Congratulations on making it to the 100th day of school! What an achievement. Your classroom has come a long way in the past 100 days. Now imagine how far classrooms have come over the past one hundred years! We were lucky enough to interview a 103-year-old former teacher and she shared with us a little bit about the history of teaching and what her classroom was like nearly 100 years ago.
My Grandma, Florence: A Teacher, a Centurion, an Inspiration
Imagine starting your school day as a rural school teacher in the 1930s by building a fire in a jacketed wood-burning stove, lined with asbestos, comfortably warming your classroom for your 38 students who are about to arrive. Many of your students will have walked one or two miles to school and span from grades one through eight.
In honor of the 100th day of school (give or take a few days), I interviewed my centurion grandmother, Florence (give or take a few years-she’ll be 103 in April, to be exact). Grandma Florence taught in a one-room school house in rural Trempealeau County, Wisconsin in the 1930s and 1940s. Her words have not been edited to allow you to hear her voice through the interview. You will notice what an amazing memory she has as she recalls specific details from her experiences. Feel free to share her experiences with your students as one of your 100th day of school activities.
Here we go…
What was a typical day like for you as a teacher?
I am at school at about 7:30 a.m. I have a few tasks I do before the children arrive, including building a fire.
When the children arrive around 8:45, they are all carrying their noon lunch in a tin pail, although some will have a nice lunch bucket. The hall has shelves for them and hooks for their outer clothes.
When 9:00 comes around, I round the pupils to come in to their single or double desks which opened at the top for their books, tablets [not iPads!], etc. We usually took a few minutes for telling what is new in their lives or ponder a question.
Then the time would be here to begin the class recitations in the front. Each grade would come and sit on some small chairs for instruction on a subject-reading, penmanship, arithmetic. The class lasted from fifteen minutes to a half hour, so I had to be well-prepared to be able to get all the classes in as I had all eight grades.
Between 9:00 and noon we had a 10 or 15-minute break.
Then at 12:00, we had a noon break, eating our lunch and getting outside for fun and exercise until 1:00. After a few years we were given some food from the government to heat up which helped the children enjoy their meal more.
The afternoon consisted of more class recitations in the front with each grade and art or music as a whole class. We were especially sure to have the lessons every day because the Superintendent of Schools would come without notifying. us.
At 4:00, school was out and everyone was happy to be going home. Then my work started with cleaning up and getting ready for the next day.
How many students did you have in your classroom?
I had 38 pupils in all eight grades. The subjects were reading, penmanship-much emphasis was put on that then, arithmetic, history, geography, spelling, and some art and music. Supplies were very simple, only the most necessary things which were a tablet and pencil, and a box of seven or eight crayons.
Eight grades in one classroom? How did you manage that?
Oh yes, the older pupils would help the younger ones a lot, and they loved it. Sometimes I would let them go in the hallway to do so because of the interruptions from the class being held in the front of the room. How anyone did learn anything in that small classroom- with the commotion there was at times, is quite unbelievable.
Did you assign your students classroom jobs?
The pupils did have certain jobs to do each day-to see that the water jug was filled with fresh water, for instance, and raise the flag and lower it each day-fold it and bring it in, see that there was enough wood in the wood box for the next day, and keep the outdoor privies [outhouses] as clean as possible.
What was your teaching philosophy?
My teaching philosophy was to try to instill in the pupils a sense of living and thinking of meeting all problems, big or small, with calmness and self-possession, which I truly believe will result in mental balance. This was correlated with the subject matter being taught.
Did you ever have to attend any teacher trainings or professional development?
When any new methods came along we would be informed by letter or be asked to a group meeting to have the plan explained to us. That was a duty of the County Superintendent of schools and she got the material from the State Superintendent.
What were some of your joys of teaching?
I had many joys in teaching. First is the fact that I taught many pupils to read and that was their biggest accomplishment that started them on the way to their future-learning about so many things in their lives. The fact that I was also able to help others on their journey through life is rewarding. A few of them have been very kind to let me know about it.
I was also chosen to have had a couple to-be teachers [student teachers] guided by me which I felt very good being able to do that.
Also I had a group of rural school teachers watch me teach one morning. The pupils were dismissed early that day. I served a lunch which my mother had made and was delivered by my brother, who was working on the farm at the time. I can remember the menu which was: au gratin potatoes, meatballs, carrots and peas, rolls, and coffee. In the afternoon, a discussion about my teaching was held concentrating on good and not-so-good points. I remember being scared stiff, but it turned out okay.
Another joy was our Christmas programs. Every child was in it no matter what nationality or religious belief, and everyone was so helpful and cooperative. The children were always so enthusiastic about the whole thing– it was great fun.
This sure brought back many memories.
Once a school teacher and now a lifelong learner, Grandma Florence is the most remarkable person I know. When she was 94, I taught her how to use a laptop computer. For her 100th birthday, she upgraded to an iPad, which she continues to use on a daily basis-emailing and Face Timing family, and Googling any topics of interest to her. I can only image all the amazing things she would do as a modern-day teacher, open to learning and implementing the technology available today.
How does your teaching experience compare with Grandma Florence’s experience? Hopefully, you don’t have to tend to an asbestos-lined wood-burning stove in your classroom, but perhaps you noted some similarities. I hope her words have enlightened and inspired you. Happy 100th day of school!
To read more interview questions and responses, including Grandma Florence’s “secrets” of longevity, please click here…
Grandma Florence and me on her 100th Birthday
Grandma Florence (102) and her youngest great grandchild, Abe (1) celebrating their birthdays.
Grandma Florence (top left) with her students in 1948
Bonus Interview Questions and Responses
Are you familiar with John Dewey? He was a big part of the Progressive Movement in education around the 1920’s.
Yes, John Dewey is quite familiar. He was an American philosopher and educator, quite opinionated, practical, having to do with affairs of community or state, explaining and interpreting what he would want education to be in the future. Yes, progressiveness was in the air and became more evident as the years went by, but at a much slower pace than now. Oh my-what a difference the years have brought! Too bad John isn’t here to see it.
Were your students required to take district or state-mandated tests?
I do not remember any standardized tests given by the county or state except when the pupil was in the eighth grade to find out if they were ready for high school. However, a child had to be six years old before entering first grade even if he or she was six in September after school had started. They could quit school when they were sixteen.
What was your teaching salary?
I started out with a salary of $65 a month in the 1930s. That was the norm at that time. Of course, everything was much less at that time. I think at the time I quit I did get around $150. That seemed to be a lot of money then. I could live at home with my mom and dad for nothing so that helped so much.
Why did you quit teaching?
About two years before I quit teaching, the state decided to close all country schools as they came to a conclusion that the children would get a better education in city schools. If you wanted to teach, a person would have to further their education, and I decided not to. I got a job working in the courthouse on different programs, and that was to my liking. My father was the Trempealeau County Sheriff and County Treasurer during that time, so I also helped him. He had only finished the 4th grade in his lifetime. Just think of that-your great-grandpa was a poor speller and writer, so that is how I helped him.
I’m sure everyone is wondering, you’re 102 and in great health-what are your secrets to longevity?
[She laughs] I think some of it is my genes…and maybe stubbornness!
That question may be the most difficult one to answer. I do know when I was growing up, everything was quite simple. I cannot remember people being so stressed out as they are now. The demand for perfection has increased without knowing it; many more have become more competitive because the population is increasing and all want a piece of the pie.
Our dad was the head of the family in my life at home. He usually let us kids solve our simple problems, and now when I look back, they were pretty simple compared to the challenges now.
To answer your question, I think eating from a garden without chemicals and preservatives-like there are today-was beneficial. I also stayed active-walking and working on the farm-went to church, and I love to read anything I can find—books, magazines, newspapers-paper and online. I enjoy quiz shows on TV, especially Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, Family Feud, Millionaire, and the Price is Right. I love playing cards and doing crossword puzzles to keep my mind busy.
I just can’t believe I’m still here on earth. There are still some things I do want to see, like a better world for my descendants, which is a pretty big order.
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