Claire B. Slaughter (B.A. ’47) grew up on her father’s orange grove in a small town in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Attending a high school with 160 students in the graduating class, Claire was among only a handful of seniors who went off to college instead of getting a job. “If I was going to go to college, I had to go out of town,” Claire says, recalling her decision to come to Los Angeles. “My cousin had graduated from UCLA, and I had some family in Southern California, so down I came.”
When Claire enrolled as a freshman in the fall of 1942, she remembers the university having only about 15,000 students. She lived in a co-op on campus that had previously been a sorority house. Sharing with one roommate a small private room with only a desk, closet and bean bag chair, Claire slept in one of 20 beds on the co-op’s sleeping porch each night. The co-op also had a living room, kitchen, and dining room on the first floor and was managed by a house mother, who enforced the house rules including visiting hours for guests and curfews.
As it was war time, Claire recalls that other rules included driving without headlights on after dark and drawing black curtains at night to shield the light from air raids.
“We had to ration sugar and gasoline, and food stamps were required to purchase meat and sugar,” Claire remembers. “Stockings were also very expensive and rare, so we would draw a line up the back of our legs to appear as if we were wearing them.”
Despite the war and the house regulations, Claire managed to have fun at UCLA. “Curfew indicated that we had to be in by twelve o’clock, but some nights we bent the rules a bit. The guys would wait outside until after midnight and then we would go out to meet them. There was nothing written about how early we could go out,” she says with a twinkle in her eye.
Around the house, Claire and the other female students would socialize on the outdoor patio or on the tarred roof, where they would sit on extra mattresses and visit with one another. On V-J Day, August 15, 1945, with the news of Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II, Claire and her friends stood on the roof of the co-op and threw saucers and dishes off the balcony, cheering in triumph as the dishes crashed and shattered on the ground below.
Claire was the only one in the house who had her own car, a “little green Plymouth, brand new. We would all pile in and drive to the beach together or go to dances at Ocean Park Pier,” she says. “Helen Mathewson, the Dean of Women Students, was wonderful and made sure that we all had a good time. She cared about our safety as well as our happiness, and she became an important figure on campus among the women students. An alumni group was formed in her honor.”
Claire attended dances at the Palladian in Hollywood and the Masonic Club on Le Conte, which had many social gatherings and was “a great place to meet people.” Navy and Air Force officers were regularly on campus and students were often recruited to attend dances or concerts at military bases in Victorville or at more local venues, such as the Hollywood Bowl. Claire’s senior prom was held around the outdoor swimming pool at the Ambassador Hotel (now the site of UCLA Community School).
Sporting events were also a highlight of the social life at UCLA while Claire was a student. Basketball games were held in the men’s gym and football games at the Coliseum. Taking the bus with her classmates, Claire says, was an integral part of the social experience of UCLA football.
“There were cheering sections at all the games,” she explains. “If you wanted to sit in them you
had to wear a white blouse or sweater and sit in the card section, holding up your card to help spell out UCLA or create an image reflecting a current event for the crowd. All of the big bands would play, and it was a lot of fun.”
Academically, UCLA was rigorous but engaging for Claire. While she originally planned to be a home-economics major, the required organic chemistry and other pre-med courses were quite challenging and prompted Claire to switch her major to history and education. “I had always enjoyed history,” she reflects, “and I quickly realized that education was where I needed to be. I really liked the idea of becoming an elementary teacher.”
Claire remembers the broad course requirements – from English to economics, anatomy to chemistry and physical education – as being somewhat overwhelming for a student who was also trying to adjust to being far away from home for the first time. Nevertheless, Claire appreciated the well-rounded education she received and the preparation it afforded budding elementary school teachers, who need to be generally aware of a wide range of subject matters.
According to Claire, the elementary education curriculum at the time was primarily focused on theories of education, which she says would interest her more now than it did at the time. “When I was a student I wanted more practical training for the classroom with hands-on instruction techniques,” she explains.
Particularly useful for Claire in this regard was a course entitled Mathematics for Teachers, which provided specific content to be used directly in the classroom. During her junior year, Claire and the other education students observed classrooms at UCLA Lab School, then the University Elementary School. With little prior exposure to instructional practices and teaching methods, however, Claire says she wasn’t always sure what she was observing.
Another hallmark of the curriculum was the required senior-year course in which each elementary teaching student had to make his or her own “Seeds Box,” so titled after legendary Professor and Director of the Elementary Education program, Corinne Seeds. Creating a file-sized box full of lesson plans and other artifacts and tools to be used in the classroom, students were encouraged by the “Seeds Box” activity to use their imagination and think creatively about how to bring their lessons to life for their future students.
Each student was instructed to select a theme for her box (Claire chose ships in the harbor as her theme), around which all lessons would be designed. For example, for a math lesson, Claire designed an exercise in which students built a boat and explored how to measure water displacement when it was placed in a body of water. A social science lesson would explore the history of ships and the importance of harbors as sites for trade. For a spelling lesson, students would study nautical terms.
“The ‘Seeds Box’ was universally dreaded by most education students,” Claire laughs. “Everyone knew they would have to make one and anticipated it from their first education course.”
While Claire believes the premise of the box was good in that it challenged students to think differently and creatively about how to best engage young learners, she found that it took an exceptional teacher to apply the activity in her own classroom and to know how to use the box in the right way. “Over my many years of teaching,” she reflects, “I saw many teachers who lacked imagination. While valuable in theory, such an activity is hard to replicate in the real-world classroom, where supplies are limited and teaching methods constricted.”
Claire found her student teaching experience during her final semester to be the most helpful component of the required education curriculum. She received wonderful guidance from her 4th grade training teacher while assisting in a 1st grade classroom and a 4th grade classroom at Nora Sterry Elementary School in Sawtelle. “She was really impressive,” Claire says, “and taught me all kinds of tricks on how I could improve.”
It was as a student teacher that Claire also learned that she enjoyed teaching older elementary school children rather than the younger students. “You pick these things up along the way,” she explains. “Like what age of kids is right for you. I learned that I wanted to work with older kids who could already read and write.”
Claire graduated from UCLA in the spring of 1947. Reflecting on her job prospects at the time, Claire says,
“During the war, teachers were scarce, and UCLA Education students were wined and dined. They could pretty much teach wherever they wanted.”
Claire was placed in a 5th grade classroom in Santa Monica, at a school that no longer exists. There, she taught early American History and found that her “Seeds Box” experience was, in fact, translatable into a real-world classroom. In a unit on colonial life, she guided her students through the construction of a log cabin, teaching math concepts along side historical and social-science contexts.
“I taught a wide assortment of kids there,” Claire reports. “I had kids who, in fifth grade, could only read at a second grade level and other children who were highly advanced. They were all mixed in together.”
After four years of teaching in Santa Monica, Claire got married and moved with her former husband up to Walnut Creek, where he had gotten a job. Claire worked as a substitute teacher there for a few years before the family moved back and settled in La Cañada. Her husband took a job at JPL and Claire raised their three children, becoming active in the PTA and Girl Scouts and working off and on for the La Cañada School District as a substitute teacher or a clerical worker.
Transitioning from a part-time job calling the families of students who didn’t show up to school into a full-time administrative position in the Office of Personnel, Claire gradually advanced up the administrative ranks and became the Director of Personnel for the district, assisting the superintendent in hiring and firing faculty and staff. Claire served the district in this capacity for twelve years, meeting and interviewing a number of interesting people, many of whom still teach in the district today.
“The world moved into the computer era while I was working,” Claire reflects. “Apple tested some of its first computers in schools across California in the 1970s, and I remember conversations at the time among the teachers and administrators that [the new technology] would revolutionize the way teachers teach and students learn.”
Since her retirement in the 1980s, Claire has remained engaged in the schools close to her home and is active with the La Cañada Community Scholarship Program, which provides merit-based college scholarships to promising students across the district. She attributes UCLA with teaching her valuable skills that have been transferrable to many areas of her life, including teaching and mentoring skills that she has used daily in her role with the Girl Scouts and as Superintendent of her church’s Sunday School. UCLA also reinforced for Claire the important life opportunities that come from being well educated.
A passionate advocate for quality schools, creative teachers, and supportive administrators, Claire worries about the many students who are left behind when teaching to state tests takes precedence over personalized and creative instruction.
“Teaching doesn’t become a vocation to which people aspire anymore because teachers are so underpaid, under-supported and under-valued,” Claire asserts. “It is very difficult for teachers to be creative when their evaluations are based solely on the test scores that their students achieve. That’s a flawed model.”
Instead, she suggests, teachers need to find ways to capitalize on their students’ individual passions and interests.
“You have to be able to draw on a kid’s natural skills and talents. Somehow, teachers need to find a way to balance the pressure they feel from the district to meet state requirements while ultimately attending to the learning challenges and strengths of each student to help them grow and flourish.”
Critical to a teacher’s success in this endeavor, Claire says, is support from school and district leaders. “I feel very strongly about the role of our principals in the effectiveness of a school, its teachers, and its methods. Principals have a huge impact on the successes of a student and shouldn’t just sit in their offices, pushing paper. They need to be out in the classrooms and halls, seeing what is going on, interacting with students and teachers on a regular basis, and being actively engaged in the teaching and learning process.”