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THE TEACHING OF THE RURAL SCHOOL

The importance of teaching

Teaching is the fundamental purpose for which the school is run. Taxes are levied and collected, buildings erected and equipped, and curriculum organized solely that teaching may go on. Children are clothed and fed and sent to school instead of being put at work in order that they may be taught. The school is classified into grades, programs are arranged, and regulations are enforced only to make teaching possible. Normal schools are established, teachers are trained, and certificates required in order that teaching may be more efficient.

The teacher confronts a great task. On the one hand are the children, ignorant, immature, and undeveloped. In them lie ready to be called forth all the powers and capacities that will characterize their fully ripened manhood and womanhood. Given the right stimulus and direction, these powers will grow into splendid strength and capacity; lacking this stimulus and guidance, the powers are left crippled and incomplete.

On the other hand is the subject-matter of education, the heritage of culture which has been accumulating through the ages. In the slow process of human experience, running through countless generations, men have made their discoveries in the fields of mathematics and science; they have lived great events and achievements which have become history; they have developed the social institutions which we call the State, the church, the home, and the school; they have organized great industries and carried on complex vocations; they have crystallized their ideals, their hopes, and their aspirations in literature; and have with brush and chisel expressed in art their concepts of truth and beauty. The best of all this human experience we have collected in what we call a curriculum, and placed it before the child for him to master, as the generations before him have mastered it in their common lives. For only in this way can the child come into full possession of his powers, and set them at work in a fruitful way in accomplishing his own life-purpose.

It is the function of the teacher, therefore, to stand as an intermediary, as an interpreter, between the child and this great mass of subject-matter that lies ready for him to learn. The race has lived its thousands or millions of years; the individual lives but a few score. What former generations took centuries to work out the child can spend only a few months or a few years upon. Hence he must waste no time and opportunity; he must make no false step in his learning, for he cannot in his short life retrieve his mistakes. It is the work of the teacher, through instruction and guidance, that is, through teaching, to save the child time in his learning and development, and to make sure that he does not lose his opportunity. And this is a great responsibility.

Thus the teacher confronts a problem that has two great factors, the child and the subject-matter. He must have a knowledge of both these factors if his work is to be effective; for he cannot teach matter that he does not know, and neither can he teach a person whose nature he does not understand. But in addition to a knowledge of these factors, the teacher must also master a technique of instruction, he must train himself in the art of teaching.

The teacher must know the child. It has been a rather common impression that if one knows a certain field of subject-matter, he will surely be able to teach it to others. But nothing could be further from the truth than such an assumption. Indeed, it is proverbial that the great specialists are the most wretched teachers of their subjects. The nature of the child’s mental powers, the order of their unfoldment, the evolution of his interests, the incentives that appeal to him, the danger points in both his intellectual and his moral development,-these and many other things about child nature the intelligent teacher must clearly understand.

And the teacher of the younger children needs this knowledge even more than the teacher of older ones. For the earlier years of the child’s schooling are the most important years. It is at this time that he lays the foundation for all later learning, that he forms his habits of study and his attitude toward education, and that his life is given the bent for all its later development. Nothing can be more irrational, therefore, than to put the most untrained and inexperienced teachers in charge of the younger children. The fallacious notion that “anyone can teach little children” has borne tragic fruit in the stagnation and mediocrity of many lives whose powers were capable of great achievements.

The teacher must know the subject-matter. The blind cannot successfully lead the blind. One whose grasp of a subject extends only to the simplest rudiments cannot teach these rudiments. He who has never himself explored a field can hardly guide others through that field; at least, progress through the field will be at the cost of great waste of time and failure to grasp the significance or beauty of what the field contains.

Expressed more concretely, it is impossible to transplant arithmetic, or geography, or history, or anything else that one would teach, immediately from the textbook into the mind of the child. The subject must first come to be very fully and completely a true possession of the teacher. The successful teacher must also know vastly more of a subject than he is required to teach. For only then has he freedom; only then has he outlook and perspective; only then can he teach the subject, and not some particular textbook; only then can he inspire others to effort and achievement through his own mastery and interest. Enthusiasm is caught and not taught.

The teacher must know the technique of instruction. For teaching is an art, based upon scientific principles and requiring practice to secure skill. One of the greatest tasks of the teacher is to psychologize the subject-matter for his pupils,-that is, so to select, organize, and present it that the child’s mind naturally and easily grasps and appropriates it. Teaching, when it has become an art, which is to say, when the teacher has become an artist, is one of the most highly skilled vocations. It is as much more difficult than medicine as the human mind is more baffling than the human body; it is as much more difficult than preaching as the child is harder to comprehend and guide than the adult; it is as much more difficult than the law as life is more complex than logic.

Yet, while we require the highest type of preparation for medicine, the ministry, or the law, we require but little for teaching. We pay enormous salaries to trained experts to apply the principles of scientific management to our industries or our business, but we have been satisfied with inexpert service for the teaching of our children. We are making fortunes out of the stoppage of waste in our factories, but allowing enormous waste to continue in our schools. If we were to put into practice in teaching the thoroughly demonstrated and accepted scientific principles of education as we know them, we could beyond doubt double the educational results attained by our children.

Teaching in the rural school

The criticisms just made on our standards of teaching will apply in some degree to all our schools from the kindergarten to the university; but they apply more strongly to the rural schools than to any other class. For the rural schools are the training-ground for young, inexperienced, and relatively unprepared teachers. Except for the comparatively small proportion of the town or city teachers who are normal school or college trained, nearly all have served an apprenticeship in the rural schools. Thus the rural school, besides its other handicaps, is called upon to train teachers for the more favored urban schools.

Careful statistical studies have shown that many rural teachers, both men and women, have had no training beyond that of the elementary school. And not infrequently this training has taken place in the rural school of the type in which they themselves take up teaching. The average schooling of the men teaching in the rural schools of the entire country is less than two years above the elementary school, and of women, slightly more than two years. This is to say that our rural schools are taught by those who have had only about half of a high school course.

It is evident, therefore, that the rural teacher cannot meet the requirement urged above in the way of preparation. He does not know his subject-matter. Not only has he not gone far enough in his education to have a substantial foundation, breadth of view, and mental perspective, but he frequently lacks in the simplest rudiments of the immediate subject-matter which he is supposed to teach. The examination papers written by applicants for certificates to begin rural school teaching often betray a woful ignorance of the most fundamental knowledge. Inability to spell, punctuate, or effectively use the English language is common. The most elementary scientific truths are frequently unknown. A connected view of our nation’s history and knowledge of current events are not always possessed. The great world of literature is too often a closed book. And not seldom the simple relations of arithmetical number are beyond the grasp of the applicant. In short, our rural schools, as they average, require no adequate preparation of the teacher, and do not represent as much education in their teaching force as that needed by the intelligent farmer, merchant, or tradesman.

The rural teacher does not know the child. But little more than children themselves, and with little chance for observation or for experience in life, it would be strange if they did. They have had no opportunity for professional study, and psychology and the science of education are unknown to them. The attempts made to remedy this fatal weakness by the desultory reading of a volume or two in a voluntary reading-circle course do not serve the purpose. The teacher needs a thorough course of instruction in general and applied psychology, under the tutelage of an enthusiastic expert who not only knows his subject, but also understands the problems of the teacher.

The rural teacher does not know the technique of the schoolroom. The organizing of a school, the proper classification of pupils, the assignment of studies, the arrangement of a program of studies and recitation, the applications of suitable regulations and rules for the running of the school, are all matters requiring expert knowledge and skill. Yet the rural teacher has to undertake them without instruction in their principles and without supervisory guidance or help. No wonder that the rural school is poorly organized and managed. It presents problems of administration more puzzling than the town school, and yet here is where we put out our novices, boys and girls not yet out of their “teens”-young people who themselves have no concept of the problems of the school, no knowledge of its complex machinery, and no experience to serve as a guide in confronting their work. No industrial enterprise could exist under such irrational conditions; and neither could the schools, except that mental waste and bankruptcy are harder to measure than economic.

Nor does the rural teacher know the technique of instruction any better than that of organization and management. The skillful conducting of a recitation is at least as severe a test upon mental resourcefulness and skill as making a speech, preaching a sermon, or conducting a lawsuit. For not only must the subject-matter be organized for immature minds unused to the formal processes of learning, but the effects of instruction upon the child’s mind must constantly be watched by the teacher and interpreted with reference to further instruction. This skill cannot be attained empirically, by the cut-and-dried method, except at a frightful cost to the children. It is as if we were to turn a set of intelligent but untrained men loose in the community with their scalpels and their medicine cases to learn to be surgeons and doctors by experimenting upon their fellows.

As would naturally be expected, therefore, the teaching in the average rural school is a dreary round of inefficiency. Handicapped to begin with by classes too small to be interesting, the rural teacher is mechanically hearing the recitations of some twenty-five to thirty of these classes per day. Lacking at the beginning the breadth of education that would make teaching easy, he finds it impossible to prepare for so many different exercises daily. The result is that the recitations are dull, spiritless, uninteresting. The lessons are poorly prepared by the pupils, poorly recited, and hence very imperfectly mastered. The more advanced work cannot stand on such a foundation of sand, and so, discouraged, the child soon drops out of school.

When it is also remembered that the tenure of service of the teacher is very short in the rural schools, the problem becomes all the more grave. The average term of service in the rural schools is probably not above two years, and in many States considerably below this amount. This requires that half of the rural teachers each year shall be beginners. It will be impossible, of course, as long as teaching is done so largely by girls, who naturally will, and should, soon quit teaching for marriage, to secure a long period of service in the vocation. Yet the rural school is, as we have seen, also constantly losing its trained teachers to the town and city, and hence breaking in more than its share of novices.

Added to the disadvantage inevitably coming from the brief period of service in teaching is a similar one growing out of a faulty method of administration. In a large majority of our rural schools the contract is made for but one term of not more than three months. This leaves the teacher free to accept another school at the end of the term, and not infrequently a school will have two or even three different teachers within the same year. There is a great source of waste at this point, owing to a change of methods, repetition of work, and the necessity of starting a new system of school machinery. Industrial concerns would hardly find it profitable to change superintendents and foremen several times a year. We do this in our schools only because we have not yet learned that it pays to apply rational business methods to education.

Nothing that has been said in criticism of rural teaching ought to be construed as a reflection on the rural teachers personally. The fact that they can succeed as well as they do under conditions that are so adverse is the best warrant for their intelligence and devotion. It is not their fault that they begin teaching with inadequate knowledge of subject-matter, with ignorance of the nature of childhood, and without skill in the technique of the schoolroom. The system, and not the individual, is at fault. The public demands a pitifully low standard of efficiency in rural teaching, and the excellence of the product offered is not likely greatly to surpass what society asks and is ready to pay for.

Once again we must turn to the consolidated school as the solution of our difficulty. The isolated district school will not be able to demand and secure a worthy grade of preparation for teaching. The educational standards will not rise high enough under this system to create a public demand for skilled teachers. Nor can such salaries be paid as will encourage thorough and extensive study and preparation for teaching. And, finally, the professional incentives are not sufficiently strong in such schools to create a true craft spirit toward teaching.

While it is impossible to measure the improved results in teaching coming from the consolidated school in the same objective way that we can measure increased attendance, yet there is no doubt that one of the strongest arguments for the consolidated school is its more skillful and inspiring teaching. The increased salaries, the possibility of professional association with other teachers, the improved equipment, the better supervision, and above all, the spirit of progress and enthusiasm in the school itself, all serve to transform teaching from a treadmill routine into a joyful opportunity for inspiration and service.

The training of rural teachers

The training of the rural teacher has never been given the same consideration as that of town or city teachers. It is true that normal schools are available to all alike, and that in a few States the rural schools secure a considerable number of teachers who have had some normal training. But this is the exception rather than the rule. In the Middle Western States, for example, where there is a rich agricultural population, whole counties can be found in which no rural teacher has ever had any special training for his work. Professional requirements have been on a par with the meager salaries paid, and other incentives have not been strong enough to insure adequate preparation.

State normal schools have, therefore, been of comparatively little assistance in fitting teachers for the rural school. First of all the rural school teacher ordinarily does not go to the normal school, for it is not demanded of him. Again, if perchance a prospective rural teacher should attend a normal school, a town or city grade position is usually waiting for him when he graduates. For, in spite of the growth of our normal schools, they are as yet far from being able to supply all the teachers required for the urban grade positions, to say nothing about the rural schools. The colleges and universities are, of course, still further removed from the rural school, since the high schools stand ready to employ those of their graduates who enter upon teaching.

In some States, as for example, Wisconsin, county normal schools have been established with the special aim of preparing teachers for the rural schools. While this movement has helped, it does not promise to secure wide acceptance as a method of dealing with the problem. Greater possibilities undoubtedly exist in the comparatively recent movement toward combining normal training with the regular high school course. Provision for such courses now exists in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and a number of other States.

Combining normal training with high school education has first of all the advantage of bringing such training to prospective teachers, instead of requiring the teachers to leave home and incur additional expense in seeking their training. From the standpoint of the public it has the merit of economy, in that it utilizes buildings, equipment, and organization already in existence instead of requiring new.

But whatever may be the method employed, the rural teachers should receive better preparation for their work than they now have. This means, first, that the State must make adequate provision for the teacher to receive his training at a minimum of expense and trouble; and second, that the standard of requirement must be such that the teacher will be obliged to secure adequate preparation before being admitted to the school. Even with the present status of our rural schools it is not too much to require that every teacher shall have had at least a four-year high school education, and that a reasonable amount of normal training be had either in conjunction with the high school course, or subsequent to its completion. Indiana, for example, has found this requirement entirely feasible, and a great influence in bettering the tone of the rural school.

Wherever the rural teacher secures his training, however, one condition must obtain: this preparation must familiarize him with the spirit and needs of the agricultural community, and imbue him with enthusiasm for service in this field. It is not infrequently the case that town high school graduates, themselves never having lived in the country, possess neither the sympathy nor the understanding necessary to enable them to offer a high grade of service in the rural school. Not a few of them feel above the work of such a position, and look with contempt or pity upon the life of the farm. The successful rural teacher must be able to identify himself very completely with the interests and activities of the community; nor can this be done in any half-hearted, sentimental, or professional manner. It must be a spontaneous and natural response arising from a true interest in the people, a knowledge of their lives, and a sincere desire for their welfare. Any preparation that does not result in this spirit, and train in the ability to realize it in action, does not fit for the rural school.

Salaries of rural teachers

The salaries paid teachers in general in different types of schools are one measure, though not a perfect one, of their efficiency. Salary is not a perfect measure of efficiency, (1) because economic ability to pay is a modifying influence. When the early New England teacher was receiving ten or twelve dollars a month and “boarding round,” he was probably getting all that the community could afford to pay him, although he was often a college student, and not infrequently a well-trained graduate. The salaries paid in the various occupations are not (2) based upon any definite standards of the value of service. For example, the chef in a hotel may receive more than the superintendent of schools, and the football coach more than the college president; yet we would hardly want to conclude that the services of the cook and the athlete are worth more to society than the services of educators. And within the vocation of teaching itself there is (3) no fixed standard for judging teaching efficiency. Nevertheless, in general, teaching efficiency is in considerable degree measured by differences in salaries paid in different localities and in the various levels of school work.

Based on the standard of salary as a measure, the teaching efficiency of rural teachers is, as we should expect from starting nearly all of our beginners here, considerably below that in towns or cities. A study by Coffman of more than five thousand widely distributed teachers as to age, sex, salary, etc., shows that the average man in the rural school receives an annual salary of $390; in town schools, of $613; and in city schools, of $919. The average woman in the rural school receives an annual salary of $366; in town schools, of $492; and in city schools, of $591. Men in towns, therefore, receive one and one half times as much as men in the country, and in cities, two and one half times as much as in the country. Women in towns receive a little more than one and one third times as much as women in the country, and in the cities almost one and two thirds times as much as women in the country.

The actual amount of salary paid rural teachers is perhaps more instructive than the comparative amounts. The income of the rural teacher is barely a living wage, and not even that if the teacher has no parental home, or a gainful occupation during vacation times. Out of an amount of less than four hundred dollars a year the teacher is expected to pay for a certificate, a few school journals and professional books, and attend teachers institutes or conventions, besides supporting himself as a teacher ought to live. It does not need argument to show that this meager salary forces a standard of living too low for efficiency. It would, therefore, be unfair to ask for efficiency with the present standard of salaries.

Nor is it to be overlooked that efficiency and salaries must mount upward together. It would be as unjust to ask for higher salaries without increasing the grade of efficiency as to ask for efficiency on the present salary basis. It is probable that the eighteen- or nineteen-year-old boys and girls starting in to teach the rural school, with but little preparation above the elementary grades, are receiving all they are worth, at least as compared with what they could earn in other lines. The great point of difficulty is that they are not worth enough. The community cannot afford to buy the kind of educational service they are qualified to offer; it would be a vastly better investment for the public to buy higher teaching efficiency at larger salaries.

No statistics are available to show the exact percentage of increase in rural teachers’ salaries during recent years, but this increase has been considerable; and the tendency is still upward. In this as in other features of the rural school problem, however, it will be impossible to meet reasonable demands without forsaking the rural district system for a more centralized system of consolidated schools. To pay adequate salaries to the number of teachers now required for the thousands of small rural schools would be too heavy a drain on our economic resources. Under the consolidated system a considerably smaller number of teachers is required, and these can receive higher salaries without greatly increasing the amount expended for teaching. In this as in other phases of our educational problems, what is needed is rational business method, and a willingness to devote a fair proportion of our wealth to the education of the young.

Supervision of rural teaching

Our rural school teaching has never had efficient supervision. The very nature of rural school organization has rendered expert supervision impossible, no matter how able the supervising officer might be. With slight modifications, the office of county superintendent is, throughout the country, typical of the attempt to provide supervision for the rural school. While such a system may have afforded all that could be expected in the pioneer days, its inadequacy to meet present-day demands is almost too patent to require discussion.

First of all, it is physically impossible for a county superintendent to visit and supervise one hundred and fifty teachers at work in as many different schools scattered over four or five hundred square miles of territory. If he were to devote all his time to visiting country schools, he would have only one day to each school per year. When it is remembered that the county superintendent must also attend to an office that has a large amount of correspondence and clerical work, that he is usually commissioned with authority to oversee the building of all schoolhouses in his county, that he must act as judge in hearing appeals in school disputes, that he must conduct all teachers’ examinations and in many instances grade the papers, and, finally, that country roads are often impassable, it is seen that his time for supervision is greatly curtailed. As a matter of fact some rural schools receive no visit from the county superintendent for several years at a time.

A still further obstacle comes from the fact of the frequent changes of teachers among rural schools. A teacher visited by the county superintendent in a certain school this term, and advised as to how best to meet its problems, is likely to be in a different school next term, and required to meet an entirely new set of problems.

This is all very different from the problem of supervision met by the town or city superintendent. For the town or city district is of small area, and the schools few and close together. If the number of teachers is large, the superintendent is assisted by principals of different schools, and by deputies. The teaching force is better prepared, and hence requires less close supervision. School standards are higher, and the cooeperation of patrons more easily secured. The course of study is better organized, the schools better graded and equipped, and all other conditions more favorable to efficient supervision. It would not, therefore, be just to compare the results of supervision in the country districts with those in urban schools without making full allowance for these fundamental differences.

The county superintendent is in many States discriminated against in salary as compared with other county officers, and, as a rule, no provision is made to compensate for traveling expenses incurred in visiting schools. This, in effect, places a financial penalty on the work of supervision, as the superintendent can remain in his office with considerably less expense to himself than when he is out among the schools. In some instances, however, an allowance is made for traveling expenses in addition to the regular salary, thus encouraging the visiting of schools, or at least removing the handicap existing under the older system. An attempt has also been made in some States to relieve the county superintendent of the greater part of the clerical work of his office by employing for him at county expense a clerk for this purpose. These two provisions have proved of great help to the supervisory function of the county superintendent’s work, but the task yet looms up in impossible magnitude.

The county superintendence is throughout the country almost universally a political office. In some States, as, for example, in Indiana, it is appointive by a non-partisan board. But, in general, the candidate of the prevailing party, or the one who is the best “mixer,” secures the office regardless of qualifications. Sharing the fortunes of other political offices, the county superintendence frequently has applied to it the unwritten party rule of “two terms and out,” thus crippling the efficiency of the office by frequent changes of administration and uncertainty of tenure.

No fixed educational or professional standard of preparation for the county superintendence exists in the different States. If some reasonably high standard were required, it would do much to lessen the mischievous effects of making it a political office. In a large proportion of cases the county superintendent is only required to hold a middle-class certificate, and has enjoyed no better educational facilities than dozens of the teachers he is to supervise. The author has conducted teachers’ institutes in the Middle West for county superintendents who had never attended an institute or taught a term of school. The salary and professional opportunities of the office are not sufficiently attractive to draw men from the better school positions; hence the great majority of county superintendents come from the village principalships, the grades of town schools, or even from the rural schools.

A marked tendency of recent years has been to elect women as county superintendents. In Iowa, for example, half of the present county superintendents are women, and the proportion is increasing. In not a few instances women have made exceptional records as county superintendents, and, as a whole, are loyally devoted to their work. They suffer one disadvantage in this office, however, which is hard to overcome: they find it impossible, without undue exposure, to travel about the county during the cold and stormy weather of winter or when the roads are soaked with the spring rains. Whether they will be able to effect the desired cooerdination between the rural school and the agricultural interests of the community is a question yet to be settled.

In spite of the limitations of the office of county superintendent, however, it must not be thought that this office has played an unimportant part in our educational development. It has exerted a marked influence in the upbuilding of our schools, and accomplished this under the most unfavorable and discouraging circumstances. Among its occupants have been some of the most able and efficient men and women engaged in our school system. But the time has come in our educational advancement when the rural schools should have better supervision than they are now getting or can get under the present system.

The first step in improving the supervision, as in improving so many other features of the rural schools, is the reorganization of the system through consolidation, and the consequent reduction in the number of schools to be supervised. The next step is to remove the supervising office as far as possible from “practical” politics by making it appointive by a non-partisan county board, who will be at liberty to go anywhere for a superintendent, who will be glad to pay a good salary, and who will seek to retain a superintendent in office as long as he is rendering acceptable service to the county. The third step is to raise the standard of fitness for the office so that the incumbent may be a true intellectual leader among the teachers and people of his county. Nor can this preparation be of the scholastic type alone, but must be of such character as to adapt its possessor to the spirit and ideals of an agricultural people.

A wholly efficient system of supervision of rural teaching, then, would be possible only in a system of consolidated schools, each under the immediate direction of a principal, himself thoroughly educated and especially qualified to carry on the work of a school adapted to rural needs. Over these schools would be the supervision of the county superintendent, who will stand in the same relation to the principals as that of the city superintendent to his ward or high school principals. The county superintendent will serve to unify and correlate the work of the different consolidated schools, and to relate all to the life and work of the farm.

If it is said that systems of superintendence for rural schools could be devised more effective than the county superintendency, this may be granted as a matter of theory; but as a practical working program, there is no doubt that the office of county superintendent is a permanent part of our rural school system, unless the system itself is very radically changed. All the States, except the New England group, Ohio, and Nevada, now have the office of county superintendent. It is likely, therefore, that the plan of district superintendence permissive under the laws of certain States will hardly secure wide acceptance. The county as the unit of school administration is growing in favor, and will probably ultimately come to characterize the rural school system. The most natural step lying next ahead would, therefore, seem to be to make the conditions surrounding the office of county superintendent as favorable as possible, and then give the superintendent a sufficient number of deputies to make the supervision effective. These deputies should be selected, of course, with reference to their fitness for supervising particular lines of teaching, such as primary, home economics, agriculture, etc. A beginning has already been made in the latter line by the employment in some counties, with the aid of the Federal Government, of an agricultural expert who not only instructs the farmers in their fields, but also correlates his work with the rural schools. This principle is capable of almost indefinite extension in our school system.