Old school: Reflections of one-room schoolhouse teachers
The mission was clear.
Illinois State Normal University, founded in 1857 as the ninth state teacher training institution in the nation, existed to prepare educators. For the first four decades, the only curriculum offered was a fundamental teacher preparation sequence that required three years to complete. After 1900, a two-year degree was added, which was sufficient for those planning to teach in rural schools.
The need was great.
ISNU’s 1935 catalog states “rural teachers of strong personality and who have also acquired adequate training are in demand. Better trained teachers in Illinois are needed for the 10,000 one-room schools…It is believed that the field of teaching in the rural school offers the greatest opportunity to render service.”
The two-year diploma for one-room schoolhouse teachers required 68 credit hours. Beyond the fundamental subjects of math, English, literature and geography, required classes included hygiene, recreational activity, curricular problems and problems in classroom teaching.
Tuition was free to those who pledged to teach in Illinois, and totaled $37.50 for all others. The cost to a student paying all expenses was approximately $350 a year. Included in that total was housing, which was $2 and up for students who stayed with a local resident. Boarding costs were an additional $4 to $5 weekly. Students staying on campus in Fell and Smith halls paid a comparable fee.
Supervised observation and student teaching were a requirement, with one-room schoolhouses as the training ground for those who planned to lead such a school after graduation.
ISNU provided transportation for the student teachers. The catalog assured they would be given “ample opportunity to apply practical rural sociology, help in playground activities, and to become familiar with the basic principles of good teaching methods as they apply in rural school organization.”
The training was crucial to providing a comfort level to graduates, who were often not much older than the children they instructed. ISNU enrollment was allowed at age 16, with 15-year-olds admitted with the dean’s permission.
Students attending the schoolhouses were as young as 5 and as old as 18. Enrollment could be as large as 25 or as small as four. Boys often only participated in the winter months, as they were needed to help with family farming in the spring and fall.
Most ISNU graduates went straight from the campus to the one-room schools, which began to appear in Illinois following a state legislature act in 1818. In the mid-1800s, female teachers were paid approximately $14 a month, with the men earning twice that amount. Each gender had strict rules of behavior that grew more lenient over time.
One-room schoolhouses remained the backbone of American education for more than 200 years. By the time of World War II, the era was waning and the little schools were closed as a trend toward consolidation began. Most of the early structures have since been demolished, with some converted into small museums.
While the buildings are largely gone, the memories remain treasured by both those who attended and taught in the setting they acknowledge was primitive. And yet, the one-room schoolhouse proved to be more than sufficient, as ISNU alums will attest.
They vividly recall the enormous workload and are equally quick to speak of the reward. Their stories reveal that the benefits reaped—by student and teacher alike—were without a doubt worth the effort required.
Trained to master multiple grades
The percentage of individuals who taught or attended a one-room schoolhouse is dwindling to the point that most who hear of the arrangement wonder how it ever worked to teach eight grades in one room. Roy Schilling ’35, ’40, of Decatur, can answer that question: structure and routine.
Schilling, who will be 100 in June, started teaching at Maple Grove south of Springfield immediately after graduating. He credits his ISNU education for preparing him well.
“I had never attended a rural school, but after two years of intensive training at Illinois State Normal University, I felt very much able to teach. I had such good teachers,” said Schilling, who can still name his instructors and the classes he completed in Old Main. “All of my teachers had been excellent motivators and kind, compassionate persons. I was determined to be like them.”
There was initially some hesitancy to hire a male teacher, but Schilling landed the job for $80 a month. He had 18 children from nine families under his watch that first year of teaching.
“They came on horseback, in cozy-cab, buggy, and on foot,” Schilling said. He remembers one first grade lad he snatched from the back of the father’s horse and pulled through an open window each morning.
The day started promptly at 9 a.m. for the children, with a morning session going until 10:30. Following a 15-minute recess, lessons began again until lunch at noon. The afternoon routine was similar. Classes were in session from 1 p.m. until a 2:30 recess. The final portion of the day ended at 4 p.m.
“The first graders were tired, so at 3:30 they were done and I let them nap,” Schilling said. Most students eagerly listened to the work of the other grades, allowing them to get a solid seven years of education.
“I taught 32 classes a day,” Schilling recalled. “Keenly aware that education resulted from the process of teaching and learning, I felt a heavy responsibility as I planned and listened to more than 30 daily recitations.”
The work was done without much interruption due to misbehavior. While it took some extra attention when the students went to their separate outhouses away from the school, most understood and met expectations.
“Good discipline was assumed to be the chief order of the day by children and parents, as well as by the teacher,” Schilling said, remembering one student who had a propensity for telling lies about her classmates. “There were several occasions which demanded diplomatic attention in order to provide a happy learning environment for all.”
He found illness to be more of a struggle than student antics, recalling that he caught mumps, malaria fever and scabies from the children. His absences were rare, however, as finding a substitute was difficult and required that he pay his replacement from his own salary.
His income jumped significantly when he took a job at a city school, going from $640 a year to $800. Schilling stayed in education up to his retirement in 1979, and remains tied to ISU through scholarships he and his wife, Rachel, established.
“The happiness and success of my first year induced me to continue my education and remain in teaching and elementary administration for 44 years,” he said. “For years, when September 1 came around, I wanted to go back to school.”
The teacher’s work was never done
After experiencing the one-room schoolhouse as a student and a teacher, Verna (Legner) Ahearn ’32 knows firsthand how much easier the education routine is today with buses, electricity and a janitorial staff. The 102-year-old Dwight resident speaks from experience when she recalls the hardships tied to keeping the school of yesteryear comfortable and functional, not to mention the journey required for an education.
“We walked one mile to school. And we were at school most of the time, through the snow and over the drifts,” Ahearn said, explaining that schoolhouses were strategically placed within each county so that no family would journey more than two miles one way. Schools were carved from a corner of a farmer’s field and typically named after the land’s owner.
She attended Borquin School near Odell in Livingston County for eight years, returning in 1932 as the teacher. During the 11 years she ran the one-room school, Ahearn did much more than prepare lessons for students across eight grades.
“You had to sweep the floor and in the cold weather, you made the fire.” Ahearn remembers the school was one large room with a stove in the corner that wasn’t always adequate in removing the winter chill that seeped through the row of windows found on each side. The heat did not reach the entry, where children left their coats and lunches.
“There was a coal and a cob house out away from the school. The cobs got the fire going, and I would use scraps of paper. Then I’d add chunks of coal to burn. My fingers hurt many a morning.”
Sometimes Ahearn relied on the boys to help carry the pails, including those filled with water, as that routine wasn’t any easier. Full buckets often weighed as much as the teacher.
“We got water from a well that was close to the schoolhouse. I pumped a pail and would bring it in. We would wash in a basin and then throw that water out the door.”
The floor was to be swept in the morning and often needed it again in the afternoon. The blackboards had to be cleaned, windows washed, and the sidewalk cleared of snow during winter months.
“I left home early, and I took work home with me,” Ahearn said.
There were lesson plans and worksheets to be made for all the grades, which she did by hand and later with an old typewriter that she still owns. There was also the work of each child to review, as every teacher’s career hinged on the ability of students to advance.
Ahearn lived with her parents to save money during the Depression years. That meant she also had the homestead to help with, planting the family garden and partnering with her mother on the housework. “Everything was hard. It was just hard times and we worked,” Ahearn said.
While teaching was a respected profession, with Ahearn earning a starting salary of about $80 a month, the job didn’t mean life was easier. In fact, she was not paid her first year because the school did not receive any tax revenue.
“There wasn’t any money. The banks closed the first month I taught school. I got a little piece of paper saying I was owed so much money,” she said. “If I hadn’t been living at home, I would have been out begging.”
Remembering rigid classes and students’ tough tests
Ask Ruth (Blacker) Ryder ’38 about the focus on testing in classrooms today, and she will share a history that proves one-room schoolhouse students faced a more intense curriculum and exams than often now exist.
Ryder, 96 and living in Normal, knew the rigors as a student. She attended Prairie Dell in Piatt County for eight years. She taught there as well, hired at $75 a month immediately upon receiving her two-year diploma from ISNU.
She still has it and the curriculum book from her first year of teaching, a document created by the county superintendent to detail what was expected of every student and each grade level.
“A suggested rotation of classes was listed in the Course of Study, and teachers were advised not to vary from this except in special circumstances,” Ryder said. The fifth and seventh grades were taught every other year, which meant some students took reading and history out of sequence.
The county superintendent determined the required texts, which each student purchased at a local drugstore or acquired from an older sibling. Ryder ordered reprints of famous paintings at a cost of two cents each for the study of art.
“We had no specialized teachers of the fine arts. The teacher was expected to teach not just the academic subjects but also music and art,” Ryder said, recalling her struggles as one who “couldn’t carry a tune.”
Beyond the core academic subjects, students had orthography lessons to learn Latin and Greek roots of English words. They had Nature Study, which was based on agricultural issues given the farming society of the day. Ryder especially remembers the lectures on Morals and Manners.
“I taught proper behaviors and such things as how to introduce oneself and how to answer a telephone, which was new to many students or not yet in their homes,” Ryder said. “Lessons covered topics such as good character, industry, obedience, punctuality, good manners, frugality, courtesy and truthfulness,”
She had no problem keeping order in the classroom, as the students had seatwork when other grades were being taught, and they knew her rules of behavior. “I directed each group of students with the order, ‘Turn, Rise, Pass.’ They would turn from their desks, rise, and proceed to the recitation bench, books in hand.”
Most students benefited from hearing the upper grade lessons and they were diligent, as they knew test day was coming.
“Quarterly exam questions were written by the county superintendent and sent by mail to the teacher,” Ryder recalled. “Of greatest importance were the seventh and eighth grade exams. These were county-wide exams, given on a Saturday at the county seat, and students were required to pass them before progressing to the next grade.”
An intense review was provided for the students, as a rural teacher’s future depended on the student exam performance. “One of my directors would not confirm my contract would be extended for a second year until after he saw the county exam results,” Ryder remembered.
She wonders if students today could pass the tests. They were so rigorous, it was not unusual for many students to end their education at the eighth grade.
Fun and frolic created happy memories
While the plethora of extra-curricular activities that students expect today didn’t exist during the era of one-room schoolhouses, children still had ample opportunities to do more than learn the required lessons.
Wilda (Yoder) Kennedy ’39, ’59, enjoyed the special programs and games that remain some of her fondest memories from her days as a student in two different one-room schools. She also taught, initially at Phelps School south of Fairbury and later at Metz School near Forrest, where her mother had led students years earlier.
Kennedy had 13 students her first year on the job, with enrollment down to seven her second year. Her salary was approximately $90 a month, with another $3.75 negotiated to serve as a pension.
“We earned our money, but it was fun,” Kennedy said. She relished the opportunity to interact so closely with each child. They would huddle with her when eating their lunches, which were brought from home. A recess scheduled each morning and afternoon also created special memories, as the teachers joined in the games.
“We played with them, and not only to control them better,” Kennedy said, remembering the enjoyable moments shared. Not even the dresses required for the girls kept them from heartily engaging in competition that varied from a challenge on a baseball diamond to games long forgotten, including Anty Over, which Kennedy still knows well.
The children split into two groups, each on separate sides of the schoolhouse. The shout “Anty, anty over” meant the ball was coming across the top of the building. If caught, the team would chase around the school to tag classmates. If not caught, the cry would go out again and the ball would come across from the other side.
Kennedy remembers the suspense, not only of the wait to find out if classmates were about to charge, but the worry of an errant throw knocking out a window. Order was always quickly restored, however, with a hand bell that she still possesses and treasures.
She has equally fond memories of the holidays, including Valentine’s Day, Halloween, and the end-of-year picnic. The Christmas program was always a highlight. The entire community gathered for the event, which had to be planned and practiced in addition to the daily routine of studies.
“There were guidelines published,” Kennedy recalled. “We were admonished to make the program grow out of school activities, be worth taking school time for, be built around some central theme, include some music, have variety, have appropriate…staging and costuming, and have as much participation by all, audience included, as possible.”
Her first year teaching, Kennedy chose a Christmas Around the World theme. In addition to the standard carols of the season, she added a new song titled “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
“I recall that I received a copy from Montgomery Ward as a promotion, so we learned it too and they all loved it,” said Kennedy, who is now 98 and lives in Chenoa.
“People were good about attending and the parents were involved. School was a part of the social life for the community, as there was no television,” said Kennedy, who ended her work as a one-room schoolhouse teacher when she married, as that remained an unspoken rule of the era.