Upon returning to the school after about three years on his own, Vail was slightly disappointed by the lack of progress or "innovation" made in even basic arenas. He found that it was running in very much the same fashion as when he was a student, and this lack of advancement in basic operations impeded the development of academic pursuits. In his notebook he talks specifically about the "tallow candles" that were placed in old candlesticks to light the classrooms and collections, and the lack of desks for students to use during lectures. He inevitably took some of these matters into his own hands, supplying his classroom with better lighting and surfaces for working.
This was only one of several challenges Vail faced during his first teaching career, however. In his notebook he also mentions his fear of being unqualified to take the position, after having been away from his formal mathematics education for a few years. At this point in his life, Vail had very little academic experience outside of his Westtown education and his own personal studies at the Mercantile library. He also points out the matter of his age, noting that he was in fact the same age as some of his students. This proved not be a problem, and after some time Vail was able to grow into his position.
In Vail's autobiographical sketch he discusses in detail his experience teaching at Westtown and his attempts to bring about innovations and improvements to the system of teaching mathematics. Vail valued interactive demonstrations much more than passive memorization, and thus put greater emphasis on the practice of proof, even for theorums written in textbooks. Vail writes about "classifying" the students, a practice which was largely unutilized before his arrival. In his own words, "Each one [student] pursued his studies quite independently of all the rest, and recited when he was prepared. Blackboards were rarely used." The previous methods of teaching did not adequately challenge some students and simultaneously allowed others to approach their courses much more passively than is necessary to fully understand material. Vail recognized that each student had their individual strengths and weaknesses, but he did not believe that this needed to limit the progress of the entire class. He therefore used his classification system to provide individualized attention to each of his students.
Vail was responsible for creating a "manual" of algebraic and geometrical problems for the Westtown School that eventually was printed so that it could be used year after year. This was noted in the Committee on Instruction minutes, and is another example of Vail's rigor as a mathematics teacher.
In 1843, Vail requested a leave of absence from Westtown due to health concerns. He had originally thought he would have to leave his post, but later decided to take a leave instead. The exact details of these health concerns remains unknown, but Vail was able to improve his health and return to his position as a mathematics teacher. Over his leave he travelled to Nova Scotia with friends from Arcadia College. This was documented in the Westtown Committee on Instruction minutes, and resulted in the need to find a substitute for his position while he was gone. Joseph Harlan, who assisted with managing the mathematics department at Westtown during Vail's leave, eventually became Vail's successor at Haverford as well.
Vail's ability to locate the inadequacies in the previous methods of teaching mathematics was crucial to furthering the learning of students at Westtown. Vail was very much concerned with the individual needs of each student, and therefore wanted to make sure he gave each student the freedom to go at the pace that would maximize their learning. Though ultimately very helpful and constructive, Vail does note that these changes did not proceed "without some protest on the part of those who thought I was blocking the way and hindering their progress with my new-fangled notions..."
Vail's contributions were considered instrumental to academic progress at Westtown. As someone who valued interactive demonstrations and strongly emphasized student participation, Vail brought a new energy to mathematics at Westtown and improved the general impact of their program. Recitations became a crucial part of his curriculum, offering even more specialized attention and a more effective and active form of learning for students.
Haverford College Alumni Association. A History of Haverford College for the First Sixty Years of its Existence. Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1892.
Hole, Helen G. Westtown through the Years 1799-1942. Westtown, PA: Westtown Alumni Association, 1942.