“Slimly paid and hard worked.” “Serves her classes much better than she serves herself.” “Absorbed in the future of others…and neglectful of her own.” A good many of today’s teachers might use phrases like these to describe themselves, as surveys of teacher satisfaction have shown. But true as they may feel in 2015, they actually describe a 32-year-old kindergarten teacher from Missouri profiled in a 1950 issue of LIFE magazine.
Lois James Winter, 12 years into teaching at the Avery School in Webster Groves, Mo., lived in a widow’s boarding house and dedicated her days—and many of her nights—to the kindergarten class she helmed. Though she was overworked, she felt a fierce devotion to her vocation, as LIFE described:
Lois James Winter will do this well because she likes teaching better than anything else in the world—better than the imported camera she cannot afford on her $3,325 a year salary, better than the husband her friends tell her she can and should find, better than the golf and swimming she forgoes to attend teachers conventions, sometimes at her own expense.
Winter’s salary, $32,880 when adjusted for inflation, would be just shy of the average U.S. teacher's starting pay for the 2012-2013 school year, $36,141. Though LIFE dedicated an inordinate number of words, by today’s standards, to concern for her prospects for marriage—“She is not greatly interested in clothes, a trait encouraged by her modest income, and she seems quite unaware what a fetching hat can do for a pretty woman”—the commentary on her lack of leftover time and energy is where the story really gets to the point. And it's a problem that still rings true 65 years later.
According to a 2014 OECD study of nearly 40 countries, American teachers spend the third highest number of hours in the classroom but their salaries are the fifth lowest. As many as half quit within their first five years on the job, for reasons ranging from lack of respect to stress to low pay.
As debates continue about how best to move American education forward, one argument continues to share popular support among teachers: Invest in the welfare of the people at the head of the class. It's long overdue, many would argue—as urgent today as it was when Lois Winter graced the pages of LIFE.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.