Twenty Talks to Teachers

by Thomas E. Sanders

Chapter 13: What Makes a Good School?

Additional Information
  • Year Published: 1908
  • Language: English
  • Country of Origin: United States of America
  • Source: Sanders, T. E. (1908). Twenty Talks to Teachers. The Teachers Co–Operative Company.
  • Readability:
    • Flesch–Kincaid Level: 10.4
  • Word Count: 3,292
  • Genre: Informational
  • Keywords: education, educational, learning, teaching
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In an institute of something over a hundred teachers, nearly all of them comparatively young in the work, I was once asked to give a ten–minutes' talk on what makes a good school. I am glad that I was, not because any thing which I said was so helpful to the young teachers, but because it set me thinking by what things I judge teachers and the school. My notes show the following points, although I am not sure of the exact wording of the talk:

1. The teachers and the pupils of a good school should be happy.—A good digestion, a clear conscience, and reasonable success are three things that should make any man or woman happy. A healthy child has the first and second, and their ideas and hopes and ambitions of success are and should be at school age very largely wrapped up in the successes of the school and the home. If the teacher is unhappy the school be comes unhappy. A low nervous state, indigestion, worry either about school or other things, trouble in the home, sorrow over friends or family, uneasiness about financial matters or anything that saps the energy or spoils the sleep of the teacher, is detrimental to the school. Anything that disturbs the majority or even a considerable minority of pupils interferes with the school. If the teacher is thoroughly discouraged over school work or if a very large percentage of the pupils are displeased with the teacher after the first month, there can be no whole–souled, happy work and conditions in the school. If you or any considerable number of your pupils are unhappy, try if possible to remove the cause. Your results in teaching will be infinitely better, the work will be less taxing to you, you and the pupils will get more out of life at the time and more out of life in the future if all are happy in the school–room. To the practiced eye five minutes will tell whether the work is a work of pleasure to teacher and pupils or whether it is a task to both.

2. The whole atmosphere of the school must be conducive to good work.—While the teacher and the pupils are happy it should be that quiet happiness that makes for good work. Children may be boisterously happy. The idea of a good time with many boys is the loudest noise they can make. It is the quiet, composed happiness springing from interesting work well done that gives the best atmosphere of the school. It is the spirit, the atmosphere, the social or psychological conditions growing out of the relations existing in the school that gives life to the school and that educates in the broadest sense. This is intangible and invisible, but it is easily discerned, and to the discriminating principal or superintendent it will form very largely his basis for judging the teacher and the school. In associations with visiting principals in my own school and in visiting other principals, a frank estimate has often been given of the relative success of teachers. It is surprising often how the visiting principal can in five minutes rate a teacher, and this rating will in the main agree with the regular principal. The practiced eye of the principal should, like the practiced eye of the physician, see more in a minute than the unskilled would in a month. For my own part I trust very largely to the spirit and atmosphere existing in a room, the social echo of the school, and it is only occasionally that I am far wrong.

3. The personality of the teacher and its influence on the school.—Does she know what to do, does she know how to do it, does she have the dignity to get this done promptly and well without it ever entering the mind of a pupil to question its propriety or her ability to get it done? Your personality should be strong enough that it is rare indeed that any pupil dare to dispute your authority and then you should have weight of character enough to prevent open rebellion. The personality of the teacher, like the atmosphere of the school, is intangible. Someone has said that personality is "cultured individuality." It is individuality with the corners ground off and polished. It is the individuality that gets results without fighting for it. It does not offend in taste, in physique, or personal bearing. It is the personality that pleases and yet makes the pupil, the parent, or the public to hesitate before it dares express a criticism.

The personality of the teacher reaches the outward as well as the inward. It is read in the teacher's dress and bearing. No, teacher can afford to neglect her dress and personal appearance. Dress need not be costly, but it should be in taste. To the lady teacher, a becoming dress, a spotless collar, an appropriate ribbon, hair neatly brushed, teeth white as pearl, nails immaculate as ivory—these are potent influences and will win over thoughtless boys and careless girls when all the switches in a mile square, and other means of punishment known to the modern school, would fail. Spotless attire is essential to the lady teacher, but a man will find it of scarcely less importance. There must be no suggestion of the dude and the dandy, but clean linen, well kept hands and nails, clean teeth, uncontaminated breath, clothing that fits and is free from dandruff and dust— everything of the gentleman but nothing of the dude— these will count in your personality and go to determine the worth of your school.

4. The good school has interest and enthusiasm, but it must not be of the soap–bubble variety.—If you have the first insight into human nature, if you know the first thing about swaying pupils in mass, you know that it is easy to waste energy, get up steam and chase fleeting phantoms in school, make a tempest in a teapot, and be no farther along at the end of the year educationally than at the beginning. The faddist in the school–room, the teacher that periodically discovers the coveted panacea that will relieve the pupils from all good, old–fash ioned, hard work, is as dangerous as the demagogue in politics. Interest and enthusiasm should be well direct ed. Sanity should guide it. It should drive toward a worthy goal, it should be tempered by rationality and common sense. The interest should as soon as possible be transferred to self interest. One of the most enthusiastic teachers I ever knew was of the hypnotic, spell binding kind. Pupils waved their hands, snapped their fingers, and jumped up and down in their eagerness to tell what they knew of a topic. Strange to many—not strange to the man who knew something of good teaching—very, very few of the pupils of this teacher either continued school after the graded school course or took much interest in self–directed study or reading in after life.

5. In a good school the teacher loves the work.—We have much unrest in teaching. For years teachers have been inviting dissatisfaction. They have brooded over fancied evils, poor salaries, and lack of tenure of position, until the great mass of them have become infected. In teaching as in other things, if you look up the stars will guide you, if you look down the sewer may beckon.

The young teacher often does the best work because she is happy and contented with her lot in the first school. When she begins to tire with teaching, when she begins to look forward to the time when she can get more congenial work—in the store, in the office, or possibly in the home—she grows more and more dissatisfied with school, she grumbles more and more about low salaries, an unappreciative public and bad children. In a good school the teacher is in love with her work and feels that for the time being nothing would tempt her to leave it.

6. A good school will have a well–arranged program giving not only the recitation periods but the study periods* as wW/.—Systematic study is essential. As a university student I found my time planned until at certain times each day I found myself wanting to take up certain studies. Just as one may become hungry at their usual time of eating, so should one come to desire to do work at certain times. Too much variation of a pro gram weakens it' in the minds of the children. This program should be prepared with thought and care. There should be a proper balance of study. Here is where good judgment in the relative value of studies is shown. I visited a sixth grade once where as much time was used each day on spelling as upon any other study. Now I believe in spelling. I believe we are neglecting spelling, but I cannot think it is worth as much and is justified in having as much time in the sixth year as any other study of the school course, surely not if the proper amount of attention to spelling has been given in the first five years.

7. In a good school the modern studies—music, drawing, manual training and domestic science—will be recognized.—The two last will be needed worse in some schools than others. The old–fashioned home life is fast disappearing. Whether this is better or worse is not ours to discuss. The fact is that under the modern trend pupils are not taught to do the homely and valuable tasks that was so common forty years ago. Then the boy made his sled, his wagon, his hobby horse, and his ball bat. Now he buys them and loses the greatest good of all, the skill and the development in making them. He got his manual training then in his home life, now, except on the farm, he gets scarcely any of such training, and must depend upon the initiative of the school, else go forever without it. The girl then was busy with helping her mother in the house work. She learned to cook, to sew, to make quilts, to wash, iron, and scrub. In other words, she got a complete and efficient training in domestic science in her own home, and often had not only the practice in doing it but had an intense liking for it. Much is changed now. The school must come to the demands and needs of the time and give the girl some touch with, respect for, and knowledge of this essential work or she never gets it.

Music is more an intellectual and cultural subject. It needs no defense. The time is coming, and let us hope before many generations, when as nearly all the people can sing ordinary music as can read the ordinary book. Drawing, not necessarily the decorative art which so often is called drawing, needs no justification. It leads to closer observation, it is needed in the practical affairs of life, it develops so many of the powers of the mind that as a cultural study it needs no defense. A good school will recognize these modern studies. In the country, the manual training may go more to the farmer's needs, it may be more closely allied to agriculture than in the cities. School gardening is far more essential to the city child, however, than to the country. In the crowded districts of the city, it is a rest and recreation together with intense interest in a new and valuable line of thought to tend the small school vegetable garden. In the country, or in the city district, where each pupil has a vegetable garden at home, and where the father often is skilled in the work of furnishing vegetables for the market, the school garden is not worth the time and energy put upon it. Like fashions in hats and dress the teacher who feels that she must be up–to date, must follow the fads and fashions of New York, Chicago, Washington and other places regardless of the difference in conditions, will have pupils spend an hour a day in tending a vegetable garden when they had better be sent home to help their parents to tend the family garden.

The modern studies, however, must be kept in their legitimate place. When manual training has for its avowed purpose the making of a carpenter or a mechanic, when the study becomes strictly practical instead of educational, it is out of the proper province of the common school. Even the high school is not to make doctors, lawyers, clerks, mechanics, but to make thinking men and women, who then can with time and direction soon develop into these others. The very purpose of the school is to give in a large measure those things that have very little connection with the later life of the individual. The increased power to think, to analyze, to understand, the higher ideals of life, the hopes, the aspirations, the ability to see the world in a broader light and from a wider horizon—these are the essential things after all. To save the boy from his dwarfing environment, to kindle in him ambitions and desires, to give him broader views of life without making him unreasonably discontent with his own lot is the great purpose of the school. His life will be narrow enough in his little niche without making his school training narrow him still more. The most impractical of the so–called practical men often want every lesson in school to be a lesson to save the time of apprenticeship instead of a lesson to develop higher thinking power.

8. In a good school the teacher or teachers will be professional.—They will have studied the problems of the school and have high ideas and ideals of what it should be and of its place in the development of the life of the child. They will look on the purpose of the school, and hold to these essentials even at risk of the criticism of faddists. A thorough educator refused a principalship at a better salary. When asked why, he replied that the qualities the board were looking for must be found in a carpenter, a football coach, and a peanut vender, and as he did not desire a position along either of these lines, it would not be worth while to accept a position requiring special qualifications along all of these lines. Eight hours a week was to be devoted to manual train ing. He could use say a plane and a hammer very well, but he had never had any desire to become a carpenter, else he would have taken it up. He was expected to take charge of the boys' athletics, having daily drills and preparing them for the annual festivities. He cared little for sport, and believed the playground should be distinctly the place for self–initiative of pupils, feeling that the greatest lessons of school life came from the fact that pupils here were left free from the direction of teachers so that they might have some chance at self direction. The third requirement was that he should be able to drill vaudeville school plays, sell popcorn, pea nuts, lemonade and other similar things to procure funds for decorating the school, improving the grounds and furnishing money for athletic sports. If he was to take up commercial life as a serious matter, he preferred to go into business. These three lines absorbing most of his time and sapping his energies made him prefer to remain where the thought and energy of the principal was directed to the development of mind and character.

In many schools the demand is for the carpenter, the football coach, and the peanut vender combined for principal rather than the man who sees the deeper problems of mental development.

9. The teacher or teachers should be loyal to their school.—The teacher who teaches in a district or school where she from any cause dislikes the place, will not teach her best school. In cities some teachers teach in certain districts only under protest, and never do their best work. I should not seek to hold a teacher in my school when I knew she was deeply dissatisfied with me or the school. Her work would be forced, and she would unconsciously put less enthusiasm into it. Just as the pupils should love their school and their teacher and feel that they would not exchange it for any other school, so should the teacher feel that her lot is well cast. The patrons should be as loyal to the school and the teacher as the teacher is to the school. Loyalty of teacher, pupils and patrons, will make a prosperous and successful school.

10. A good school is properly heated, lighted, ventilated and carefully looked after by a trusty janitor.— Thousands of eyes are ruined yearly by poor light, pupils are injured in health by poor heating and ventilation. The care of the building counts for so much. Proper janitor work is as necessary as any other work. It is hard to keep clean and live in a hog pen. It is hard to think elevating thoughts and live in dirt and dust and cobwebs. The schools, the churches and the hotels are the best advertising agents of any neighborhood. A good school near by often increases the market value of a farm from ten to twenty dollars an acre. The same is true of a church. The best class of emigrants, the best citizens who want to buy a farm to live on and to cultivate do not care to go to localities where there is not a majority, a strong, working, active majority of the people interested, vitally interested, in such things. Environment makes the price of property. The neighbor hood of good schools and good churches is worth more per square rod than the neighborhood which is content to let its children be educated in a building fit only for a sheep shed or to attend a dilapidated church.

11. The good school has decorations for its walls.— These silent but effective teachers grow into the lives of the pupils. Simplicity, plainness, but good taste should be the test of the school decorations. Get good pictures —not necessarily costly ones—get good, plain, but artistic frames, select pictures that appeal to children, and yet are artistic, and let them be hung in good taste on the wall. Do not overcrowd, study the simple and the artistic in arrangement. In selecting, do not forget the value of the portrait as a school picture. Washington, the father of his country; Lincoln, true and noble, a man of the common people; Longfellow, poet beloved by all; the list is a long one—these features looking down daily grow into the lives of the pupils. Then landscape views, Landseer's animals, pictures of homes and famous paintings, the list is almost endless. To these may be added a few good statues. Good taste in the selection and the funds to buy with will make any school–room what it should be as to decorations.

These are some of the first things that I should look for in judging a school. Buildings and grounds and numerous other things cannot be touched upon.