One-room school vs. the kitchen classroom

Louise McLean stands at back, far right, with her class at North Beaver River School in 1936. | Family photo

Parents teaching their children at home during the pandemic have something in common with the teachers of yesteryear


“I think Grade 1 Beginners will soon stop as it makes too many classes and too much commotion,” wrote a 20-year-old teacher struggling to manage nine grades in a one-room school in April, 1936.

As a former teacher myself, I marvel at the freedom and authority she exercised, making this decision all by herself. Her name was Louise McLean, teacher at North Beaver River School near Meadow Lake, Sask., who later became my mother.

In those early days of building a new country, the one-room schools focused on getting the job done on the fly. Young teachers not long out of classrooms themselves entered one-room schools of several grades with little or no training, left to their own devices.

Somehow, they managed to keep their young charges in line while teaching them something at the same time. Depending on class size, number of grades represented, and discipline needed, learning could reach admirable heights or simply master a basic level.

Times have changed since then. Or have they? I’m thinking of today’s parents who, over the 2020-21 school year found themselves teaching their children at home. Did they, while finding themselves in charge of a multi-grade classroom in their kitchen, wish they could make a similar decision?

The old one-room schools were all about adapting, much like the kitchen classrooms of 2020.

The whole country tried to figure out how to build and provide services on the go.

Teachers were left to manage alone for the most part. School boards, made up of interested parents, might be either highly involved in supporting the teacher or give none whatsoever.

When early settlers homesteaded this land, after their houses were built and fields cultivated, their minds turned to building a school. Gathering in someone’s kitchen, they formed a school board, someone donated a piece of land and letters were written to advertise for a teacher.

It was all very haphazard and once the classrooms were up and running, the teachers sometimes made unexpected decisions to manage so many grades clumped together.

During her years as a student, Louise found herself the focus of an overworked teacher struggling to cope with a multi-grade classroom. On two different occasions, she happened to be the only student in her grade. The teacher saw Louise as a bright student and promoted her over a grade to reduce the number of lesson plans needed to be prepared late into the night.

At the end of Grade 1, Louise was promoted to Grade 3 for the next term, and at the end of Grade 5, promoted again to Grade 7.

She managed well enough in school but problems became evident after she graduated. To her dismay, having graduated at 16 years old, she found she was too young to attend post-academic training and had to stay home for a year.

When she started teaching, she realized she had gaps in her learning, especially in arithmetic, and had to teach herself some aspects of the subject before she could pass on those lessons to her students.

Having a bright student skip a class was a common practice in those days but it had its repercussions.

Teaching school in a kitchen classroom today has its problems, but thankfully has support from the real teacher in the virtual classroom.

For all their hard work and ingenuity, the one-room school teacher received little or no reward.

In Louise’s case in 1936, the parents struggled to keep food on their own tables, having little time for their children’s schooling as long as they attended.

“Without exception,” she wrote, “the farmers of the area had walked away from established farms in the dust bowl of southern Saskatchewan.”

During the Great Depression, school fees couldn’t always be paid, leaving the teacher with no income but the occasional chicken or vegetables to keep them alive.

Actual money arrived when the parents had it to pay. Feeling lucky, Louise usually received her wage every couple of months or so but some teachers reported not being paid until the end of the year or even years later.

Parents are again suffering financially, unfortunately, from lost or reduced income. Our economy today struggles under the pandemic but at least hasn’t reached Depression levels and let’s hope it never does. Today’s teachers work just as hard as their counterparts from the 1930s, and let’s hope we can always pay them.

Improvements and adjustments are made out of each disaster. It is due to the Great Depression that we now have Employment Insurance.

Partly because so many farmers moved off the Prairies in the 1930s, the government instituted the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act to help rebuild farms. Attitudes have changed from a sense of independent toughing it out to the feeling that the government should help its people in times of need.

We have all learned to appreciate our teachers if we didn’t already, now having had a taste of their experience. It’s true that history repeats itself to some degree but with each cycle, the situation changes somewhat.

We whine and complain but times are better now than the first round of this gong show.

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