In rural communities of the past, particularly on the frontier, there would often not be enough children of different ages in the area to justify a school separated by grades, and insufficiently fast transportation to bring children from a wide area together every schoolday. So there would be a one-room schoolhouse, with a grand total of one teacher (usually female) presiding over a class of children of all ages and scholastic ability. That's the Schoolmarm.
Generally, a child would attend the one-room schoolhouse from early elementary age through the minimum dropout age required by law; those seeking further education would have to go to a larger community's boarding school.
In fiction, a schoolmarm will tend to be portrayed as rather prim and proper, and will have the best diction in town. This tended to be true in Real Life as well, since most communities had strict moral and behavioral requirements in the contracts for their teachers. In many school districts, teachers had to be single, and any "courtship" would raise fears that the town would lose its schoolmarm. Nevertheless, the Schoolmarm is a frequent choice for the female love interest in a Western as she'll be the only single woman around who isn't in The Oldest Profession. As an instructor in the arts of civilization, she also made a good Foil to a wild and footloose hero. See also Caretaking is Feminine.
In male viewer-oriented stories, the schoolmarm tends to be young and pretty—sometimes suspiciously so. In stories from the schoolmarm's point of view, she may be a bit older and Hollywood Homely, to make her eventual romantic involvement that much sweeter. If the story is from the children's point of view, the schoolmarm will often be a hatchet-faced spinster, who's not afraid of using a switch on misbehaving youths, for loose values of "misbehaving."
Since schoolteachers were usually from out of town, they would often board with the different families of their students in turn over the course of the school year. In fiction, this might be an awkward situation, the beginning of a romance with an adult member of the family, the discovery of a Big Sister Mentor for a younger member, or otherwise played for drama.
This is still Truth in Television today in many regions of the world, where single-room schools still exist. For example, this isn't unheard of in Japan today; a combination of urbanization and declining birth rate means children are a rare sight in rural areas. Since there are few children, schools are merged or just plain shut down, and those that remain are often run by a handful of teachers — in rare cases, by one or two schoolmarms. In Russia, the situation is similar, except the rural areas are much larger and much more sparsely settled; one-room schools, called selskaya malokomplektnaya shkola (rural small-class school) never actually went out of style during the Soviet period, and are only in more demand today.
- To a degree, Mari Nikaido from Kinnikuman.
- Miss Deer from Maple Town. She was the sole teacher in Maple Town, teaching students of various ages (including Patty's older sister, implied to be older than everyone else) and located in a small schoolhouse.
- Kazuho from Non Non Biyori is the sole teacher at a rural school, with a class of only five students in different grade levels. However, she's not the most responsible or mature sort, since she's always portrayed sleeping (sometimes to the point of not showing up at all), chilling with the students... or exploiting her students to work on her rice fields. She's also the elder sister of Renge, who is the youngest student at the school.
- Yoko Littner from Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann takes this as a job after the Time Skip.
- One issue of the Archie comics put Jughead and Reggie in the Wild West, with Jughead as the town sheriff and Reggie as a card hustler. Reggie agrees to Jughead's challenge that whichever of them draws the low card in the pile will leave town, and when Jughead draws a three, Reggie is pleased to think he's all but won - until he learns that the winner gets the town schoolmarm, Miss Ethel. Much to his relief, Reggie draws a deuce and flees, while Jughead locks himself in jail to keep himself away from Ethel.
- The Gaulish Village in Asterix has had three schoolteachers in charge of teaching the village children at three different times. The earliest teacher was the Druid Getafix during Asterix's childhood, in the present day Cacofonix the Bard is the teacher except when he was fired from his job by the children's parents, the bard Bravura was brought in to teach the children.
- The teacher in the Chuck Billy stories.
- Clara Clayton in Back to the Future Part III, who of course becomes the Love Interest of Doc Brown.
- A male “schoolmaster” is the protagonist in The Otherwoods film Benkiya Bale. He is a good teacher and is popular with his students. But the local politician’s son wants his job, so he has to be sent to a different poverty stricken disease-ridden village.
- Blazing Saddles had what can only be termed a subversion.
Schoolmarm: To the honorable William J. LePetomaine, Governor...Crowd: Louder! We can't hear you!Schoolmarm: I am sorry, I'm not used to public speaking. WE THE WHITE, GODFEARING CITIZENS OF ROCK RIDGE wish to express our extreme displeasure with your choice of sheriff. Please remove him immediately! The fact that you have sent him here just goes to prove that you are the leading asshole in the state!
- Stéphane Audran's character in Le Boucher runs and lives above the village school in a remote but scenic corner of France. She is loved and respected by pupils and parents alike. Then the wife of her assistant teacher is brutally murdered, forcing her to run the school alone...
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: Etta Place, Sundance's woman, is a schoolmarm who abandons her duties to go to South America with them.
- Cat Ballou's title character is a schoolmarm turned Outlaw.
- Billy Ray Smith, a rare male example in El Diablo. He is a tenderfoot teacher from Boston living in Texas. When one of his students, a teenage girl, is kidnapped, Billy Ray is the only one willing to even try to rescue her from the titular BigBad.
- Miss Birdwood in the 1989 film George's Island is a prime example given her classroom and the way she dresses/talks. She even is a Sadist Teacher, mainly to poor George's Cassandra Truth.
- Goodbye, Miss Turlock is a 1947 short film made as a tribute to the one-room schoolhouse, focusing on Miss Turlock, the teacher in one particular school. She's the Old Maid variant, strict but fair, beloved by students.
- The Gunfighter has the schoolmarm as the secret wife of the lead.
- Miss Alice in Gunless, who runs the school and also conducts philosophy classes for the adults.
- Ms. Crabtree from The Little Rascals shorts.
- At the end of My Darling Clementine, Clementine decides to stay on in Tombstone as the new schoolmarm.
- Pete's Dragon (1977) has a schoolmarm who is exceptionally quick to dish out harsh words and discipline. Unfortunately for protagonist Pete, an outsider boy fleeing from slavery, he is (understandably) disregarded when his protest that the disasters happening around him are not his own fault but due to his invisible dragon friend. When she escalates her punishment to beating him with a yardstick, the dragon roars viciously and crashes through the school wall causing much panic and bringing even more unwanted attention to Pete (although stopping the schoolmarm bullying attitude as she is rendered practically speechless).
- In Rustlers' Rhapsody, a "pretty but somehow asexual young schoolmarm" is one of the features found in every single western town that the hero Rex O'Herlihan has visited.
- In Tombstone, Virgil Earp encounters one of these when he rescues one of her students from being run over by one of the Cowboys' horses. She doesn't say anything, but she's got a bloody nose; it's this scene, which makes him realize just what a menace the Cowboys have become to the people of Tombstone, that cements his decision to become the new sheriff.
- Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon has a Rare Male Example as one of the few sympathetic characters.
- The American Girl Kirsten books have Miss Winston, who's nineteen — same age as the oldest boy in the class. She stays with Kirsten's family for a while. (This was Truth in Television; many teachers, both male and female, were not able to afford their own homes, so they often stayed with their students' families, or other families in town, on a temporary basis.)
- Anne from Anne of Green Gables goes to a one-room schoolhouse. The first teacher is male, then Miss Stacy becomes the schoolmarm. Later on, Anne herself takes on the role, and even while attending college takes temporary schoolmarm positions in the summer.
- A Brother's Price has Miss Skinner, a very typical schoolmarm, who taught Jerin's sisters, and occasionally came to the Whistler farm to give lessons to Jerin and his younger brothers. She's very prim and proper, telling Jerin to wear his veil when she meets him on a ship, and not to talk to strange women. (Jerin protest's that she's not a stranger, she's his dear old teacher). She is also unmarried, but not due to any restrictions, it's just very hard to find a husband. When she meets Jerin, she tells him that she's going home to get married, having amassed enough wealth to be able to afford a husband - her motivation to become a teacher in the first place. To complete the stereotype, Jerin recalls having had a crush on her when he was younger.
- Nineteen-year-old Christy Huddleston from Christy is a city-bred young woman of an affluent Asheville family who is inspired to go teach school in an impoverished Appalachian village in 1912. Needless to say, it's nothing like she thought it would be, in both good ways and bad.
- Jane Eyre is a village schoolmistress for a short while (quite sensible as she'd previously been a governess - one of the few jobs acceptable to women of the landowner caste at the time); a slight variation as in her town, male and female children went to separate schools (seeing as we never meet her male counterpart, presumably St John, the local cleric, teaches the boys during the week).
- Miss Read, the pseudonymous author/narrator of the Fairacre And Thrush Green novels, both Barsetshire settings, is the schoolmistress of a tiny two-room school in the village of Fairacre, and there's a similar school in Thrush Green.
- Holes: There's a schoolmarm who turns outlaw after her love interest is killed.
- Little House on the Prairie:
- Laura's mother Caroline was a schoolmarm twice before meeting and marrying her husband, though that was just background information.
- Laura herself becomes a schoolmarm three times in These Happy Golden Years. Her description of what it was like is generally conceded to be fairly accurate, although the Brewster household may be dramatic license. Inexplicably, she first started teaching at 15, which made her younger than some of her students.
- Much of the early conflict of Little Town on the Prarie is between Laura and the schoolmarm of her school, Eliza Jane Wilder, who, influenced by the teacher's pet Nellie, antagonizes Laura and bullies Carrie, turning the rest of the schoolchildren against her. Ironically enough, Eliza Jane would become her sister-in-law!
- One of the first chapters of Farmer Boy revolves around Almanzo's schoolmaster, who is new in town. The big boys who only come to school in the winter pride themselves on running new teachers out of town, with the implication they have killed one in the past. The schoolmaster is taking turns boarding at students' homes, and this subject comes up at dinner while boarding with the Wilders. The next day at school, the older boys crash the school room and try to intimidate the teacher, only for the teacher to pull out a bull whip, which Almanzo recognizes is his father's, to defend himself.
- Mandie and the Missing Schoolmarm by Lois Gladys Leppard, has the young heroine investigating a mystery that is Exactly What It Says on the Tin.
- In The Master of Triggernometry by J.T. Edson, a local Robber Baron is constantly harassing schoolmasters and driving them out of a small town so he will an uneducated workforce for his factories. Dusty Fog goes undercover as the new schoolmaster to get to the bottom of the problem, with his cousin Betty Hardin posing as his schoolmarm wife. The town is quite pleased to be getting two teachers for their money.
- Much Ado About Grubstake: Even before the mining town of Grubstake became a Dying Town, it only had one, female, teacher at its school. The teacher married the last prospector to strike it rich and left town with him a few years before the book begins, and the abandoned schoolhouse is now infested with marmots.
- In Patience and Sarah, it's mentioned that one of the few jobs an unmarried woman can have is being a school teacher. 28-year-old Patience teaches in the summer.
- Miss Stacey takes over from Mr Phillips at the single-room school house in Avonlea in Anne with an E. She's a Spirited Young Lady type and Anne finds her a kindred spirit and likes her a lot more than Mr Phillips.
- Seth Bullock's wife, who sets up the first schoolhouse in Deadwood, a sign of its improving circumstances.
- Hee Haw: Minnie Pearl was the hapless schoolmarm in "The Schoolroom" segments, with her students always cracking jokes.
- Horatio Hornblower: Mariette, Hornblower's love interest in "The Frogs and the Lobsters", is a French peasant girl who became a schoolteacher in Muzillac, her home village, after the revolution. She's the only teacher there.
- Little House on the Prairie: In order – Eva Beadle (Charlotte Stewart, 1974-1978), Alice Garvey (Heresha Parady, 1978-1979), Eliza Jane Wilder (Lucy Lee Flippin, 1979-1980), Laura Ingalls Wilder (Melissa Gilbert as the series' main protagonist, 1980-1982) and Etta Plum (Leslie Landon, 1982-1984). A few times throughout the series, Caroline Ingalls (Karen Grassle) would fill in as a substitute teacher, except when the plot called for someone else.
- Emma Tate from season one of Schmigadoon! is the titular rural town's schoolmarm. She's strong-willed, progressive, and a love interest for the male lead.
- In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Keiko O'Brien sets up a one-room school on DS9 after she finds herself unemployed (she's a botanist on a Space Station) and realizes that the crew don't have a school for their children. This is just one of a number of Western tropes used in the series. In this case her one-room school has the added advantage of only requiring a small set.
- The Twilight Zone (1985): In "The Storyteller", Dorothy Livingston's first teaching assignment was in the small, isolated town of Powder Creek, West Virginia in 1933, where she taught students of all ages in a one-room school.
- The Westerner: In "School Days", Dave is taking lessons from a schoolmarm to learn how to write his name. When she is murdered, Dave is framed for her murder.
- The bush ranger Captain Gunpowder is sweet on the local school mistress, who is an older but still handsome woman, in Wild Boys.
- One of the chief ghostly characters in Dark Fall - Ghost Vigil is Thomas, who apparently was the sole teacher at Shangri-La children's home in The '80s. He taught about a dozen pupils, of ages ranging from 6 to 16.
- Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist had one of those whose last name even was Primm. However, she turns out to be the villain in the end.
- In the second generation of Rune Factory 2, Mana becomes one of the only two teachers in the school built at the end of the first generation. How true she is to this trope depends on whether or not the first generation's player character married her.
- Spirits of Anglerwood Forest: The kids of Masonfield attend a one-room schoolhouse with an unnamed schoolmarm.
- Penny from Stardew Valley is a rare example from a vaguely modern-day setting. Pelican Town doesn't have an official school, nor does Penny appear to have a formal education, but she has taken it upon herself to teach the children in town as much as she can.
- Raine Sage of Tales of Symphonia is the lone teacher at Iselia's only school. She tends to be fairly stern, but when one of your students is Lloyd Irving, this may be justified.
- Keine Kamishirasawa from Touhou Eiyashou ~ Imperishable Night is a teacher who's generally portrayed like this in fanworks, usually to the younger youkai characters (though this goes against canon, where she says that she's only willing to teach humans). However, Touhou Suzunaan ~ Forbidden Scrollery officially josses this portrayal since she's shown to teach at an elementary school with several other teachers.
- Rumiko Chie in Higurashi: When They Cry, being the only teacher at the school the main characters attend, which is made up of a single class of students from different grade levels. Since the series takes place in the rural village of Hinamizawa, this isn't surprising.
- Helluva Boss: Mrs. Mayberry was a schoolmarm before her Murder-Suicide.
- Homestar Runner: Marzipan is shown as a teacher at a "montessodium school" in the Strong Bad Email "coloring"; given that her only students are Homestar, Strong Mad, and Homsar and that the main cast are generally implied to be the entire population of Free Country USA, it's likely that she's not just the only teacher but the founder as well. Strong Bad even refers to her as a "frumpy schoolmarm" in the short cartoon "Career Day".
- They occasionally turn up in classic animated shorts with a school setting.
- Ms. Leading from The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, though unlike most female examples, she is actually married.
- Cheerilee from My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is the one teacher we see at Ponyville's one schoolhouse.
- Over the Garden Wall: In "Schooltown Follies," Wirt and Greg meet Miss Langtree, the teacher at a school for Civilized Animals, who is heartbroken over her fiancee Jimmy Brown leaving her.
- Kathryn "Kate" Flores is the teacher in the one-room school in Spirit: Riding Free. She is relatively new to town and struggles with the idiosyncrasies of some of her students. The protagonist Lucky keeps getting in trouble by accidentally breaking her rules. Much to Lucky's consternation, her widower father starts courting Miss Flores.