Wednesday, September 9, 2015

September 9, 2015 - One-Room Schoolhouse

The old brick one-room schoolhouse in Dresden, Maine, dates back to 1816.  There, several generations of Maine children were educated.  Now it’s a small informal museum that still houses the old student desks with holes in the top for the inkwells.  The teacher’s desk is still there, too, and so is the old woodstove.  There are also other historical implements and photos of businesses and historical events in the area.

The teacher's desk.

I was especially drawn to the teacher’s desk.  There’s nothing fancy here, is there?  It actually looks a lot like an old table I used to use for sewing.  Minus the plastic pill bottle and the box of tissues placed on the desk, it looks very much as it did a couple of hundred years ago.  It was quite functional and all that a teacher needed.  There are no drawers on the desk, no foot rest, no cabinets attached.  There’s certainly nothing electrical on or near it.  It’s just a plain old desk where a figure of authority--real authority--sat and went about the business of educating children.

It was just one room, and so all children of all ages were taught together.  Different assignments were given to different group ages, and the older children sometimes helped out with the younger children.  They themselves had been helped by older children when they were young, and the responsibility was then passed on, and rightly so.  Somehow they all managed to learn how to read, write, do their math, and learn their history and science.  There were no “learning curves” back then.  If you passed, you passed.  If you failed, you failed.

The student's desk.

The children’s desks were smaller than the teacher’s desk and were all that they needed.  They were plain and simple and included no distractions.  There were no blaring fluorescent lights overhead because they used oil lamps for light.  There was no droning of electrical equipment and no computers with which to sneak on social media.  There was just learning because it was a school and that’s what schools were for.

My own grade school when I was young was not a one-room schoolhouse, but it was very small.  Each grade from kindergarten to eighth had its own room, for a total of nine rooms plus an office for the Principal and some large storage closets.  Each grade had 8-12 children in it, and we all stayed in the same room all day long and were taught every subject by the same teacher.  One of the teachers also doubled as the Principal.  There were nine teachers, one secretary, and one janitor, for a total of 11 employees.  That was quite a lot compared to the old one-room schoolhouses but nothing compared to the school empires that have been built today.

Somehow we all learned, and we learned well.  There were no computers and no calculators.  The books were very old, but they still worked.  In the very younger grades we used little slates with chalk to write on but then graduated to paper and pencil and, finally, pen.  School started at 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. in the morning and continued to 3:00 or 3:30 p.m. depending on the grade.  Meals were not served at school, but we did bring little lunch boxes with food.  If you lived close enough, you could walk home for lunch.

I look now at the enormous complexes that schools have become, and I just shake my head.  I point out to others how we all seemed to learn quite well with very little, and many people eagerly respond that there’s a lot more to learn these days than there used to be.  I guess some of that is true to an extent, such as advanced mathematics, computer science, etc., but the basic things--reading, writing, and arithmetic--are still the same.  Yet they all seem to be made so unnecessarily complicated.  And the teachers these days have had so much authority and autonomy removed from them as compared to teachers from the old days.  It must be very frustrating to be a teacher today, and I sincerely applaud anyone who can do it.  In the old days, a student didn’t cross a teacher and get away with it.  That’s how it should still be today, and there would be a lot more learning going on.

There’s a small sign near the door that says, “Rules for Teachers, 1872,” and it reads as follows:

1.  Teachers each day will fill lamps, trim the wicks and clean chimneys.

2.  Each morning teacher will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the day’s session.

3.  Make your pens carefully.  You may whittle nibs to the individual taste of the pupils.

4.  Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes, or two evenings a week if they attend church regularly.

5.  After ten hours in school, the teachers may spend the remaining time reading the Bible or any other good books.

6.  Women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed.

7.  Every teacher should lay aside from each pay a goodly sum of his earnings for his benefit during his declining years so that he will not become a burden on society.

8.  Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls, or gets shaved in a barber shop will give good reason to suspect his worth, intention, integrity and honesty.

9.  The teacher who performs his labor faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of twenty-five cents per week in his pay, providing the Board of Education approves.

Yes, things have certainly changed, some for the better and a great deal for the worse.  I don’t think I’d like to go back to such strict rules for teachers, but allowing them to actually teach might be a good thing.  Removing distractions and “study halls” would also be good.  Most importantly, enforcing rules for the students and insisting upon excellence would also be a step backward in the right direction.  But to do all of this, we would need to greatly simplify, and therein lies the doom of my plan.

The old woodstove.

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