Josephine Preston. Photo courtesy of The Library of Congress

Josephine Preston

First Superintendent of Public Instruction

“The public school system reflects the needs of the people of the Commonwealth.” - Josephine Preston

The extraordinary career of Josephine Corliss Preston carried her from a one-room schoolhouse in Minnesota to the top of the National Education Association.

Growing up in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, Preston learned first-hand of the struggles facing immigrant students. . Some of her classmates couldn’t speak a single word of English. The language barrier, and the disadvantages it presented, resonated profoundly with Preston.

Throughout her entire career, Preston advocated for immigrants and rural educators forced to board with strangers in order to teach in small towns. Preston is perhaps best known for inspiring teacher “cottages,” district-funded living quarters for rural educators.

“To this very day there is a motherly feeling in the heart of Mrs. Preston for every struggling one-room schoolhouse,” noted the Education Journal in 1919.

Preston was just 14 when she taught school for the very first time; she was 19 when she arrived in Waitsburg, Washington to continue teaching in the small Eastern Washington town.

In 1893, she married Herbert Preston. The couple moved to Walla Walla where Preston was named Assistant County Superintendent and elected Walla Walla County School Superintendent three times.

It was in 1912 when Preston made history. Just two years after women won the right to vote in Washington after a long and tedious campaign, the Midwesterner was elected Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction, a prestigious statewide position. She held the job for 16 years.

Preston followed her career to the national stage. In 1919, she became the third woman in American history to serve as President of the National Education Association. At the same time, Preston held numerous positions as Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction, President of the Washington State Board of Education, and a member of the National Women’s Executive Committee for the National Republican Party.

After spending almost six decades in this state, the respected educator died in Renton on December 12, 1958. She was 85 years old.