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BY R. M. SHACKELFORD. [The following article is free from the usual exaggerations of reminiscences. It is the simple story of the rural schools of 1850 in the middle west. Mr. Shackelford has served as a public school trustee for many years. The Paso Robles schools, under Mr. Shackelford's management as trustee, have achieved an enviable reputation. He is a member of the California Educational Commission and an active worker for educational reforms.- EDITOR.]
In considering the demands upon our teachers by the patrons of our schools at the present time, I have concluded that a brief statement of the conditions of the schools as they existed fifty years ago when I was a school boy, might not only be instructive but interesting.
It will not only give you an idea of what our schools were at that time, but enable you to draw a comparison between the conditions that prevailed then and our methods now in vogue, which will the best enable you to understand the wonderful strides that have been made in our school system and methods during those fifty years.
Just fifty years ago last January I finished my education as far as my school days were concerned. I afterwards attended night school in California for three years at a cost of two dollars a lesson, while working in mines during the day. I was unfortunate in having failed to get a good education myself, which caused me to realize the disadvantages under which young men labored who failed to receive a good education, and which, also, caused me to become greatly interested in the education of our boys and girls.
I entered school when I was six years of age and continued for two years steadily, after which I attended school during the winter and worked on a farm during spring, summer and fall. I mention my own experience because this was the rule thruout the country where I lived at the time and every boy that I knew, was subject to this rule.
We had no public schools at that time. Teachers were employed and paid by the patrons of the school. School districts were formed much the same as they are formed now. Three school trustees were elected, whose duty it was to employ teachers and collect the money to pay them from the patrons of the school. Teachers were employed by the year. The salary was usually $12.00 per month during the summer and $14.00 per month during the winter, the difference in the salary being caused by the fact that only the girls and small boys attended during the summer, while during the winter the older boys attended, making much more work for the teacher during the winter.
The school term continued the entire year without intermission. If a day was lost it was the teacher's loss. Schools were opened at eight o'clock and closed at five, with fifteen minutes recess in the afternoon and the same in the forenoon, with an hour intermission at noon. The subjects taught in the school were reading, writing, spelling, geography, grammar, arithmetic and history. The teacher boarded around with the patrons of the school. The schoolhouses were built of logs which were usually contributed by the patrons of the school, each one delivering upon the ground so many logs hewn ready to put into the building, as were the puncheons for the floor, benches and writing desks.
When the material was all on the ground, all of the able-bodied men in the district met on a day fixed and the building was erected.
The seats were made of timber hewn from basswood logs about ten or twelve feet long. Legs were inserted into auger holes bored for the purpose. These benches were placed along each side of the room about two feet apart, the writing desks at one end and the fireplace at the other end, leaving a space of a few feet in the center of the room where the classes were arranged standing to recite their lessons.
In this small space the teacher would walk back and forth with a hickory or hazel switch under his arm, ready to pounce upon scholars who dared look off their books. The remedy for bad lessons or violation of any rule of the school was a sound thrashing.
The rules of the school were written out at the commencement of the school, and tacked on the wall and read by the teacher on Monday of each week for four weeks and upon the entrance of a new scholar, after which no scholar escaped the rod who violated one of the rules. The children studied "out loud” during the study hour, which was had once in the forenoon and once in the afternoon; during the study hours the pupils sat with their faces to the wall, the teacher walking back and forth with rod in hand, and he never hesitated to pounce upon any pupil whose voice he could not hear, never deigning to give a word of caution or admonition of coming punishment.
In this way perfect discipline was maintained-the strangest features being that the patrons of the schools thought it the proper thing to do, being perfectly content to have their children thrashed at will by the teacher.
The only credits given pupils were head marks, which were given to the pupil that stood at the head of its class at the end of each lesson, and who would go to the foot of the class at the commencement of the next lesson. Thus the head marks were the test of scholarship in the school, and were the cause of great rivalry among the brightest scholars, the victors in the different grades usually receiving a prize from the trustees or patrons of the schools.
There were two queer customs in vogue before and at the time I left school, the origin of which I have never been able to learn, although I have endeavored many times to do so. One was that of “turning out" the teacher at Christmas and forcing him to treat the school, and give a week's vacation during Christmas time. The other was the habit of some people to cry out "school butter" as they passed the schoolhouse.
The first, I think, grew out of the fact that the entire year belonged to the teacher, so, if a vacation was had, it came out of his salary, and it was necessary to force the teacher to give the vacation, or attend school during the Christmas holidays, or if the pupils did not attend, the teacher drew his salary without having to teach. Hence, during the week before Xmas the boys would draw up a petition which would be signed by all of the large boys and girls, and presented to the teacher, asking for a week's holiday and that he treat the school to a keg of cider and a barrel of apples, which was seldom granted.
The result would be that on Christmas Eve, or the last day of school before Christmas week, the large boys and girls would assemble at the schoolhouse at midnight, provide wood for a day's siege, take possession of the schoolhouse, bar the doors and windows, and await the coming of the teacher. he still refused to grant the petition, and the boys were strong enough, they would sally forth, catch and bind him and take him to the nearest stream, cut a hole in the ice and stand him in it until he would yield, whereupon, the cider and apples would be sent for, and with the cakes and good things provided by the girls, the pupils would proceed to hold a session of high jinks in the schoolhouse.
If the boys were not strong enough, the teacher was kept out until a compromise was effected, which always followed, as the teacher could get no pay until he reported for duty in the schoolroom. But a school that did not force the teacher to give a week's holiday and treat the pupils, was considered a very snide school, and a failure was the cause of great humiliation for the pupils.
But "school butter," notwithstanding the sport that grew out of it, has always been a puzzle to me. I have never been able to see any sense or reason for it, and I only kuow it was considered a banter, or a slur on the school, and when a person in passing the schoolhouse cried out "school butter,” that fact dismissed the school, and the boys and often the teacher, rushed pell-mell out of the schoolroom in pursuit of the offender, and would follow him to his home if necessary and bring him back to the schoolhouse, where the pupils would form a procession and march to the nearest water and give him a thorough ducking. Nothing less would wipe out the fancied disgrace.
The above conditions and customs applied only to the country schools of the time of which I speak. In the towns and cities the schools were fairly gooi, in fact, some of the secondary schools were considered most excellent at that time. But my experience was in the country schools of which I speak, the memory of which is as clear to me as if it had all occurred but yesterday.
When we consider the conditions that prevailed at that time in comparison with the efficiency of our country schools of today, the great difference only becomes reasonable when we realize that nearly one-half of the existence of our government has passed since the conditions referred to existed.
Then our parents really thought that an education could not be secured unless it was literally whipped into the child, and when the teacher soundly whipped one of their children, it was an evidence of the great interest that he had in its welfare.
The examination of teachers was done by the Board of School Trustees, and the applicant that could spell, read and write well, usually had a walkover, as these subjects were considered of the greatest importance.
In California the improvement of our public schools has been continuous since the organization of state government. Laws have been enacted from time to time for the enforcement of improved methods, until today our school system is among the best in the United States.
With each step for the advancement of our school system, have come additional demands upon our teachers, and year by year the facilities for training our teachers have increased to meet the demands of educators and the patrons of our schools. So that at the present time, with a great surplus of teachers residing in the state, and the sharp competition for positions in the schools, it is absolutely necessary that teachers keep abreast of the times by getting thoroly equipped for the work now required of them.
The people of the state, through the legislature, bave provided ample ways and means by which teachers are enabled to secure efficient preparation and training, to make them thorohly coinpetent in every respect to teach our children, and our people have a perfect right to expect those who presume to teach in our schools to take advantage of the means provided by the state, and fully prepare themselves before they ask for a position in our schools as teachers.
A pedantic and self-satisfied schoolmaster, with a habit of leering that made his countenance repulsive, was explaining to the school how Janus came to be so named.
“Janus,” he said, "was double-faced. It was well enough for him, but it is a bad thing for boys to bave two faces. Johnny Green, there, is doublefaced. He looked me in the eye yesterday and told me he had studied two hours at home on his arithmetic; and when I turned to the board to correct his work, he looked around at the school and winked. Johnny Green, do you think I would have two faces like that?” And the schoolmaster leered at him.
"No, sir,” said Johnny, "we all know you don't have two faces." “How do you know it, Johnny?" asked the master, gratified.
“Because if you had any other face than that one you have got on you would wear it," replied Johnny. This fable teaches that compliments should not be examined too closely.
-C. W. Bordeen.