Confessions of Public School Teachers

THE writers of the professional autobiographies that follow were invited by The Atlantic Monthly frankly to relate their careers as teachers and superintendents of public schools, and to give the most important conclusions that their experience suggests. As the reader will discover, they are successful teachers whose work has been continuous for periods of from ten to thirty years ; and their straightforward narratives reveal the forces that control the public school work in many sections of the country. These teachers were selected almost at random among the successful, and there is every reason to believe that their experience is typical. These confessions have their surprises, as all candid confessions have. For instance, now that the competitive system of appointment is applied to nearly all the minor officers of the national government, it is a surprise to learn to what extent the local politicians in many parts of the country keep their hold on the appointments of teachers. It will be a surprise, too, to many readers to observe the matter-of-fact way in which these teachers write about the influence of the publishers of textbooks in the selection and the retention of school officers. Surely, no other point of view gives so accurate a measure of the great social forces that act upon our school system as the point of view of teachers themselves. For obvious reasons names are withheld, but the writers of the following six “ confessions,” with one exception, live in the Western and the Southern States.


My early education was of the kind received by most professional men twenty years ago, including courses in a New England academy and a New England college ; from the latter I was graduated at the age of twenty-one. I intended to study for a profession, but I began teaching to earn the necessary money. Teaching I did not consider a profession, nor did it occur to me that preliminary professional training was desirable or could be obtained ; hence, whatever knowledge of educational principles I possess I have learned from experience and observation, and at the expense of the children. I shudder to think of the innocent victims who have been sacrificed to make me the very moderately successful pedagogue that I am. I have, however, always had an intense love for children, and this may have leavened some wretchedly bad teaching.

After a brief period as a teacher in a boarding-school, which I learned to abhor, I began work in the West as principal of a small high school, and for six years occupied similar positions in four different towns in two States ; gradually becoming acquainted with the public schools and their needs, and being called from one place to another, each time at a higher salary.

I had one experience which really gave me my first insight into the semipolitical character of our school system, and taught me that efficient work was not the only element of success. The city in which I was then living was subject to tidal waves of politics ; the better element would occasionally succeed in electing a good school board, who would at once begin the work of reform, erecting new buildings, employing better teachers, and supplying a better equipment, — in short, doing that most reprehensible of all things, spending money for education. Then a popular wave of indignation would “ turn the rascals out,” and put in other and nobler citizens, who spent less public money on education and more on themselves, and thus pleased the people. I was caught at the meeting of two of these waves and drowned. Four of the good citizens were still left on the board, and four “ reformers ” were elected. It may be interesting to note that one of the reformers was a young man of vaulting ambition who gave it out that he desired a position on the school board as a stepping-stone to higher things : he aspired to be a night policeman, and — a rare thing in this sad world — he accomplished both his purposes. The superintendent of schools announced that, since economy was in the air, he would show the board how to economize : he would himself fill two places, the superintendent’s and the principal’s. The four on one side said that if either were to fill two places it should be I; the four on the other side said it should be he: and thus did these hosts dash one upon the other, as the Dutch and the Yankees did in Irving’s Knickerbocker New York, for more than four hundred ballots, until, despairing of ever seeing their homes again, they dropped us both and forthwith elected another man. This was my first experience with school politics.

In one of the States in which I taught, a system then prevailed almost universally, and is now very general, which is so bad that it is worthy of note. The superintendent of schools makes no pretension to be a schoolman ; he is a politician, elected sometimes by the people, sometimes by the common council, with practically no educational duties. The salary is a few hundred dollars, enough to piece out the income of some decayed local politician. The one schoolman employed is the principal of the high school, in which institution an honorable pride is taken. The other schools are practically without supervision and without a high degree of merit.

After my six years’ apprenticeship I was called to the city where I now reside, as principal of the high school, which position I held for six years. This period was altogether the most enjoyable of my educational career. With an efficient school superintendent to act as buffer, I was saved attacks from politicians, I received a good salary, and I had almost independent sway and good teachers. Under these circumstances there was no excuse for not building up a good high school. At the expiration of this happy time my evil genius seized me. A vacancy occurred in the office of superintendent, and I consented to take the place. Ah, woeful day that saw the beginning of my sorrows !

This city is one of many thriving Western cities, and it contains about 150,000 people. It has had its “ boom ” times and its times of depression, and public education has felt the influence of both. When I was first elected, the city was growing rapidly, extensive improvements were in progress in all directions, and money was made easily and spent without stint. The schools kept the pace set by the people. The growing population called for increased expenditures, and these were made. The erecting and the equipping of many buildings gave a great chance to those citizens who believe that “ a public office is a private snap.” The board was elected by precincts, a number of which were carried in the pockets of local politicians. Some districts always elected good men ; some always elected bad men ; some were doubtful. Buildings were erected wherever a real estate boom was started, and supplies were purchased for all present and future needs. It was a golden time ; but, paradoxical as it may seem, it was a pretty good time for the schools. The corrupt members of the board, if there were any, were too busy “ making improvements ” to bother their heads about such minor matters as courses of study or the management of the schools, and these tasks were left to the superintendent, much to his satisfaction.

There were always a few good men on the board with whom I could work sympathetically, and to whom the others deferred in all matters relating to school management, so that as superintendent I was warmly supported and enabled to accomplish more than would seem possible, and I still have a sincere regard for many of that old board. They advanced the salary from $3600, formerly paid the superintendent of schools, to $4200, and evidently believed that the superintendent understood his business and the politician his, and that neither should interfere with the other. There were two things, however, that I could not directly control: one was the choice of textbooks, and the other was the discharge of inefficient teachers. The influence of certain publishing houses was always stronger than the recommendations of the superintendent in the matter of textbooks; but we had money enough, and I used to carry my point by the purchase of supplementary matter to be owned by the schools, so that both the publishers and the schools were happy.

I found many teachers who were totally unfit for their positions, some lacking in scholarship, some in teaching ability, and some in character. Some had held their places for many years through political influence, which was still strong enough to prevent their removal ; but by examinations I succeeded in selecting new teachers who were better than the old ones. But a change was coming: financial depression was upon the country, the burden of taxation was heavy, and the people turned upon the school board, whose extravagance, they claimed, was the cause of much suffering. A bill was passed through the legislature abolishing the old board with all its powers, creating a new, small board, to be appointed by the mayor, and making it absolutely dependent upon the common council for money. The mayor made his first board an ideal one, appointing to it men of the highest standing and attainments. The superintendent was delighted, and set to work with all speed to make hay while the sun shone. He revised the course of study, raised the standard of appointment, introduced manual training and kindergartens, and proceeded to free the schools from some of the worst of the teachers. Some of these had strong political “ pulls ” which had held them in their positions for years, and the tumult was great; but the board stood manfully by, and resisted not only the attacks of the politicians, but, what is harder, the insistence of those good, respectable citizens who always come to the rescue of the worst elements. School boards are not immortal, but hatred and revenge are. Members of this board tired of the stress ; a new administration came in, and the new mayor wanted places on the school board for his friends. The new mayor, too, did not like the superintendent, who had voted against him. Soon the ideal board gave place to one containing some good men and some bad men, appointed for the expressly declared purpose of “ downing ” the superintendent, who had had the hardihood to close the public purse to undeserving pensioners of long standing. Again the attempt was made by the discharged teachers and their friends to use the new board for their purpose; but the superintendent had had the rules made rigid, so that it was difficult for the members of the board to force these unfit claimants in. and they did not do it. Then the opposition — for it had now become a decided opposition — organized attacks upon the superintendent’s character, both private and official. These proved utterly futile, and the board that had been appointed to get rid of the superintendent reëlected him by a large majority. The personal criticisms have since been renewed at intervals by the same persons, but with the effect each time of strengthening the superintendent with the community and with his board ; and he still holds on, relying upon the fairness of the school board, doing what he can, and commanding the support of all the better element of the people.

The school sentiment of this city is somewhat peculiar. People believe in the schools and are willing to sustain them, though in times of financial distress they are the first objects of attack. But the community is slow to appreciate improvements in the educational system, and in some instances it has met with rather violent opposition the best things that have been introduced. Objection was made to manual training, naturestudy has been much ridiculed, and even the supplying of children with abundant reading matter has been opposed. Yet all these good things now receive popular support. Kindergartens have been in favor front the start, and although they were introduced very rapidly, there has been almost no objection to the necessary expense. I believe that I have done some good here, and that if I can stand the strain upon mind, body, and estate I shall be able to do still more.

I have emphasized the political conditions under which I have labored because they have been of so marked a character. During this time I have been a student of pedagogy, trying to master and to put into practice the newer educational thought. Much of my time at home is necessarily consumed in leading people to understand what the schools are doing, and why they are doing it. Notwithstanding the pressure of politics, the determination of the course of study and the appointment of teachers rest practically with me, so long as I have the courage to demand the best ; and I believe that most superintendents would be able to say the same if they would venture to follow their convictions. But if I were to give advice, “ how to be happy though a superintendent,” I should say : “ Do nothing, and look very wise; let things go as they will; take the credit for the good, blame the board or the political system for the evil; and your name shall live long in the land, and your salary shall be raised every year.”


Coming out of the war, in 1865, with no capital but a good college education, I took charge of the village school in the neighborhood where I had grown up. For three months this was free ; for the rest of the school year — five months — tuition fees were charged. After paying my assistant, a lady whom I afterwards married, I was able to earn between $300 and $400 a year. Here I remained three or four years.

Then I accepted the more lucrative position of assistant in a new graded school at the county-seat. This was a town of about 4000 people. A liberal tax had been voted, a handsome building had been erected, and a board composed of the best citizens had been charged with the duty of organizing the school. I was rigidly examined in company with many other applicants, and I was chosen by the results of the examination. My salary was fixed at $500 the first year, and raised each year, without solicitation, while I stayed. I received $1000 the last year, and $1200 was offered if I would withdraw my resignation and remain.

But I had already agreed to become the principal of a school in a bustling little city of about 30,000 inhabitants. I had seen an advertisement of the school board announcing an examination to fill vacancies. Five or six principals and forty or fifty teachers were wanted, at salaries ranging from $400 to $1400. I sent an application, which I followed in person. I was examined most thoroughly (I wrote answers to questions for five days, ten hours each day), and I was elected to the first position on the list.

An old army comrade of mine was a member of the board. Seeing me among the applicants, he took me aside, on the first day, and tried to induce me to go home and save my board bill. He told me confidentially that the whole affair was a mere form, to satisfy three “ reformers ” who had lately come into the board; it was intended to demonstrate to these gentlemen that the teachers were well qualified for their posts. My friend and his party, the “hold-overs,” were pledged, he assured me, to elect the old teachers ; but they had promised the “reformers” to elect principals according to the record made in examination, and on this chance I remained. These wily “ hold-overs ” had not risked much in giving that promise, for they had obtained the questions from the examiners a week in advance, and had given them to the old principals. I owed my election to the fact that I made the best averages, notwithstanding the advantage that they had over me.

Ward politics governed school appropriations in this city. The next year every principal’s salary was reduced $100. The motion to reduce was championed by my army friend. He gave as his excuse, when I protested against it, that one of the principals had bought a baby buggy at another store after bargaining for one at his place; he was determined “ to get even ” with that man. After another year and another reduction, and after being assessed (I refused to pay the assessment) to help elect the old council, I applied for a position in a larger city. I was examined and passed to the eligible list. Two years later I secured the position that I now hold, the place of principal of a graded school in a city of more than 125,000 inhabitants.

My ups and downs in the little city had taught me that some sort of “pull ” other than pedagogical qualifications was necessary to get a city position. I had joined the State Teachers’ Association some years before, and had become acquainted with the state superintendent and with some of the principals. I easily secured their aid, and the aid of a score or more of army comrades. These helps, more than my examination record, “ pulled ” me into a vacancy worth $1650 per year. Once or twice it has yielded more, but oftener less. One year I was paid only $1350. I have usually received $1500, which is my salary this year.

This is the story, briefly told, of a little more than thirty years’ service in the public schools. I am not a disappointed man. My vocation has given me a decent living, and support for my children as they have grown up; it has enabled me to lay by something for the rainy day that must come to every teacher; personally. I am content. But I do not think that I have done as much for my generation as I could have done had not adverse influences hindered me; and I believe this would be the testimony of every conscientious teacher with an experience parallel to mine. Very radical changes, therefore, are needed.

I have never worked in a community where the people were not willing to tax themselves, but I know of many localities where teachers are paid less than farm-hands. This should not be; the people should be educated to appreciate schools. Literature designed to instruct in the theory and the practice of education should be furnished to the masses. An educational campaign that will reach the people and inform them is one of the necessary steps for securing the ideal system.

School directors who sell positions or in any way use their trust for personal profit are a hindrance to progress. Their number is growing instead of diminishing. This I verily believe from personal association with them for thirty years. Now every appointment sold is bought by a teacher; every sale of a lot, every increase of business, every insurance policy placed, every contract awarded, as coincident to appointing a teacher, is brought about by the teacher who is benefited. It is his “ pull,” in fact. If teachers were not equally corrupt, much of the corrupt dealing among directors would disappear.

But there is another influence, born within my time, and still growing, which is doing more than purchasable teachers to increase the proportion of venal directors. As now conducted, the schoolbook business is a portentous evil. Few people know of this or are willing to acknowledge it. There was a time when textbooks were selected upon merit. If one had confidential information upon this point to-day from superintendents throughout the country, I believe that it would be clear that merit is of secondary importance. Indeed, if one will but get an agent to tell him his experience for ten years, one will be convinced without other testimony. I could unfold a startling array of facts to sustain the assertion that a majority of superintendents of small cities and counties owe their positions to pulls” organized by publishing houses to whose books they are friendly.

In answering the questions sent out by The Atlantic Monthly some time ago, I expressed the opinion that a general increase of salaries would not be advisable. I had the thought then that so many are unworthy of their office that to pay more without changing the principle of appointing them would soon raise the percentage of the unworthy. My association with teachers has convinced me that the true teacher concerns himself very little about what he is to get for his work. The way to reform is to change the nature of the examinations, and to have a different kind of examiners. In determining who shall teach, character should weigh as four fifths of the requirement, and literary qualification as one fifth ; and examinations should be held by the patrons of the schools through a committee selected by them. Such a system as this would be a revolution in itself, and in operation it would soon rid tlie schools of tlie horde now teaching as a business, and fill their places with persons who would choose it as a calling.


During my early years my family was in easy circumstances, and I was educated with no reference to bread-winning. But after three years of married life I was left a widow, with my father, then an old man, dependent upon me. Having had a fitful experience in private teaching, I made application for a vacancy in the public schools in a distant city, whither I went with a heavy heart, and without even telling my old friends good-by. In some miraculous way I succeeded in passing the examination, and received the appointment. I recall one question of the examination : “ What was the cause of the civil war ? ” I answered, “ States’ rights.” The examiner was an old man, and had been a Confederate colonel. He asked what part of the South I came from ; and when I said that I came from New England, he remarked that I was one of the few Northerners ” who would answer that question correctly. Three years I worked in that school for a salary of $65 a month. The cost of living was high, and there was little left after paying board for two. To add to my income, I taught history and sometimes grammar in a summer school three seasons.

I tried to idealize the school. A woman must make a home somewhere. I made mine there. At first it seemed like avast machine. As much as I could I changed that. I at least oiled the wheels so that I could not hear the noise.

At the end of three years I became convinced that I was doing very little outside study, and losing rapidly the little cultivation that I began with. I was not growing broader. I went to the superintendent and told him that I must have high school work ; that, unconsciously, I had got into a rut. By good fortune the school board soon afterwards made me principal of the Taylor School, at a salary of $140 a month. While this was not the work that I preferred, it gave me an opportunity to preserve my individuality that no other place could give.

For five years I have supervised the Taylor School, and taught grammar and history to the class preparing for the high school. To a certain extent the school is a machine; that is, we work by a programme and follow a course of study. But every assistant is urged to use the course as a suggestion, and to put all the beauty and wealth of her own individuality into it. She is free to teach a thing in her own way, if she has a way.

On taking the school, I resolved to grade it carefully, keep up each subject as evenly as possible, and try to work out some course in English composition from the lowest to the highest grade. There is not much that is original in the plan, but we have stuck to it for five years, and the children, on entering the high school, know well the mechanics of composition, and something of mythology and literature, nature and art; and this has been made possible only by introducing these subjects into the composition work.

While the board is very liberal in equipping schools with necessary appliances, at first we had no encyclopædia, no library, no pictures. To-day we have all these. Our library of three hundred volumes is not large, but good. So too with the collection of pictures. The pupils come from the homes of the wellto-do, the fathers of one fifth of them belonging to the learned professions. I think the school is very near to these patrons. I have never known a case where the parent did not coöperate with me. But as long as everything goes well the patrons are generally inert, I am not prepared to say that this seeming indifference is a hindrance to progress ; yet if they realized it, they might silently do a noble work by the occasional gift of a picture, or a piece of marble, or a vase, or a tree, or a fountain, or a flower, thus developing in many children a keen perception of the beautiful. One proof that the schools are very dear to the community is the fact that the board of education lias been kept non-sectarian and non-partisan for twenty-one years, by the intelligent vote of the people in a city whose municipal government is not above reproach.

One lady has been a joy to the Taylor School. She is rich and is a leader in society, yet she finds time to bring brightness into the school. She has two children here ; and an aquarium of goldfish, a bird-cage, choice plants, a beautiful clock, and several pictures tell her children that she has not forgotten them. In my eight years of labor here, she is the only patron who by her presence and gifts and encouragement has made herself known and loved throughout the school. Every year, as her children advance, the teacher who receives them is congratulated by all the others, and every room that is left behind bears the evidence of their sojourn there. While in my district the school receives the patrons’ hearty support, yet not many feel called upon to assist to make it a house beautiful. None but Mrs. Grace has ever sent her Christmas pine and holly and mistletoe to decorate the schoolroom before she used it herself. When she entertains, the teachers receive an invitation.

The social side of the life of a teacher yields little joy. When I came here, I brought a letter from my minister. It was a personal letter from the man who had known all a family’s sorrows and joys for many years to another minister to whom he committed the family, or what was left of it. One Sunday, after service, I delivered it. The minister was standing just outside the chancel rail: he read it, threw it down on the front pew, and, with his eyes oil his departing congregation, extended his hand, saying hurriedly, “ Do I understand you are a school-teacher? Well, I’ll call on you some time. Excuse me,” and he rushed away, leaving me standing there. In our city we have several very energetic women’s clubs. They certainly have not considered what they might give to the teacher, nor what the teacher could give to them, for they hold their meetings at an hour when teachers are at work.

In the West, women meet their dearest foes in the men of their own profession. The same pay for the same work the men hold to be just and right ; but they contend that it is impossible for women to do tile same work, and hence that they should not receive the same pay.

I have often felt that I needed a larger salary ; $160 a month for nine months is only $1440 a year. To pay board for two, to keep up insurance, to dress suitably, to buy the necessary books, to have a little trip during the summer, and to save anything, are impossible. I say board for two, for there is scarcely a woman in any occupation, who has passed the thirtieth milestone and receives good pay, but has some one to take care of. She is always proud of this trust, and would have it so. It is her inspiration, her hostage to fortune. But it demands money. I have spoken of the little trip. Would it were not necessary to have it a “ little ” one ! Change, new people, new beauty, are a necessity to the successful teacher. She must make herself worth more. But the trip takes money. The teacher ought to he paid better than the worker in any other profession.

During these years I have carefully observed my teachers. Half of them are graduates of colleges, and half of normal schools. No matter what the training, every teacher needs experience. The best teacher I have is a high school graduate. She has been in the work nine years, and for six of those years she was not above the average. I had one normal graduate who was a failure in teaching and discipline. In my school this is true : if a teacher lias had the advantage of training, normal or university, she requires fewer years to arrive at good work than if she came directly from a high school.

Promotion may come from one grade to another; but five, ten, or fifteen years of service may be required. The great majority of our teachers abandon hope after reaching a certain stage. It takes continued and strenuous exertions to get a promotion to the high school or to a principalship. Tired nature deserves a year’s rest when once the battle for promotion has been fought and won.

With us crowded rooms are by no means rave. In my own school, for one year there was a room with ninetyone pupils. It was in charge of two teachers, one a good one and the other a poor one. I never took visitors in there. Sometimes I found them there, and then I invited them to see some beautiful exercise in another room. This year the hoard has relieved us by renting extra rooms near by. My most crowded rooms now are in the second and seventh grades, where there are sixty-one and fifty-five children respectively. I have no room with as few as forty pupils.

My building is modern, heated by steam, has large windows with shades, fine halls, good ventilation, basement playrooms, and city water in the basement. There is no retiring-room for teachers,—a room, for instance, where, during the noon hour, we might lunch, or rest, or in case of illness lie down. According to one’s point of view, such a room is a luxury or a necessity. One year we beautified the grounds with trees and vines. Once we made a gorgeous flower bed, but for lack of fences the cows and the small boys appropriated it. Once we bought and filled flower boxes for each window, a decoration I saw and admired in the Boston schools, but which our superintendent of buildings objected to as prejudicial to the permanence of the window copings. I always felt that the janitor, who had to water the flowers through the vacation, knew something about that objection.


At nineteen, my first essay at teaching was made in an Illinois community which contentedly put up with much poor instruction. The county superintendency had then just appeared as the regenerator of the country schools. My first license to teach was issued by one of the new officials. In spite of his quids of tobacco, he did the formalities of an examination and certified to my competency. The first school that fell to my lot was a large one, of pupils ranging from five to twenty-two years of age. They had been used to the loosest instruction, with an abundance of “ ciphering.” There had been about forty different recitations a day, which of course wasted much time. Three years’ experience in schools of this kind convinced me that this grade of teaching was neither permanent, nor remunerative. In that time wages had increased from $25 to $50 a month, but for this locality the last sum named was the upper limit.

I decided to take a course of study at a state normal school. Here I got my first view of politics in education. The majority of the board were working politicians. The trading spirit held sway. The president of the school was free from this taint, and the department of English was in the hands of an unusually efficient instructor ; so too was the teaching of science ; but the other teachers wasted our opportunities and destroyed our elasticity by too much method and overwrought logical subdivision. Their reduction of everything to set formulas and to so many Arabic and Roman sub-heads killed the spontaneity necessary to good teaching. My feeling now is that this time would have been better spent in college. The atmosphere of normal schools is not one of scholarship, but of the transitory fads and devices of teaching.

When I left the normal school. I became the superintendent of schools in an Illinois county town. Incompetent boards and “ home talent ” teachers had reduced the schools to worthlessness. But just then an awakening of public sentiment compelled the election of a new board and a general turning over of things. A clean sweep of the old teachers took place, and the board authorized a new course of study, new books, and better appliances. Friends of the old order sought to discredit the new order by attacks in the newspapers, but public sentiment was against them, and they soon gave it up. Except to correct misstatements of fact, no reply was made to these newspaper criticisms, — a policy that my experience shows to be wise.

My work has mainly been the supervision of schools in towns that have from 4000 to 10,000 population. My salary has ranged from $810 to $2100 a year. My longest service in one place has been eight years, and the shortest one year. Of the teachers under me, the average tenure of place has been between two and three years. Of course this period is too short for them even to become well acquainted with the community, to say nothing of gaining an easy mastery of their work. The average of salaries has steadily risen. In the first corps of teachers (1873-74) it was $43 a month; in the last it is about $53. But the qualifications of teachers have not become better. The first body of them under my charge used the birch more than the last body, — that is to say, were less kind to the children; but, on the other hand, they were better taught persons than the later ones; they did not know so many subjects, but they had a firmer grasp on what they did know.

One of the most unpleasant things that superintendents of schools in towns and smaller cities have to meet is the meddlesomeness of wiseacres and reformers who feel themselves better qualified than trained men to make judgments on school subjects. In the board under which I first worked there was one of these directors of education who knew all about the teaching of English. He proved to be very embarrassing. Of course one ought to listen respectfully to all opinions that are offered, but the demand that the theories of amateurs shall be applied has to be politely evaded. Especially vexatious, too, is the constant pressure brought to bear on superintendents for the appointment of teachers. This is the destructive agency against which one must set one’s face most firmly. A superintendent may yield in the matter of janitors, books, and appliances, but he is lost if he do not stand fast on the selection of teachers. I have never allowed any board to take this duty out of my hands, and I would promptly resign before it should do so.

One of the most difficult problems that I have encountered is the textbook problem. The adoption of books for a term of years has uniformly proved to be an evil. It opens a Pandora’s box of ills, chief of which are the unbusinesslike methods of book houses and their agents. In my present position, the matter has been so managed that no adoptions for specified times have taken place. The book supply has been entirely entrusted to the superintendent. This plan rids us of the demoralizing importunities of agents, is economical and satisfactory, and seems to be a rational solution of the problem.

The greatest need in the schools under my charge has been the need of scholarly and mature teachers. Very few of the women who have taught have had any real impulse toward scholarship. Generally they have been content with mechanical proficiency. Normal school graduates are especially defective in scholarship. In this respect they stand below the mere high school graduates.

My experience shows that, under existing conditions, the superintendent is compelled to be a politician. To what amount of hand-shaking and hobnobbing he shall submit depends on his tastes and his skill. The point is that a certain amount of it is necessary to keep his place and to secure an opportunity to work.

I have succeeded fairly well in keeping in touch with the ruling elements in the management of the schools, but there has never been a day when I would not gladly have been rid of work required to do this. Relief from such a necessity would have allowed more time for study, and made me a man of much greater professional value. Finally, my well-grounded conviction is that present education is broad at the expense of depth, and that the feverish hunger for ease and variety leads to many habits of mind and character that will seriously bar their possessors from success in the race of life.


During the period of my preliminary service as teacher in the public schools, my name was reported for a permanent place, and was “ on the slate ” when it left the teachers’ committee. My father was at that time a voter with the party in power ; but the teacher who was number five on the list had a kinsman on the board, who saw that unless she was appointed during his term she might never be. One of the trustees, therefore, brought in a charge of “ cruelty to a boy” against me, and, without an investigation, my name was taken off. and number five was elected. To fail of appointment when it was my right was astonishing ; but to have any one believe that I pulled a boy’s ears till he could not put his head on a pillow hurt me deeply. I began an investigation on my own account, and I discovered that number five’s sister was the guilty teacher. The boy’s father appeared before the board and explained. The teacher was not even censured : but I had lost the permanent position.

For a year I went from one school to another, teaching for six weeks in the high school. When not busy in a schoolroom, I was visiting, studying, or reading. I attended the teachers’ meetings, and was surprised to find so many who had no opinion to express on important subjects. When the year had passed, I was put on the permanent list. I was assigned to a first-year school of fifty-four scholars. Most of them were beginners, and some “ left-overs.” I felt ready for my work. But my greatest trial was when Superintendent Goodenough selected my room as his place to doze, or really to sleep, while my little people were doing their work. He was never known to praise a teacher’s work while she was in service. The only consolation was that he praised teachers who died, or regretted that it was always the “ bright teachers who married.” I might never marry, and therefore I could with confidence look forward to his praise only at my funeral.

A change in the political control of the city took place, and the party long in power was defeated. The other party decided to do without a supervisor for a year. Superintendent Goodenough, therefore, was dropped. It was a monotonous year. But I had now a chance to throw away the old and to use the new. I made all kinds of word and number games; I bought new readers for my supplementary work ; I learned new songs, and I looked up kindergarten games.

The next August the board elected a superintendent, and there was no politics in this election. But there was much anxiety as to what kind of man he would turn out to be. Superintendent Quincy, a live New Englander, came, and he brought a breeze. At first he said little. He asked me what I had read. The next time he brought Mr. Michael Brannigan, chairman of the teachers’ committee. He said, “ Miss Allison is doing the kind of work I want. Has she your permission to carry it on?” Mr. Michael Brannigan was kind enough to abstain from any action that affected me. Superintendent Quincy rid us of many harmful practices. He held grade meetings ; he required the schoolrooms to be empty fifteen minutes after the close of school; and no corporal punishment could be inflicted and not reported.

My scholars liked to come to school, and now they numbered eighty - seven. They sat on the edge of the platform, and even on the floor against the wall. I suggested that some come in the morning, and the others in the afternoon. This was done, and one little girl said, “ Miss Allison is the best teacher, for we have to go only a half day, and we learn as much as they learn all day at the other schools.” I found the work easier, and just as many were promoted to the next class as before.

This year I obtained my state certificate, and I felt that I could now be called a teacher. But a great misfortune threatened me just as I began to feel secure. My father had left the “ party without an issue,” and had become a member of the “ party with a principle.” Election time came, and the “ party without an issue ” thought that they saw a chance to win. As our district was likely to have a close contest, it was suggested that my father be “ whipped into line.” The only lash that he could be made to feel, they thought, was a threat to remove me. They sent their candidate for school trustee to our home, and he knocked timidly at the back door and made known his errand. In a very few minutes he walked rapidly away. His party was defeated, — luckily for me, no doubt, for a local politician was asked how a teacher whose work was good could be dismissed without “ charges.” He replied, “ We always have charges when we need them.” This is the only time that I ever heard of danger to a teacher in our city because of her father’s political faith. The rule has been, once a teacher, always a fixture, even when glaring deficiencies could not be hidden, and complaints were “ too numerous to mention.”

But Superintendent Quincy was too progressive, and his church was on the wrong street. Perhaps he might have been kept if one of the teachers had not wanted the salary. This teacher always reminded us of the line of a hymn,

“ I can tarry, I can tarry but a term.”

He never sat down ; but he stood by the door with his coat and hat in his hands, as if something were urging him on.

About this time there was a vacancy in the grammar school, and the superintendent asked me if I would take the place. I liked my work, and declined the empty honor. It meant longer hours for no greater salary; for we are paid according to length of service, and there is no strife for promotion. Of course principals of the higher schools get more pay, but not principals of buildings, unless there are grammar schools in them.

In the middle of the year the superintendent left to study a profession, and a man who had “ taught his way through ” one of our best normal schools became his successor. At last this superintendent fell a victim to church influences, and he gave place to a young teacher whose church was right, but whose political party was wrong. “ He had no principles to hinder,” as one of our legislators said, so he turned his back on the party which claimed his first vote, and the position was his. He was younger than most of the teachers, but see how wise he was! He would come into the classroom and say, “ Go to page 73 this month.” He delivered extempore speeches at the teachers’ meetings, and we wondered what it had all been about. In the three years that he was in service he never listened to one recitation in my room. He generally came to gather statistics or to dole out pages of textbooks. I did what I could to keep pace with the other schools, but I felt that there was nothing done thoroughly. At last came his turn to be decapitated, and his successor, who now holds the office, is the best of the long succession of superintendents. They say that he may not be here next year. It is time for a change.

For two years I have had a real grievance. Miss Wellpaid has a school of the same grade as mine, but mine requires more personal work. Yet Miss Wellpaid receives $260 a year more than I am paid, and my salary is the same as that of her assistants, who have no responsibility. Every one admits the justice of my claim, and the board promises to equalize the salary. Children who, by school district lines, ought to attend Miss Wellpaid’s school ask six months ahead if I will save them seats if there be room for outsiders. I will not take one of these pupils, even when they bring a demand from two trustees. Once, however, I was obliged to take two of them. They had an order from the president of the board, and a doctor’s certificate which said, “ It is bad for the health of these girls to attend Miss Wellpaid’s school.” I must be a “ natural healer ” of the woes of school life. Is there nothing to make up that missing $260 ? Yes, many things. The ambition of every child in the building is "to go to school to Miss Amelia Allison.” Ask a kindergarten child who will be his next teacher, and he will generally say, “ Miss Allison.” One of the ways of inciting good behavior and perfect lessons is to promise a visit to my school. Then I have once more my little people grown tall, sitting in my classes, glad to anticipate my desires about their work and play. Half of my present school have been in my first-year grades. When they argue that it is not late enough in the week to be Friday, one girl says, “ We have only two days in our room, and they are Monday and Friday; nothing between.” I have also notes of appreciation from parents, and I think with Whittier : —

“ And when the world shall link yonr names
With gracious lives and manners fine,
The teacher shall assert her claims,
And proudly whisper, ‘ These were mine ! ’ ”


In 1880, having just graduated from college, I abandoned my intention of reading law, and permitted myself to be elected to a chair in my alma mater at a salary of $600 a year. I was assured that I was peculiarly fitted for the profession of teaching, and I thought that I might reap honors as great as in other professions, and might “ grow up to ” a position that would afford me something more than a competence. I kept this place for several years, until my salary was gradually increased to $1000 ; only a part of which was ever paid, however, because of the financial embarrassment of the institution. The college was a “ denominational ” school, and after a time I became convinced that the prospect for further promotion was not promising.

My next experience was in a private training school, which I established and conducted for several years. The financial returns from this venture were more satisfactory, and one year I made $2250. But a period of financial depression came, and I accepted the offer of the post of principal of the high school in a city at a salary of $1500, which it was understood was to be increased to $1800 the next year. Instead of an increase, there was, during the second year, an effort to decrease the salaries of all the teachers. The necessities of my family forbade me to accept less than $1500, and I abandoned the profession for more lucrative work. My successor now receives only $1200 a year.

This public school work was a new experience to me, and I found myself hampered in some ways hitherto unknown. I had never before been expected to follow a course of study and use textbooks prescribed by a school board the members of which had but little practical knowledge of either. It seemed to me, too. fresh as I was from other kinds of schools, where more individuality was encouraged on the part of both teacher and pupil, that the public schools were excessively and injuriously mechanical; and I am of the same opinion still. My experience and observation have convinced me that this extremely systematic organization, of which many superintendents and school boards are so proud, tends to cramp and to dwarf the pupil, and to reduce the teacher to a mere automaton, beautifully regular in its action, but pitifully lacking in discrimination and in appreciation of the idiosyncrasies of the individual child, without a proper understanding of which no teacher can be really successful. The teacher becomes still more an automaton and his work still more mechanical by reason of the universal practice of placing under his charge twice as many pupils as any human being can thoroughly study and competently teach.

I never felt that, as a teacher, my efforts were not appreciated. I think that I was appreciated ; but I believe that the public generally does not place a high enough estimate upon the value of a teacher’s services. I “ taught school ” for eighteen consecutive years, and then left a salary of $1500. I think that, without overestimating my own capability, I may say that in almost any other profession for which I possessed reasonable aptitude an eighteen years’ service of equal diligence would have made me worth to the public more than $1500 per year. I loved the work of teaching ; I love it still ; and nothing but necessity could have induced me to abandon it. I may add that some of the environments which hamper many teachers I did not permit to hamper me. I fancy that I was more a man of affairs than most teachers feel that it is safe to be. I never surrendered my individuality. I have known teachers to lose their positions by reason of their political opinions. I never suffered on this account, and yet my political sentiments were always understood, although of course I did not allow them to intrude upon my schoolroom duties.

Finally, I have no quarrel with teaching as a profession, save that public sentiment does not accord to it the compensation to which, in my opinion, the intelligence, the skill, and the energy necessary for its successful prosecution entitle it.