Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/March 1897/Confessions of a Normal School Teacher

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IN this age of frank subjective expression when we are taken into the confidence of so many interesting personalities, when authors write their "reminiscences" or recall their "literary passions," when men of business recount the steps by which they climbed the ladder of success, and when even the public-school teachers have found a welcome for their "confessions" in the literary magazines, it seems good to me also, having been a normal-school teacher from the first (that is, having spent most of the years since, a girl in my teens, I graduated at a State normal school, in teaching in similar institutions of different sections of the country), to set forth in order a few of the things that are surely believed by the members of our craft.

It is currently reported that we normal-school people are not an erudite class; that there are many things in the philosophies of heaven and earth that are not included in the horizon of our mental vision. Indeed, we have heard this so many times that it begins to seem like a "chestnut" to our indurated ears. Brethren of the college and out of the college, when next you feel moved to characterize our mental status, please tell us something new.

As to the charge itself we have no desire to enter into controversy regarding it. We have a high respect for knowledge, especially of the real kind. We prefer this to the sort possessed by a certain fabled princess of one of Henry James's novels, who had been told all the facts in the universe, but had never in her life perceived anything. For this latter kind of "knowledge" we are not perhaps so greedy as some, while recognizing that "information" also has its value and uses.

But we confess, jointly and severally, to a measure of truth in the indictment. There are halls in the temple of knowledge where the feet of some of us have never trod; there are shrines at which some of us have never worshiped. Friend Critic, forgive us if we sometimes question whether you yourself have tasted of every "apple" that grows upon the tree of knowledge, unless by proxy as it were, after the manner of the fabled princess aforesaid.

We are inclined to the belief that native ability and persistent effort have more to do with the acquisition of mental power than the question of what seat of learning one studies in. Much that a student thinks he learns while acquiring a so-called "education" is only "skin-deep," and has little appreciable effect upon the after-efforts of life. But if a mind of good ability has learned how to study, and has a strong desire for improvement and is pending its energies upon worthy subjects of thought, it is difficult to see how the results of a given period of study—whether two, four, or ten years, or a whole lifetime—could be very unequal in the total sum, whether these years be passed in the normal school, or in the college, or in one's own well-furnished library, or in a pioneer's cabin with only a few "best" books that are pored over and pondered till they become part of one's very life. Not that the results would be alike in the several cases. Far from it. But all disabilities have their compensations; and perhaps the total gain for a like amount of effort may not vary so much as is sometimes supposed.

For my own school education—to make a more personal "confession"—I had a desire for the seminary course that some of my young friends entered upon (it was before the days of the multiplication of women's colleges); but, in reviewing the results of school life after the lapse of years, I see no reason to blame the dispensation of Providence, which, by making me one of a large family of children, caused the financial straitness that sent me to a normal school instead. The normal school taught me how to study and deepened the desire for study that I already possessed. Even if the school had done nothing else, it would have deserved my lasting gratitude.

But it did other things for me. It opened before me a definite line of work worthy of my best endeavors. It gave me a practical touch with some of the phases of school work and saved me from some of the crudities and mistakes that hamper a young teacher's efforts. It did not save me from all such mistakes. It has been truly said, "No matter what the training, every teacher needs experience." But I am sure that the normal school gave me some aids to my work as a teacher that I should not have been likely to receive in any other kind of school.

There is one view of the relation of normal-school graduates to the teaching profession that may be illustrated by the following incident: A young lady, after graduating at a high school, took the classical or four years' course at a New England normal school, and afterward taught successfully for twelve years in the high schools of Massachusetts. Then came family changes, followed by a period of enforced rest. When she was able to resume her profession she first took a year of special study in a private institution of high reputation, without remaining long enough, however, to receive the diploma of the "college."

She then proposed to enroll herself in the leading teachers' agencies as a candidate for a high-school position. But she was met with the statement: "It is not easy for a teacher to obtain a high-school engagement unless she is a college graduate. Let us advise you to turn your attention to school supervision, or to the kindergarten, or to some form of work connected with the lower grades of schools."

"But," said the teacher, "I do not feel ready for those other lines of work. My teaching has always been in high schools, and this is what I can do best."

"We do not doubt," was the reply, "that you can do better teaching in high schools than most of those who apply. Nevertheless, we have to cater to the demand."

"But there are a great many normal-school graduates in the high schools, to my certain knowledge."

"Oh, yes; the normal-school graduates who are in that work do not lose their positions. But women's colleges are in the mind of the public now, and an application for a high-school teacher usually specifies that one of their graduates is wanted."

Without pausing to suggest that the conceded fact that the normal-school graduates retain their high-school positions argued something regarding their ability to fill them, the teacher continued: "I should think the training and experience that I have had ought certainly to count for as much as the college course."

"Yes. It is really worth much more; but it is the name that is chiefly desired. School men are not satisfied with knowing that a teacher has had a collegiate training. They want the full college degree. The other day we recommended a young lady who has just graduated from——College, ranking second in her class. The superintendent, after making a note of the fact, remarked, ‘How finely that will sound in my report to the school board and in the advertisements of the school!’”

We are conscious of no acerbity or envious cravings on account of the academic degrees and honors of the universities. We appreciate that a real value attaches to such marks of recognized attainment when honestly bestowed, and held with no exaggerated sense of their importance. So also the titles of nobility, heraldic insignia, and military decorations of the Old World are of value, unless they have become divorced from the sentiments which gave them birth.

But, as self-respecting Americans, we do not wish to feel ourselves dependent upon such factitious means for success in life. Nor do we feel so. We call to mind that the greatest American of this half century was "graduated" from school life after a few months' study in a backwoods school. When he came to the highest position of responsibility ever held by a citizen of the United States, it was said by a distinguished college president, "Lincoln may have good sense, but he will need some one to write his messages for him." Yet the two great classic prose utterances of the war period are Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and his Gettysburg address.

As we mingle freely and on equal terms with our friends and kinsfolk and acquaintance who are among the Ph. D.'s and LL.D.'s and D. D.'s of scholarly fame, and also with the younger sisterhood of educated women who are wearing recent college honors, we are sensible of no feeling of abashed inferiority, as though in the presence of things too high for us; nor do the attainments of these scholars, which we appreciate and greatly rejoice in, seem to dwarf in any degree the apparently equally valuable powers of many another friend whose mental acquirements have been gained in some widely different course of training in the great university of American life.

But there is something in the experience of that high-school teacher with the agencies which raises a query as to the relations of the high schools to the educational status of the modern age. If there is one point that seems fully proved by the educational progress of the last half century it is that kindergarten and primary-school teachers need professional training for their work. The time was, and not so very long ago, when it was thought that any one with a common-school education could teach little children. But it seems a far cry back to that position to-day.

Is it, then, true that the high school is the only part of our public-school system in which the teacher does not need to be a student of pedagogical science, to be in sympathetic and intelligent touch with modern school methods, and to have gained a degree of tried skill through supervised schoolroom experience before being placed in full charge of schoolroom work? This would indeed be passing strange. One would suppose that the high-school teacher must need for his equipment an intelligent understanding of the methods and plans of the lower schools from the kindergarten up, with some added study of the special needs of high schools—a more comprehensive rather than a shorter course of professional training. If not, then will some one tell us why not?

The question is not whether the high-school teacher should have a broad and thorough scholarship. That "goes without saying." And if it be said that the best place to gain this scholarship is within the walls of a good college, we of the normal school have no desire to challenge the assertion. But, given all that scholarship, all that native ability can do, the idea that high-school teachers have less need than primary teachers to professionalize their work is a baseless assumption which is certain to be undermined sooner or later by the tide of educational progress. It is not hard to predict that the near future will require of the would-be high-school teacher as much of scholarship as the college gives, and as much professional equipment as is given by the normal schools in their best and longest courses.

As to how and in what kind of schools this double equipment can best be given—ah! that is another question, beyond the limits of this paper to discuss, and, like all questions that deal with expedients, hard to settle—differing minds will always prefer differing expedients for the same end.

Will the professional training be included in the college curriculum? Has any college yet provided for it? I mean, not simply by a course of lectures on Herbartian Philosophy, but also by a close and vital study of all the conditions of public-school work. It is a healthy sign of the times that the colleges are addressing themselves to pedagogical questions. The combined efforts of all the institutions of learning will be none too effective for the work of public education. But all real aid to public schools must be given in the spirit of those who would build up rather than pull down, who can distinguish in the work of others a right ideal in the midst of the crowding obstacles that prevent the full realization of that ideal, and who do not hold themselves aloof from personal labor as mutual helpers and learners with other earnest and open-minded thinkers who are already carrying the burdens of the work.

Can the normal schools give this double preparation for high-school work, providing the requisite scholarship as well as the practical and professional training? If it be true that they have not heretofore done so, perhaps the importance of the work they have been doing for the elementary schools offers a partial explanation. But it would be a matter of public interest if educationists should really inquire and find out how nearly the best normal schools in their four years' courses reach the standard of the colleges in scholastic attainments, and also how much difficulty there would be in superadding to these courses whatever they may now lack of such attainments. It would certainly seem to be feasible for a State system of public instruction to prepare at least some of the teachers needed for all grades of its own work. To delegate the work for the higher grades entirely to private institutions which have no practical relations with the lower-grade work, would be to establish a break in the public-school system that it would be hard to justify.

But here again the experience of that high-school teacher raises a question. It would almost seem that in the minds of the managers of the agencies such a breach is known to exist; that while the lower schools belong to the masses of the people, the high school is supposed to be intended primarily as a feeder for the colleges, so that to introduce any other than a collegiate element into its teaching force suggests a "poaching upon the college preserves." There is more than a suspicion abroad that the high schools do stand in just this position of uncertainty, whether their work is chiefly that of a college preparatory school, or whether they are also the head and crown of the school system in which the child of the people finds his best school preparation for whatever career his future may hold. To sustain this double responsibility is more than the high school can do, unless perchance the colleges and the elementary schools can be so brought into harmony—by the modification of one or the other or both—that fitting for college and for general American citizenship shall become one and the same thing.

That the high-school course ought to lead to the door of the college was the unanimous verdict of the able committee whose Report on Secondary Schools has become so famous. But if this be interpreted as meaning that the colleges alone can set the pace for high-school instruction, or if the influence of that report should be to separate the high school from the lower schools, both in its aim and the personnel of its teaching force, then, indeed, it is certain that time must bring a reaction. There can be no fundamental reason for an explicit change of policy in the public-school work at the end of the ninth grade.

Since the high schools must sustain such intimate relations with colleges and lower schools, with public and private institutions, it would seem to be the necessary policy of their managers to keep them in fullest touch with both of the leading schools of current educational thought. And here we come face to face with what is perhaps the bottom fact in the situation. It must be confessed that in the educational world there are two types of thinking and thinkers, neither of them confined in its affiliations to the college or to the elementary schools, yet each having its own peculiar relations both with the one and with the other. The one type represents time-honored ideals, it may be of scholarship and culture, or it may be of practical forms and methods—ideals which experience has wrought out, and which are therefore held to be worthy of acceptance. The other type seeks to build up an improved system of education according to principles that are held to be fundamental; and, believing that "new wine must be put into new bottles," it does not scruple to turn aside, if occasion arises, from the standards of the past.

Nor is this true of education alone. It is the same in politics, in religion, in literature, and in every form of art. The traditional or conventional ideals coexist side by side with a newer philosophy, which seems antagonistic until a later view unites them both in its larger perspective.

In the educational world within two or three years these types in a measure seem to have focused themselves in two famous documents, the report of the Committee of Ten on Secondary Schools, and the later report of the Committee of Fifteen—or, as is sometimes said, the Committee of Five, since it is the report of one third of the committee—on the Correlation of Primary Studies, that has become most noted. Though these are ostensibly on different subjects, the report on secondary schools could not fail to take into account the previous school training, nor could the primary work be reported without a long look forward.

Both reports aim at progressive effort for the improvement of the lower schools, and are valuable contributions to the educational literature of the age. The specific suggestions of the two apparently differ less than the guiding principles that seem to have moved the committees. For, consciously or unconsciously, the one seems to have the eye fixed upon certain established ideals of culture and scholarship which are held as the standards for the colleges, and hence, it is assumed, must be the goal of effort for the lower schools. In the other report we seem to hear the note of a different philosophy—a reaching forward toward all the possible activities of the child's future. Yet in this also there is an ideal which beckons onward; but it is not found in traditional types. It is based on the complex needs of our great American life—to prepare the child to understand and to meet those needs and to direct the forces of the future.

If it be said that the collegiate standards are shaped according to the same ideal, the answer must be: Perhaps so; yet the American people will not accept their standards at second hand, or as established for them by a single class in the community. In determining their own educational needs, the great middle class of the people is also in the jury box. The schools that are "for the people" must be planned in a good degree "by the people," instead of following wholly the lead of the highly educated few.

There is a time-honored maxim of the universities that educational influences proceed from the top downward. But, like all epigrams, it is a brilliant half-truth. There is no "top" to education, or if there be it is higher than all human standards, reaching into the very heavens. And this is a ladder over which the angels must pass both ways, ascending and descending upon it. The way must be kept open, and the touch must be free all along the line. There must be no dividing gap where either type of thought can say to the other, "Thus far shalt thou go and no farther." Especially in the high school should there be the largest welcome to good influences from either side. Then the one that can show the largest sympathy and most intelligent understanding of the whole problem will have the greatest influence in the final shaping of affairs.

Yet even as I write a growing doubt arises. Is there really any such conflict in the forces that move educational affairs as we sometimes think? Or, if there be, is it wholly to be deprecated? We know that friction of opinion is the pioneer's axe that clears the path for progress. And whichever side of a question we may find ourselves upon, we should not forget that "the strong opposition is the balance wheel of all parliaments," in the educational as well as the civic world.

But is there really a gap in our educational system? The "bloody chasm" that a few years ago divided two great sections of our country seems to have been chiefly an abstract entity after all. Whenever individuals met in human relations they usually forgot that it had ever yawned between them. We seem to see a multitude of teachers ranged in two great ranks. Bat their hands are constantly reaching out toward each other in friendly aid, and there is therefore no gap between them, scarcely a dividing line. Collegiate schools are studying the problems of childhood, and normal and public school teachers have no intention to rest satisfied with feeble results in the first of their trinity of aims—knowledge, power, and skill. The faces of the teachers may be turned toward different parts of the horizon; but when we lift our eyes upward we are looking into the same boundless sphere of truth and of life, whose mysteries we are all trying to discover and interpret.

But in a personal "confession" one should not wander into mazes of rhetoric and philosophy. Coming back to my personal bearings, I am strongly reminded of an American gentleman who took an extended tour in Europe. After some months of travel, being a good Christian as well as a tourist, he wrote home to America: "I have discovered that there are just two religious denominations, the prayer-book denomination and that of the prayer-meeting. The more I see of each, the more I recognize that I have a genuine sympathy with both. I can worship with pleasure and with profit in ‘churches’ and in ‘chapels.’ But when it comes to Christian work I feel that, however it may be with others, I myself can find my best field for endeavor in the prayer-meeting denomination."

It is with a feeling akin to his that I write: I have much fellow-feeling with both "denominations" of educational thought; yet I do not regret that the circumstances of my life have fixed my lines of work more especially with the "denomination" that is in closest touch with the masses of the American people.

His object being the systematic exploration of the Franz-Josef Archipelago and the unknown seas adjacent, Mr. Harmsworth, it is announced, intends to keep an expedition in the arctic regions till a complete map can be made of all accessible parts of the still undiscovered north polar world. The Jackson-Harmsworth Expedition is spending its third winter in the arctic regions, and will make another advance in the coming season.