Teacher or Factory Hand?

A Scholastic Meditation

I HAVE heard my physician say that seeing more than two patients every hour works unfairness both to her and to her patient. Is there any judge who believes he best serves the state when he holds simultaneous investigations of thirty-five different persons every hour? What minister attempts to aid and comfort the same number in platoons? Let me give the schedule of my average day this term.

At 8.45 I meet a little regiment of thirty-five. From 9.30 to 11.00, I sometimes have to keep quiet one hundred and fifty restless souls (a third of a crowded study hall), one fourth of whom know how to study; at other times I have to do clerical work connected with my ‘home’ room or recitation classes or fill out cards and circulars sent by the school board. Occasionally I rejoice when I can correct a few themes in that time. From 11.00 until 2.50 (Thursdays and Fridays generally until 3.30), with forty minutes out for lunch, there sit before me for instruction four more classes of thirty-five to forty pupils each. For my second class, seniors, I have to bridge a three and a half years’ gap — the first class were freshmen. The third class, which follows five minutes after the last senior has left the room, requires another change of attitude — they have been in high school three terms. The same presentation will do for the fourth class, but the last class necessitates a jump back to treatment for seniors.

The doctor tries to effect a physical and mental readjustment back to health; the judge attempts to place the asocial person in harmonious agreement with the rest of society; the religious leader instills faith in right living. As a teacher, I am responsible for the health of students in my five recitation classes as well as for that in my ‘home’ class of fifty-four. Not only should my method of conducting recitations aid each of the one hundred and seventy-five students under my care to become peaceable citizens, but it is my job to foster leaders among them. As a teacher of adolescents, I must encourage moral responsibility. Mind you, all this is outside the objectives of my subject. As an English teacher, I must teach one hundred and seventy-five pupils — different ones every six months — to use the English tongue correctly in writing and speaking; I must inculcate unswerving application to the doing of the daily task, no matter how monotonous it may seem; I must teach how to extract meanings from difficult passages; I must achieve articulateness and initiative on the part of my pupils; it is my task to encourage those with distinct literary ability to do original work; I must foster in all a love for great books, so that sublime and moving truths may create a yearning to live useful and beautiful lives.

How do I spend my day after three o’clock? Instead of taking needed exercise, I must sit at least once a week in a crowded lecture hall. My board of education has just passed a law requiring me to show evidence from some institution of higher learning of thirty hours of successfully passed work every year if I wish my annual salary increases. One correspondence course may be submitted in fifteen years. Study groups, travel, and reading innumerable books from which I get much more stimulation are not, in the opinion of my board of education, either educational or broadening. Two to three hours’ travel to the big city universities, an hour’s lecture, and one afternoon is gone. Two Mondays of every month after school hours are spent in long faculty meetings, and twice every term there are the lengthy, if interesting, meetings of the English Teachers’ Association. On other days I plan and read for three different grades of English, each grade taking four types of work — literature, oral work, composition, and grammar. Planning for three grades for one half term took me, this semester, the best part of two weeks. A forced absence from school during the first two weeks of the semester because of a broken leg gave me the necessary leisure; I am not always so lucky. When I am not attending regular or special meetings, or planning work, there are one hundred and seventy-five papers I must correct every two weeks — they should come every week. Sometimes they are a page long, sometimes much longer. If I were a machine for spelling, sentence construction, punctuation, ability to follow assignment adequately, and originality, I could read and correct a page-long composition every three minutes. Being no Robot, I take considerably longer than 525 minutes for 175 themes.

Then, too, since extra-curricular activities loom large in modern educational objectives, I must bear my share of the burden without any reduction of teaching hours or other duties. That share is management of the debating team. I expect to spend every Saturday morning and much time during the week helping these four youngsters to learn to collect and organize material, to say nothing of teaching them effective delivery. To keep in sympathetic touch with my students’ minds, I have to read books my students delight in, and reading books on education and psychology is necessary professionally. To keep from senile decay and to retain remnants of the faculty to appreciate the æsthetic, I must wedge in the reading of worth-while new books and an occasional classic. Not much time for repairing my clothes, — my salary does not admit of a lady’s maid, — for most necessary meetings with my friends, attending theatres, museums, and so forth, is there?

When I compare my lot with that of the three other professions dealing with close contact between person and person, I do not write to induce my superior officers to reorganize the schools on a private-tutor basis; however delightful that might be, such an arrangement I know is out of the question. I write for the layman and superior officers who forget that teachers deal with moving material just as do doctors, lawyers, and ministers; not with cans of peas, or reams of paper, or figures on a balance sheet that can be shifted with impunity. I write specifically for those who are responsible in my city for increasing the already heavy load of English teachers from twenty teaching hours a week to twenty-five, from four classes to five, and in many schools of the city to six. I write for the school executive who forgets the nerve tension on one mind of the simultaneous workings of thirtyfive to forty minds, for the man or woman who regards a school as an example in division, with the teaching staff as a fixed divisor and the pupils an ever-increasing dividend.

The injustice to me as a teacher dwindles to insignificance when I think of how the child is cheated. Large classes and too many teaching periods a week prevent the personal interview so necessary to doctors, lawyers, and clergymen. It is only by accident that I learn of tragic difficulties under which pupils struggle. A chance smile in the hall opens Martha’s floodgates: she has to spend all her hours at home taking care of her sick mother. Camille is just one in a sea of faces until she writes on a short daily test, her third failure, ‘I need your help in Ivanhoe.’ Frank is, after six months, only rather a diffident, intelligent youngster, until one day, when pressed to try out for debating, he says with an old man’s tragedy in his black eyes, ‘You know I have n’t got the personality.’ They are my nightmares, these Marthas, and Franks, and Camilles. Because of the increase in size and number of my classes, I am forced to decrease the number of themes from each pupil. I have learned more about teaching and pupils’ problems from students’ themes to me than from any professor of pedagogy.

I want to help and encourage every youngster that sits in my classroom. I feel that I was meant to teach adolescent boys and girls; my present enjoyment of teaching, even under great difficulties, ought to prove that. I agree with prominent educators in Washington and in Albany when they preach creative teaching and individual instruction. But the board of education in the largest and richest city in the United States has another picture of me. They think of me as in a factory, a very noisy factory, where I am minding 175-250 bobbins to see that they all turn with the same speed. But I am a poor factory hand. Very often a bobbin breaks or the thread that is being wound gets tangled. I quickly discard the broken and the tangled spools so as not to disturb the even whir of the other bobbins. But, because my foreman almost always sees my bobbins running smoothly, he thinks I am an efficient worker: he does n’t know what a cheat and a liar I am.

And the dreadful fear that comes to me is that perhaps some day I may agree with him.