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"By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; and by knowledge
the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches." ~Proverbs 24:3-4

The One-Room Schoolteacher

In one-room schoolhouses, children of all ages and grades were taught in a single room by one teacher. Schoolteachers were required to give instruction in “the three R’s” (reading, writing, and arithmetic) as well as English grammar, orthography (spelling), geography and history. The teacher couldn’t teach all eight grades at once, of course, so he or she would teach one group of children while the rest of the students worked independently on assignments that were posted on the blackboard.

In the early days, young girls often started teaching as soon as they received their 8th grade certificate at age 15 or 16, so they weren’t much older than the pupils. Some male schoolmasters were former soldiers unable to do farm work because of a war wound or disability. The teacher’s school day was ten hours long. A teacher’s duties included stoking the fire in the potbellied stove, filling kerosene lamps, cleaning the classroom, and disciplining the students. Schoolteachers had to be strict to keep order in the classroom. Students who misbehaved were told to sit in the corner, or for greater offences the teacher gave them a “licking” with a rod or paddle.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, schoolteachers led rather restricted lives. They boarded with local families or in a “teacherage” next to the school. (You can see a real teacherage and schoolhouse at Pioneer Arizona Living History Museum in Phoenix, Arizona.) The teachers were supposed to set an example of good moral character for their students. Thus, teachers were expected to avoid engaging in any conduct that might cause anyone to suspect their intention, integrity, or honesty. Their personal lives were closely watched by the community and any activity or behavior that was deemed inappropriate - including marriage - provided grounds for dismissal.

When teachers were not in school, they were supposed to spend their time reading the Bible or other good books. They could not be seen in pool halls, saloons, or ice cream shops. The use of alcohol or tobacco in any form was forbidden. Male teachers could take one evening each week for courting purposes, or two evenings if they went to church regularly. Female teachers were not allowed to keep company with men, and had to be home between the hours of 8:00 pm and 6:00 am unless they were attending a church or school function.

There was a bride shortage in the Arizona Territory, however, so young schoolmarms frequently left their posts to get married. The resulting teacher shortage led to the founding of the Territorial Normal School at Tempe in 1886, which later became Arizona State University. Its main purpose was training hundreds of young people to become teachers. By the turn of the century, most teachers were receiving some type of formal training.

Check out one or more of the following resources to learn what it was like to be a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse.

These Happy Golden Years, by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

My Great-Aunt Arizona, by Gloria Houston.

The Secret School, by Avi.

The Year of Miss Agnes , by Kirkpatrick Hill.

My Face to the Wind: the Diary of Sarah Jane Price, a Prairie Teacher, by Jim Murphy.

Ghost Girl: A Blue Ridge Mountain Story, by Delia Ray.

The Teacher's Funeral : A Comedy in Three Parts, by Richard Peck.

See also: Not One Less (1999, G), a wonderful dramatic film made by Chinese director Zhang Yimou. The story tells about a 13-year-old girl who teaches in a one-room schoolhouse in a remote Chinese village while the regular teacher is gone.

Make a Writing Slate

You will need an 8x12 piece of plywood or craft wood, sandpaper, a cloth rag, masking tape, newspaper, and blackboard-finish spray paint. Sand all surfaces of the wood, especially the edges. Wipe off any sawdust with the rag. Use masking tape to make a border around the edges of the wood. Place the board on some newspapers. Lightly spray paint the wood. Allowing it to dry between coats, add more paint as needed. Remove the masking tape. You can write on your slate with chalk and erase with a felt eraser.


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