Teaching Profession Commentary

Old School

October 01, 2003 7 min read
A 100-year-old primer tells prospective educators what to expect, then and now.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, long before guidance counselors and standardized testing helped mold students’ futures, career advice was hard to come by. But prospective teachers paging through Starting in Life, a turn-of-the-century book detailing 50 career choices ranging from physician to inventor, would learn much of what “this noble profession has to offer to young men” (and women, too, though the book is less forthcoming with advice for them). A century later, many of author Nathaniel C. Fowler Jr.'s observations remain familiar, at times uncannily so.

If the good of a thing is to be reckoned by what it does or may accomplish, then the profession of teaching is the most honorable, the most responsible, and the most indispensable of all human callings.

Probably ninety percent of our teachers, college professors excepted, are women. The reason for this is obvious. Comparatively few teachers receive more than a moderate income; and men, with present or prospective families to support, shun any calling which offers limited remuneration.

The strength of the nation is more in its schools than in the homes of its people. The influence of the teacher has more to do with the progress of civilization, with the building up of character, than has any factor in our country. And I am convinced that the school of today is a greater factor in the development of the young than is the present home, and most of our boys and girls owe more to the school than to parents or any other influence.

The child’s first view of real life is in the schoolroom. At school, he begins to realize what there is in the world, what has been, and what probably will be. It is the teacher who brings the child to life, who brings him into contact with the vital forces and principles of living. The school is composite. The teacher represents, with some degree of correctness, the great standard principles of life. He must, of necessity, teach the child as the great universal board of education elects. The teacher is an agent of a system, of an imperfect system, but one as perfect as present conditions may permit, and which is the outgrowth of the best thought on the subject by the most eminent educators of present and previous generations. Because he is a servant of that system, the teacher obeys its commands, although he may at times diverge from them.

Neither the individual parent nor the composite teacher is perfect, but an organization of imperfection, striving for perfection, is far greater, far grander, far more proficient, and far safer, than individual ignorance at a standstill.

Few teachers receive from the parent the co-operation and support they deserve, that aid which would be of incalculable benefit to them. On the contrary, many a parent at home, from willfulness, conceit, or ignorance, counteracts the work of the school. The teacher and parent not only should be friends, but they should be collaborators, working together for the benefit of the rising generation, the one in the school and the other in the home; and there should not be, and there could not be if we were civilized, that strong dividing line between the home and the school.

From a financial point of view, teaching can hardly be considered a remunerative profession. Comparatively few teachers earn more than a living; a lesser number obtain a competency; and none of them, unless they are owners of institutions, ever become rich from the harvest of their planting.

New York City pays its public school-teachers higher salaries than are enjoyed by any other teachers in the world; Boston and Philadelphia come next. California and Nevada have the distinction of better remunerating their country teachers than other states. Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Indiana follow California and Nevada.

Possibly one educational worker in five hundred, in schools and colleges, gets more than three thousand dollars a year; one in five hundred of the remainder more than twenty-five hundred dollars; one in five hundred of the remainder more than two thousand dollars; one in five hundred of the remainder more than fifteen hundred dollars; and probably four hundred of every five hundred receive less than four hundred dollars; three hundred of every five hundred get less than three hundred dollars a year; and two hundred less than two hundred dollars.

No money-worshipper wants to teach, and it is a very good thing that he does not, for such a person would not be sufficiently broad-minded or able to instruct properly the young or anybody else.

The strength of the nation is more in its schools than in the homes of its people.

The profession of educator or teacher is filled with the noblest class of men and women, those of the highest aspirations, seekers for the truest successes, and possessors of genuine high character, with the unselfish and loving spirit of the missionary—for what cause is grander or nobler than that of forming character? The teacher is honored and respected, but he does not receive half the honor, respect, or remuneration that he deserves.

The profession should be recognized more than it is. It should be publicly lifted to a higher plane. It should be given greater opportunity to perfect itself. Every effort ought to be made by the nation, state, city, and town to bar from its ranks those who are unfitted to impart knowledge.

Learning does not make a teacher, nor does adaptability without learning give him the right to teach. No one should teach, no one should be allowed to teach, who does not possess the right combination of ability, adaptability, and actual knowledge.

To-day there is little demand for the male teacher who is not a graduate of a college or some other high institution of learning; and comparatively few school boards, even in the country districts, will engage any woman teacher who has not passed through a seminary, or a college, or a normal school, or at least a high school. But let me say here, that all this learning in itself, no matter how carefully obtained, is substantially worthless without that ability and adaptability which allow the teacher to impart to others.

The book-worm seldom makes a good teacher. He may become a learned professor, and, in a way, be fitted to teach teachers; but he is not likely to be of any use as an all- around instructor.

One criticism against teachers, which unfortunately is true to a certain extent, is that they, like clergymen, confine themselves to theory more than to practices. They are likely to consider learning, and the theory of learning, of more importance than the actual application of it. Consequently, many of our teachers who live outside of the world of their pupils do not render to their scholars half the helpfulness which they are capable of giving, and would give, if they only realized that no one can teach effectively those whom he does not understand. The great teacher almost invariably springs from the hard-working, thoughtful student at school, who may or may not be at the head of his class. Yet some of our best teachers were not star students, simply because they did not study for the sake of the class-rank, but strove to obtain only what they could properly utilize.

The influence of the teacher has more to do with the progress of civilization, with the building up of character, than has any factor in our country.

Our best teachers were real boys, who played when they played with all their hearts; who studied when they studied with all their minds; who possessed, even at an early age, the power of imparting their knowledge to others. At school they were known as “helpers.” They had the faculty of “coaching” their fellow-students. They began to teach while they were being taught.

The natural teacher cannot help distributing his knowledge to others. He teaches whether he is in school or out of school. He has not only the faculty of absorption, but the power of distribution. The one is worthless without the other.

The boy who cannot reason, and who cannot distribute what he learns, even though he may be a close student and letter-perfect at school, is unfitted to teach, and can never make any kind of success. The boy competent to teach, and who will probably become a proficient teacher, wants to be a teacher, and wants to teach long before he finishes his common school. At an early age he shows an ability to instruct others, to teach his schoolmates; to absorb, and to impart. This boy never considers teaching as a makeshift, unless it may be as a means of earning moneyto pay his college expenses. When he decides to become a teacher, he does so with his whole heart, and dedicates himself to his work.

No boy who did not want to be a teacher ever succeeded as a teacher. No boy who was not a fair scholar at school ever became fit to teach, barring exceptions too few to be considered. No boy who did not, and could not, instruct his fellow schoolmates ever made a good teacher, even under favorable conditions. In the first place, the boy fitted for teaching must want to teach. He must have an education, and a long and thorough school-training, that his mind may become properly disciplined; and, above all, he must have that peculiar power, without which no one can successfully teach—that of knowing how to distribute what he has received.

Excerpted from Starting in Life: A Turn-of-the-Century Career Handbook. Copyright(c)1906, 2003. Published by arrangement with the Lyons Press.


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