It is possible for a teacher to speak so as to be easily heard by three hundred persons, and three hundred pupils can be easily so seated, as to see his illustrations or diagrams. Suppose that three hundred pupils, all ignorant of the method of reducing fractions to a common denominator, and yet all old enough to learn, are collected in one room. Suppose they are all attentive and desirous of learning, it is very plain that the process may be explained to the whole at once, so that half an hour spent in that exercise, would enable a very large proportion of them to understand the subject. So, if a teacher is explaining to a class in Grammar, the difference between a noun and verb, the explanation would do as well for several hundred, as for the dozen who constitute the class, if arrangements could only be made to have the hundreds hear it. But there are, perhaps, only a hundred in the school, and of these a large part understands already the point to be explained and another large part are too young to attend to it.
A very small class instructed by an able teacher, is like a factory of a hundred spindles, with a water-wheel of power sufficient for a thousand. In such a case, even if the owner, from want of capital, or any other cause, cannot add the other nine hundred, he ought to know how much of his power is in fact unemployed, and make arrangements to bring it into useful exercise, as soon as he can. The teacher in the same manner should understand what is the full beneficial effect, which it is possible and in theory, to derive from his instructions. He should understand, too, that just so far as he falls short of this full effect, there is waste. It may be unavoidable; part of it unquestionably is, like the friction of machinery, unavoidable. Still, it is waste; and it ought to be so understood, that by the gradual perfection of the machinery, it may be more and more fully prevented.
Always bear in mind then, when we are devoting our time to two or three individuals in a class, that we are losing a very large part of our labor. Our instructions are conducive to good effect, only to the one tenth or one twentieth of the extent, to which, under more favorable circumstances, they might be made available. And though we cannot always avoid this loss, we ought always to be aware of it, and so to shape our measures, as to diminish it as much as possible.
Simultaneous recitation, the practice of addressing a question to all the class to be answered by all together is a practice, which has been for some years rapidly extending in many schools, and, if adopted with proper limits and restrictions, is attended with great advantage. The teacher must guard against some dangers, however, which will be likely to attend it:
1. Some will answer very eagerly, instantly after the question is completed. They wish to show their superior readiness. Let the teacher mention this, expose, kindly, the motive which leads to it, and tell them it is as irregular to answer before the rest, as after them.
2. Some will defer their answers, until they can catch those of their comrades, for a guide. Let the teacher mention this fault, expose the motive which leads to it, and tell them that, if they do not answer independently, and at once, they had better not answer at all.
3. Some will not answer at all. The teacher can tell by looking around the class who do not, for they cannot counterfeit the proper motion of the lips, with promptness and decision, unless they know what the answer is to be. He ought occasionally to say to such a one, "I perceive you do not answer;" and ask him questions individually.
4. In some cases, there is danger of confusion in the answers, from the fact that the question may be of such a nature, that the answer is long, and may, by different individuals, be differently expressed. This evil must be guarded against, by so shaping the question, as to admit of a reply in a single word. In reading large numbers, for example, each figure may be called for by itself, or they may be given one after another, the pupils keeping exact time. When it is desirable to ask a question to which the answer is necessarily long, it may be addressed to an individual, or the whole class may write their replies, which may then be read in succession.
In a great many cases where simultaneous answering is practiced, after a short time, the evils above specified are allowed to grow, until at last some half dozen bright members of a class answer for all, the rest dragging after them, echoing their replies, or ceasing to take any interest in an exercise, which brings no personal and individual responsibility upon them. To prevent this, the teacher should exercise double vigilance, at such a time. He should often address questions to individuals alone, especially to those most likely to be inattentive and careless, and guard against the ingress of every abuse, which might, without close vigilance, appear.
There are three kinds of human knowledge (Reading, Writing, and Calculation) which stand strikingly distinct from all the rest. They lie at the foundation. They constitute the roots of the tree. In other words, they are the means, by which all other knowledge is acquired.
Teachers do not perhaps always consider, how entirely and essentially distinct these three are from all the rest. They are arts; the acquisition of them is not to be considered as knowledge, so much as the means, by which knowledge may be obtained
Teaching a pupil to read, before he enters upon the active business of life, is like giving a new settler an axe, as he goes to seek his new home in the forest. Teaching him a lesson in history, is, on the other hand, only cutting down a tree or two for him. Knowledge of natural history is like a few bushels of grain, gratuitously placed in his barn; but the art of ready reckoning, is the plough, which will remain by him for years, and help him to draw out from the soil an annual treasure.
The study of books alone is insufficient to give knowledge to the young. In the first stage, learning to read, a book is of no use whatever, without the voice of the living teacher. The child cannot take a step alone. As the pupil, however, advances in his course, his dependence upon his teacher for guidance and help, continually diminishes, until, at last, the scholar sits in his solitary study, with no companion but his books, and desiring, for a solution of every difficulty, nothing but a larger library. In schools, however, the pupils have made so little progress in this course, that they all need more or less of this oral assistance. Difficulties must be explained; questions must be answered; the path must be smoothed, and the way pointed out, by a guide, who has travelled it before, or it will be impossible for the pupil to go on.
It is wrong for the teacher to expect that things will go right in his school, as a matter of course. All that he can expect, as a matter of course, is, that things should go on as well as they do ordinarily in schools,—the ordinary amount of idleness,—the ordinary amount of misconduct. This is the most that he can expect to come as a matter of course; he should feel this, and then, all he can gain which will be better than this, will be a source of positive pleasure; a pleasure which his pupils have procured for him, and which consequently they should share.
Everyone has his peculiar sources of enjoyment,—and objects of pursuit, which are before his mind from day to day. Every boy is, from the circumstances in which he is placed at home, exposed to temptations, which have perhaps, had a far greater influence in the formation of his character, than any deliberate and intentional depravity of his own; ascertain what these temptations are, that we may know where to pity him, and where to blame. The knowledge which such an examination of character will give us will not be confined to making us acquainted with the individual. It will be the most valuable knowledge which a man can possess, both to assist him in the general administration of the school and in his intercourse among mankind in the business of life. Men are but boys, only with somewhat loftier objects of pursuit. Their principles, motives, and ruling passions are essentially the same. Extended commercial speculations are, so far as the human heart is concerned, substantially what trading in jack-knives and toys is, at school, and building a snow fort, to its own architects, the same as erecting a monument of.
Girls and boys however young, never consider themselves little children, for they can always look down upon some younger than themselves. They are mortified, when treated as though they could not understand what is really within the reach of their faculties. They do not like to have their powers underrated; and they are right in this feeling. It is common to all, old and young.
The disposition to make improvements and changes may however be too great. If so, it must he checked. On the other hand a slavish attachment to old established practices may prevail. Then the spirit of enterprise and experiment must be awakened and encouraged. Which of these two is to be the duty of a writer at any time, will of course depend upon the situation of the community at the time he writes, and of the class of readers for which he takes his pen. Now at the present time, it is undoubtedly true, that, while among the great mass of teachers there may be too little originality and enterprise, there is still among many a spirit of innovation and change, to which a caution ought to be addressed.
Much has been said within a few years, by writers on the subject of education, in any country, on the desirableness of raising the business of teaching to the rank of a learned profession. There is but one way of doing this, and that is raising the personal characters and attainments of teachers themselves. Whether an employment is elevated or otherwise in public estimation depends altogether on the associations connected with it in the public mind; and these depend altogether on the characters of the individuals who are engaged in it. Benjamin Franklin, by the simple fact that he was a printer himself, has done more towards giving dignity and respectability to the employment of printing, than a hundred orations on the intrinsic excellence of the art. In fact all mechanical employments have, within a few years risen in rank not through the influence of efforts to impress the community directly with a sense of their importance, but simply because mechanics themselves have risen in intellectual and moral character. In the same manner the employment of the teacher will be raised most effectually in the estimation of the public, not by the individual who writes the most eloquent oration on the intrinsic dignity of the art, but by the one who goes forward most successfully in the exercise of it, and who by his general attainments, and public character, stands out most fully to the view of the public, as a well informed, liberal minded, and useful man.
If this is so, and it cannot well be denied, it furnishes every teacher a strong motive to exertion, for the improvement of his own personal character. But there is a stronger motive still, in the results which flow directly to him, from such efforts. No man ought to engage in any business which, as mere business, will engross all his time and attention. The Creator has bestowed upon everyone a mind, upon the cultivation of which, our rank among intelligent beings, our happiness, our moral and intellectual power, everything valuable to us, depend. And after all the cultivation which we can bestow, in this life, upon this mysterious principle, it will still be in embryo. The progress which it is capable of making is entirely indefinite. If by ten years of cultivation, we can secure a certain degree of knowledge and power, by ten more, we can double, or more than double it, and every succeeding year of effort, is attended with equal success. There is no point of attainment where we must stop, or beyond which effort will bring in a less valuable return.
Look at that teacher, and consider for a moment, his condition. He began to teach when he was twenty years of age, and now he is forty. Between the years of fifteen and twenty he made a vigorous effort to acquire such an education as would fit him for these duties. He succeeded, and by these efforts he raised himself from being a mere laborer, receiving for his daily toil a mere daily subsistence, to the respectability and the comforts of an intellectual pursuit. But this change once produced, he stops short in his progress. Once seated in his desk, he is satisfied, and for twenty years he has been going through the same routine, without any effort to advance or to improve. He does not reflect that the same efforts, which so essentially altered his condition and prospects at twenty, would have carried him forward to higher and higher sources of influence and enjoyment, as long as he should continue them. His efforts ceased when he obtained a situation as teacher and though twenty years have glided away, he is now exactly what he was then. There is probably no employment whatever which affords so favorable an opportunity for personal improvement,—for steady intellectual and moral progress, as that of teaching.
A merchant, for example, may be employed nearly all the day, at his counting-room, and so may a mechanic. A physician may spend all his waking-hours in visiting patients, and feel little more than healthy fatigue. The reason is that in all these employments, and in fact in most of the employments of life, there is so much to diversify, so many little incidents constantly occurring to animate and relieve, and so much bodily exercise, which alternates with, and suspends the fatigues of the mind, that the labors may be much longer continued, and with less cessation, and yet the health not suffer. A lawyer may read in an evening an interesting book of travels, and find nothing to help him with his case, the next day, in court,—but almost every fact which the teacher thus learns, will come at once into use, in some of his recitations at school. We do not mean to imply by this that the members of the legal profession have not needed of a great variety and extent of knowledge; they doubtless have. It is simply in the directness and certainty, with which the teacher's knowledge may be applied to his purpose, that the business of teaching has the advantage over every other pursuit. This fact now has a very important influence in encouraging, and leading forward the teacher, to make constant intellectual progress, for every step brings at once a direct reward.
The teacher enters upon the duties of his office by a much more sudden transition than is common in the other avocations and employments of life. In ordinary cases, business comes at first by slow degrees, and the beginner is introduced to the labors and responsibilities of his employment, in a very gradual manner. The young teacher, however, enters, by a single step, into the very midst of his labors. He can do nothing until the day and the hour for opening the school arrives,—then he has everything to do.
(Adapted from The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Teacher, by Jacob Abbott)