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My One-Room Country School

By Lydia Guy Burchett
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #7, 1994.

How did one woman teach up to 72 children at once?

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Lydia Guy Burchett

I believe that most children have some idea of what they want to do when they grow up. From the time I started school at age six, I knew I was going to be a teacher. I loved school and could hardly wait until the summer vacation was over so I could go back to school. I was happy when a few little friends came to visit and we could play school, and of course I was the teacher.

I was fortunate to have several good teachers, and could learn many things about teaching from them.

Teacher's "College" Had Strict Discipline

When I graduated from high school in June of 1922, I knew just what I was going to do. There was a school in Hastings, Michigan, called Barry County Normal. This school was to prepare students to teach in a one-room country school anywhere in Barry County.

In the fall of 1922 I entered Barry County Normal. We reviewed all the subjects we had studied during the first eight grades, and learned to use the best teaching techniques. Our Normal class teacher was Mrs. Mabel Clark and she was a real lady. She taught us never to scream or run in the classroom, and always to behave in a dignified way. I think she would have fainted, had she been there one morning early when I chose to go up the fire escape and into the room through the open window. Lucky for me she was not there yet.

The critic room was across the hall from the normal class room. In this room were three grades of children, similar to what we would have in a one-room country school. Here we did our practice teaching, one at a time for a two-week period. The critic teacher was there to supervise our work and to offer suggestions, and also to demonstrate better ways of teaching. I think I enjoyed this year as much as I did the other years of my education.

I graduated from County Normal in June 1923 at age 19. I felt prepared now to fulfill my greatest ambition. I was hired to teach the Quailtrap School of about 20 pupils, located just four miles south of Nashville, Michigan, and four miles from my home. This would be the first money I had earned and I wanted to do my very best.

When I had saved $250 I bought a Ford Coupe, which I drove back and forth to school.

Classroom Rules

I was very strict and did not allow any whispering or moving about without permission. We had signals to prevent pupils from having to ask me for permission. They raised one finger for permission to whisper to someone, only if it was necessary, and two fingers if they wished to go to the outdoor toilet. There would be from one to three or four in a grade and I would call one grade at a time to the front of the room to recite. This gave me very close contact with the pupils and it was easy to keep their attention.

A program had to be made including each grade in each subject. While the rest of the pupils were preparing their lessons, I would be hearing the different classes. We were like one big happy family with the older children looking after the younger ones.

We had a short period the first thing in the morning when I read a story or we played some short learning games. We had a fifteen-minute recess in the forenoon and another in the afternoon. At noon we had a whole hour for lunch and play. I look back with pleasure on my first year of teaching.

One day as I sat at my desk while the children settled down, I noticed a little girl frantically waving her hand. After a few seconds I decided something was wrong and nodded my head, which gave her permission to speak. At once she sprang to her feet and screamed, "There's a snake in my desk!" Sure enough, a little streaked snake was sticking its head out the side of her desk. One of the older boys had been building the fires for me that winter, so I think I know where the snake had come from. The older boys were only too glad to take the snake outside!

Fun Times at School

I had charge of my own art, music, and physical education, which included games and exercises.

I always tried to make my schoolroom a happy place, so the children would love to come to school and hate to miss even a day. We kept our room decorated with the children's work, including their art work. We wrote a daily newsletter containing events of each day to be taken home at the end of the week. Sometimes the children would try acting as a radio announcer, giving the news and weather for the day. Sometimes they would dramatize a story taken from their lesson.

My next school was the McKelvey School, only one and one quarter mile from my home. I could walk to and from this school. Miss Wilma Frey did her practice teaching with me there. Although my teaching certificate was good for one more year, I decided to take the next year off to help my mother and to learn to cook and bake; you see, I was engaged to be married the next year.

On July 31, 1927, Howard Burchett and I were married and moved to a rented home in Assyria Center, where I would be teaching that following year. Assyria Center was a large school, having been a two-room school. There were around 30 pupils, starting with the first grade and going through the eighth grade.

This school had a raised platform in the front of the room. It was the first school also that had a large bell that was rung with a large rope. The books were furnished, but were getting old. Some were missing, but we had to make do with what we had. I taught there two years.

We had a track meet on the last day of school with several schools of the area participating with games, races, etc. Since I was young and healthy, I nearly always went outside to supervise and sometimes joined in their games. When the teachers' race came up I decided to compete, but I lost the race. The children crowded around me saying "Oh, Mrs. Burchett, why didn't you win?" They didn't know that I was seven months pregnant!

In 1929 our first child was born and I did not teach for the next 19 years. I was kept busy raising our six children.

Taming a "Wild" Class

In 1948 I decided that I would like to teach a few more years so I started taking extension courses to bring my teaching certificate up to date. I found it easy to slip back into the routine of the country school.

The Weeks School was small with only about fifteen pupils. I was there two years and then applied for a larger school, the Banfield School.

This was indeed, as I found out, a much larger school. On the first day of school several of the mothers brought their children to school, telling me that I had their consent to use corporal punishment if necessary. They were so tired of the disorder in the school the year before.

When I called the school to order and took the roll I found that there were nearly 50 pupils. I had made out a tentative program for hearing the classes and explained this and the rules to them. As I gave out lessons for each class I could see that I was losing control of the room. The children were not staying in their seats and were very noisy. One of the girls piped up, saying, "Mrs. Burchett, we were wild Indians last year." I replied, "I can believe that," but added to myself, "this year will be different."

I could see that I would have to do some planning. I had never faced this situation before. I closed school even before noon and went home.

The next morning I explained the rules again, and because of disobedience, was forced to spank a few pupils. It was much better then, but some still disobeyed the rules and I had to talk to them at recess while the rest went out to play. After this day everything went very well.

With so many children I was staying every night until six o'clock, so I went to the school board and they agreed with me that I needed some help. They hired another teacher, Eva Payne, and we divided the work, which made things easier. During the next summer vacation they made the basement into another classroom and we now had a two-room school.

In the beginning of the second semester of my third year there, Banfield was incorporated into the Delton school system and I was taken along with the children. That was the end of my country school teaching.

I enjoyed teaching second grade several more years at Delton, but my fondest memories are of my days in the country school.

I believe that if you are capable, home teaching is the best way for your children to get their elementary education. Home teaching would be one-to-one teaching, more like the country schools of old.

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