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The One-Room Country School Experience

By Diane Wahto
Opinion | November 20, 2011

WICHITA, Kan. - In the discussions relating to education on this blog, the topic of one-room country schools has come up a few times. One faithful blog reader and poster asked if I would write about my experience teaching in a one-room country school. I will be happy to do so as long as people realize that my experience may not have been typical for a variety or reasons, the major reason being my incompetency as a teacher at that point in my life.

My then husband, a librarian, took the job as the Audrain County librarian in the summer of 1965. The library was located in Decatur, Michigan, a town of 1,800 located thirty-five miles southwest of Kalamazoo. Decatur was the ideal place to live and raise children. Lake of the Woods, a small lake, was within walking distance of our house. We were on the edge of town and mornings we woke to the sound of cows mooing and the good country smells that come with rural living.

A year after we moved there, I enrolled in Western Michigan University as a sophomore, having completed my freshman year before I got married and had kids. At the end of my sophomore year, I started substituting in the Decatur schools, mostly in elementary. The state at that time required only that substitute teachers complete the sophomore year of college in order to be licensed to teach. As a substitute, I followed the lesson plans left behind by classroom teachers, and did my best to figure out the terminology that had changed considerably from the time I had been a student. New Math had just come on the scene and when I tried to convey New Math concepts to fifth graders, I knew before I got very far that I was lost. I understood math and I did well in it, until I hit algebra in high school, but I wasn't prepared for this new system of teaching.

Even so, I kept busy substituting and taking college classes at night. Then during the summer after school was out, someone called and asked if I would like a full time job teaching at a one-room country school about ten miles west of Decatur. I talked to the parents who made up the school board and found out that the school wasn't certified by the state. However, the parents didn't want their children going to the "big" school in Decatur, so they had started their own school a few years before.

I jumped at the chance to have a real job. We had been struggling financially, as many young families do, and I knew the extra income would give us a boost. I found a baby sitter who would come to the house and I prepared myself for the coming school year.

The first thing I did was look at what was available in the way of teaching materials at the schools. As I went through the shelves of textbooks in the room, I found they were hopelessly out of date. With certain subjects, this isn't a problem. Despite New Math, math concepts remain pretty much the same year after year. Reading and language arts don't change much either. However, the shabby history books ended with WWI. The maps in the geography texts had nothing to do with the map of the world as it existed in the late '60s.

The physical facility itself was adequate. At the front of the room was a blackboard. The student desks were much like the ones I sat in when I was in grade school. A piano sat at the front of the room. I had taken piano lessons, but never became proficient at playing. I did know how to read music and I could sing, so all was not lost in that area. Windows lined the south and east of the wood floor classroom, letting in wonderful light. The building had no hot water, but a drinking fountain was located under the south bank of windows. Out back were swings, slides, and a large grassy area, as well as a trash burner.

After a survey of materials, I made a list of what I needed and went to the school supply store in Kalamazoo in hopes of finding some up-to-date materials. I did find a few things, as well as chalk, erasers and other necessary equipment.

The first day, I found myself facing sixteen students, ranging in age from 6 to 13. Two families made up the bulk of the students. The father of one family had moved to the area from Chicago to make sure his three children were safe. Ironically, the son in that family was killed the following year when he and his friends tried to steal pumpkins and the pumpkin farmer shot him.

The other family sent five or six children to the school. Most of the time, The oldest boy of this family showed up only when it was too cold to stay at home. Both the parents of this family worked, but they were among the working poor. The house wasn't heated and according to what I was told it was open to the great variety of pets and farm animals who roamed in and out at will. In contrast to her brother, the oldest daughter in this family, an eighth grader, was a diligent student. She helped the younger kids, among them her six-year-old twin brothers, with their lessons.

The school year started well enough. We all, students and teacher, showed up in our best clothes, ready to learn and teach. The only discipline problem I had that year was that the students always wanted to be let out early. I didn't allow that, being a stickler for following the rules.

My real problems had nothing to do with the students or with the parents who were in charge of the school. I didn't know how to teach, particularly when it came to teaching kids to read. I had bought reading books and workbooks in the Kalamazoo school supply store and I followed the lessons with the little kids as much as I could. However, those kids didn't seem to get the idea and I didn't know how to convey it to them. I don't remember how well I did with the older kids, but at least they had a good grasp of reading and math and could more or less teach themselves.

As the year progressed, my sense that I was incompetent to teach those kids grew. Even so, we had a good time together. The girl from Chicago was allowed to go the two hundred miles to attend a Monkee's concert there and she came back with souvenirs and all sorts of tales about her adventure. We had a Christmas concert for the parents at which I bravely pounded out carols on the piano, hoping the students' voices would drown out my horrible playing.

One day one of the girls was stung by a wasp on the playground and started swelling up immediately. We had no phone at the school, so I sent a student down the road to the nearest farmhouse to call for help. The stung student was okay, but I my heart was pounding with fear before help arrived.

Another day, in the spring, I took the trash out to burn it and the grass caught on fire. Once again a student raced to the nearest farmhouse, this time to call the fire department, and all was saved.

That winter, a blizzard blew in across the northern plains. I was teaching away, ignoring the students' calls to let school out early, when a parent showed up and pointed out the window. My tiny VW Bug was almost snow-covered. She took the kids and delivered them to their homes. I made my way through the blinding snow the ten miles home, not to leave again for a week.

At the end of the year, after being beset with baby sitter problems and after realizing that I was doing those deserving students no good, I decided to turn in my resignation. After the end of the year family picnic, I delivered the news to the board members. They were disappointed and asked me to stay, but I told them I couldn't, using the baby sitter situation as my excuse. The school stayed open for one more year then the parents decided to close it and send their kids to school in Decatur.

The boy who hardly showed up for school was killed when his horse threw him. I still feel the loss of those two boys who died. Despite this and despite my inadequacies as a teacher that year, I came away with only good feelings about the sweet students who spent time in that one room with me. I also realized that it takes more than just standing in front of a class full of students to be a good teacher. After getting teacher training, which included student teaching supervised by an experienced teacher, at Pittsburg State University, I got a Kansas teaching certificate and spent many happy years in classrooms.


Thank you soooo much for sharing that. I 'd guess many a teacher shared the same lack of experience.

I really feel the 1-room model was a good one. Kids could learn at their own pace and at different levels instead of being divided by age. So an 8 year old could be doing 1rst grade math, 4th grade spelling, 3rd grade reading, and 5th grade science. Nowadays with computerized lessons and web based learning almost any kid can learn any subject from astronomy to French.

Thanks again for sharing.

Brad--I was happy to do it. The problem is after such a long stretch of years, memory fails me. I do agree that the open classroom is a good model. I hate the lockstep system of education. Kids don't learn according to a set formula, which is my major complaint about the No Child Left Behind nonsense. I agree kids should achieve, but these rote tests don't accomplish that.

I'm also a big fan of web based learning, having taught online classes for years. Students have access to the whole world through the web. The problem I saw with the college students I had in my classes was keeping them motivated. The older adults had no problem with that, but students just out of high school seemed to find it more difficult to stay on task.

Thanks for asking about the one-room school. Overall, it was a good experience for me. I learned as much as the kids did during that year. In truth, I always learned from my students.

Diane, I checked with numerous state school boards and while its true the classic "one-room school" doesnt exist anymore in many areas including Kansas you will find some smaller schools where a single teacher will teach numerous grades.

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