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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Gentlewomen in Elementary Schools

by Mrs. E. M. Field
Volume 12, 1901, pgs. 891-895


Among the many pressing questions raised by the development of women and social and philanthropic work, two especially seem lately to have risen into prominence. First, how to avoid the loss of not a few earnest and capable workers who cannot give their services without remuneration. Secondly, how to avoid the perils of amateur philanthropy and the pauperizing influence of artificial interference in the lives of others; how, that is, to establish between the lady worker and the lives she is seeking to ennoble a relation that shall be natural and neighbourly rather than de haut en bas [from top to bottom]. How is it that so few have realised the simple solution of both difficulties that offers itself in the work of the Elementary Schoolmistress? Her daily duty earns the living wage, besides bringing her all day long into the most helpful of all relations with the young generation. It gives her also ample opportunities of sympathetic intercourse with the parents, and of helpful discussion with them of much that is important to themselves and their children.

The truth is that the inner life and the work of our Elementary Schools has been, and still is, to the vast majority of our educated classes, a sealed book. Public education is indeed a national question of the first importance, a battle-ground of political parties, and an object of vast expenditure. But of the manner in which it is carried on day by day, of the true nature of the teacher's task, most of us know as little as of the routine of a battleship, nor do we know the teachers themselves, or appreciate the refinement of mind, the tact, the patience, and skill which enable them to succeed in their indispensable work. They are true civilisers of the masses, without whose services the streets of our large towns would have become, as has been said, a "wilderness of ruffianism." Even Mr. Morrison, usually so accurate in his delineations of the life of the poor, shows, by his allusion to the Grim Board School in the Mean Street, that he little knows how much sweetness and light centre there for the children whose homes have no uplifting influence. This apartness is no doubt due, in a measure at least, to social causes which are gradually losing some of their force. The impetus given to education generally by the Code of 1870 has improved the status of pay of teachers and widened their culture. It may be that in some of the smaller places the substitution of Boards for Voluntary Management has tended to loosen some bonds of personal interest and to increase the distance between the teacher and the better educated residents. But the total number of Voluntary Schools has increased, and the vast army of town teachers make their own life and their own friends and position, with the result that the average social advantages of the teacher are, beyond comparison, better than 30 years ago. The position of head teacher in a large school is important, well paid, and respected.

But it is still true that Elementary teachers, as a body, are too exclusively drawn from one class and trained in one groove. The bright child of the school passes from monitor to pupil-teacher, becoming later an assistant, and, perhaps, ultimately a head master or mistress. This training may, perhaps, be broken by two years in a college, but the college itself is an institution existing solely for the education of Elementary School teachers, and largely staffed by tutors and lecturers drawn from their ranks.

The consequence is a certain narrowness, a limitation of idea and outlook which needs the infusion of new elements to widen it. It is not likely that better teachers or persons with better moral influence than many of our present school-mistresses—to speak here of the work of women only—will ever be found. But the accession to their ranks of women whose point of view has been from the first wider and less trammelled, and who, coming in from the outside world and seeing with the outsider's eye, could discover fresh possibilities and aspects of work, could not fail to be valuable if the new comer were of the right sort. Women who have enjoyed the advantages of a cultured home and of a literary and artistic education and atmosphere should bring with them many ideas that would enrich the curriculum of the schools and help to inspire their fellow-workers.

No one can doubt the dignity of the work itself. That our young people need to grow up with higher ideals, to be fitted by greater industry, self-control, modesty, earnestness of purpose and breadth of view to uphold their country among the nations, is obvious enough. There can be no class among us upon whom the shaping of the future citizen or colonist more depends than upon those teachers who have at their disposal the most receptive years of the children's lives. Whatever subjects may compose the curriculum, the future personality of the pupil must depend largely upon the present personality of the teacher, and few needs can therefore be more pressing than those of obtaining the best possible material and shaping it in the best possible way. On one side, what is necessary is to make parents realise that here is a vocation for their daughters which offers worthy work as well as an independent livelihood. On the other, the importance of the matter has not been overlooked by the educational authorities of the country. Steps have been taken both to widen the training of the ex-elementary scholar, and to open the profession to others.

For this purpose the regulations have been relaxed so as to dispense with the early apprenticeship as pupil teacher and to accept other examinations as tests in place of some of those formerly required. To detail the precise steps of this mode of admission is not within the scope of the present paper. Information corrected up to date and practical advice can be obtained by any intending applicant through the kindness of a lady, Miss Judith Merivale, of 4, Park Town, Oxford. Acting for a small committee over which the Archbishop of Canterbury presides, Miss Merivale makes it her business to undertake all such correspondence, asking only in return a fee of one shilling to meet expenses of printing and postage. It will therefore be more to the present purpose to touch upon some of the questions which will arise in the minds of those who are disposed to agree with the principle, but see practical difficulties in the way of gentlewomen's work in Elementary School teaching. Will not the work, they ask, be an intolerable strain? Can a young lady hope to bear successfully the fatigue of long standing, of loud speaking to large classes, the drudgery of purely elementary lessons indefinitely repeated to children who are rough, ill-mannered and unclean? Will not the pay be too small to compensate for the discomforts of a life spent among such pupils, and would the rest of the staff prove congenial or friendly?

Doubtless there are difficulties. No true work is without them, and pioneers are not those who tread ready-smoothed paths. But already a certain number of gentlewomen have found it possible to succeed in this career. Experience shows that, in the majority of cases, the greatest difficulty at the outset is found in the young lady's inability to control her class, a fact, by the way, which throws light on some problems of the Sunday School. Here the ex-pupil teacher has a manifest advantage. A word of warning may not be amiss. Nothing could be more disastrous than an influx of young people raw in experience, arrogant in a sense of condescension to the work and its surroundings. Given real earnestness and a cordial and ready sympathy of disposition, the new-comer may expect a genial welcome and helping hand from the best of the profession, and friendliness from all, while the experience of all teachers who have their work at heart tells of a touching responsiveness in the children.

As to the subjects taught, it is difficult for those unacquainted with the work of the schools to realise how much liberty and initiative are allowed to the teachers, especially in large schools. They have great opportunities of awakening the intelligence of the children to ideas that are interesting, beautiful or artistic. Those who have heard the part-singing, for instance, and seen the drawing, done at a good school, can but regret the shortness of the children's school lives. Marvellous too is the change wrought in the outward appearance and inward self-respect of many a neglected gutter-child, after a few weeks, or even days, of school influences.

Some fatigue must be inseparable from real work, especially for those to whom it is new. Undoubtedly a number of women are in this generation debarred from any continued work that needs energy, by their feebleness of physique. But the whole holiday on Saturday and Sunday, with other reasonable vacations in the year, give real rest and play-time, and the private governess may well envy the freedom of a teacher's evenings. Lastly, the pay and prospects of promotion compare favourably with those of other careers. And there is at the present moment plenty of room in the profession. Does no such an opening for real workers need only to be better known to be duly appreciated?

[Note.—Mr. Rankine, H.M. Inspector of Training Colleges, says in his recent report:—"This attempt to bring the highest and lowest education (he refers here to University training) into vital connection, so that one life should pulse through the whole, is as sensible and practical as it is noble . . . It was held, and not so long ago, that a teacher need know nothing beyond a smattering of what he is to teach. Now it begins to be recognised that the best subjects for training the mind are not necessarily those which a man will have to teach, that it takes a master, not an apprentice, to make instruction simple . . . Students from secondary schools appear to be better material than the pupil teachers. They are intellectually more docile. They have greater mental flexibility. They have not acquired fixed habits of educational practice which prejudice them against new ideas. They possess a keener appreciation of the principles of method. They follow the lectures with more interest and they seek to apply what they have learnt, but at first they are not so good in class management, in keeping discipline, and in general power of control . . . They will be a valuable addition to the teaching power of this country . . . Were elementary and higher education joined together as parts of one organic whole, both would be strengthened by the union . . . Secondary teachers might profit greatly by studying the groundwork of all teaching, and elementary teachers would gain by association with a wider and more liberal culture."]


Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, Mar 2009