As a salute to those who are dealing with the infinite complexity of trying to educate students in the midst of the COVID-19 era, we turn this month to Acton’s school history. Presented here are a few struggles of days past.
One Teacher, Many Grades
In early Acton, the community seems to have viewed teachers’ role in the schools primarily as keepers of order rather than as educators in today’s sense.
As the 1891-1892 School Committee report noted, “Within the memory of some now living, a hundred scholars were in one school, with one teacher. The discipline of the crowd was ordinarily enough for any master to manage, without wasting his strength on the minor matters of instruction. The little ones on the lower seats were pleased if they had one chance recognition in the course of the long day from the master in the desk.” (p. 48)
By the 1890s, expectations of teachers had changed. By that time, teachers were supposed to instruct classes, rather than simply to hear students recite. The problem with the new approach was that it was demanded of teachers whose working circumstances had not been adjusted to the new expectations. Acton’s school committee report in March 1896 explained:
“There are at present seven grades in the East and North schools. One of the best arranged daily programs of work I have seen for a school of seven grades called for thirty-three class exercises per day. Allowing thirty minutes for two recesses, there are left three hundred, thirty minutes for thirty three class exercises, or ten minutes to a class, and this includes the time for all individual work. This number of class exercises is altogether too many for satisfactory instruction and drill, but the East and the North schools have even more than that number. It is an impossibility for a teacher to teach a class properly in ten minutes, and follow it up all day.” (p. 66)
In the larger schools, the issue was large class sizes coupled with a range of ages. In Fall 1894 (p. 61), the South Acton primary teacher had 51 students enrolled in her classroom and not only had to deal with classroom management but also had to be prepared to teach four grades’ worth of material each day. (Bertha Gardner, we salute you.)
The superintendent wrote in his March 1896 report that “To teach is to direct the work of the pupils, to show them how to study, to arouse their interest, to train them to habits of clear, concise, and connected expression, to examine their written work, to cultivate in them a love of study and lead them to investigate for themselves, to impart information, and to lead pupils to apply the things learned.” (p. 66) That seems a little ambitious for ten-minute class periods.
Two Teachers, One Schoolhouse
In a brief entry in the 1863-64 Superintendent Report, we learned about a problem in the East Acton school. “In consequence of some misunderstanding between the Committee and two female teachers who both laid claim to the school, it was decided to employ a male teacher for the Winter term.” (p. 31) The logic behind that solution, unfortunately, remains a mystery.
Two Superintendents, One Town
A more open dispute occurred in 1884, when the School Committee managed to appoint competing Superintendents. Rev. Franklin P. Wood and lawyer Frederick C. Nash had both served in that role in recent years. In April 1884, missing one sick member, the Committee voted 3-2 for Rev. Wood to serve. After a member objected that the full committee should have been present, a new vote was arranged at the home of the sick member. The supporters of Rev. Wood refused to participate, calling the new vote illegal, leaving the supporters of Frederick C. Nash with the victory. Nash started fulfilling the duties of Superintendent, Rev. Wood applied to the state’s Supreme Court for an injunction to stop Mr. Nash, and the Committee and the town split down the middle. (Boston Globe, Apr. 20, 1884, p. 1 and Apr. 23, p. 4)
Mr. Nash seems to have won that round, and education proceeded. In the 1885-1886 year, Rev. C. L. Rhoades was appointed to replace Mr. Nash. In his first report, he said that “Perfect unanimity has existed between members of the Committee, and between the Committee its Superintendent, during the year.” (School Committee report, p. 1) That optimism was tempered the next year with a report of unanimity except for interference from “outside parties, not parents of any children in the school(s)” (1886-7 Superintendent’s report, p. 31) Soon thereafter, a huge controversy broke out over a West Acton teacher’s disciplinary measures, the process used to investigate them, and the fact that the Superintendent was not allowed to speak in a meeting to defend himself. Somehow Frederick C. Nash became involved in the hostilities, probably as part of the “outside interference” mentioned in the previous report. The superintendent and three out of four members of the school committee resigned. (Boston Globe, March 14, 1887, p. 8) Rev. James Fletcher was appointed in his place. In a feat of longevity, he managed to last until the town joined (perplexingly) with Sturbridge and West Brookfield in a joint superintendency arrangement in the 1892-1893 year. (Apparently, state aid was part of the joint superintendency deal.)
Blizzards are Good for Them
Since the beginning of Acton’s history, there has been recognition of the need to educate the town’s children, giving fair access to all. However, deciding how to achieve that goal has been a source of disagreement. There were always those who advocated for better schools, in one way or another, and those who resisted on budgetary or other grounds. There was often contention over where schools would be located and how far students would have to travel to get there. The 1851 School Committee report dismissed concerns from residents of the more remote areas of town:
“Parents generally fear the distance more than do the children. What if they do face the winds and buffet the storms of winter? It only makes them more hardy and more courageous. Our children have bones and muscles as well as minds; while the latter are being developed by judicious training, the former must be enlarged and strengthened by constant and vigorous use, so that they may possess sound minds, healthy frames, and cheerful hearts. Every obstruction removed, every obstacle overcome in their school-boy days, will prepare them for the earnest struggles of real life. The boy or the girl who bravely treads the snow for long miles to school, is not likely to be a loiterer there; indeed, the tardy and the heedless are rarely those who must, every day, make a vigorous effort to be at school.” (p. 13-14)
Eventually, students who lived far from school were, at times grudgingly, given transportation. Students who lived nearer were still on their own (within 1.5-2 miles in many cases, according to the Superintendent’s Report, 1914, p. 20). Even after the transportation of students from outlying areas was the norm, it kept being either cut or threatened with cuts. In their 1895-96 report, (p. 54), the school committee recommended against transporting high school students because “this expenditure is altogether disproportioned to the benefits resulting from it. Parents sufficiently ambitious for the future of their children to send them to the High School ought ... to be willing to provide for their transportation.” (The school committee wanted to hire staff with the money used on transportation. Having a high school at all was a new and contentious issue. See our blog posts about Acton High School in the 1880s and the political drama over building a new high school in town.)
Horse-drawn school barges were not a particularly quick mode of transportation. This became more of an issue with the advent of automobiles competing for the road. The difference between today’s attitudes and yesterday’s showed up when the Superintendent recommended that school-barge drivers should move far over to let automobiles pass, both when the cars signaled from behind and when they approached from the front: “They [barge drivers] are charged with the protection of the children, not with the assertion of their legal rights-to-the-road.” (1915 Superintendent report, p. 21) Today’s drivers behind a school bus might consider that at least they are not stuck behind a horse.
Rocky Acton Provided Great Recess Materials
Recess could be perilous. When safe equipment was not available, apparently rocks would do. In 1908, Theron Lowden was playing “Duck on the Rock” during recess and was hit by a stone as he was picking up one to launch himself. We will leave aside the gore in the report, but Theron was “without the use of his right hand for some weeks.” (Concord Enterprise, May 13, 1908, p. 8)
It’s all the Teacher’s Fault, Ventilation Edition
For those who have been following the complications of preparing schools for in-person learning in the era of COVID-19, it may be interesting to note that ventilation issues in classrooms are not new. What is different is that it was considered the teacher’s responsibility to keep the students well, regardless of the condition of the schoolhouse. It was a no-win situation. The 1879-1880 School Committee Report called for safe ventilation of school rooms “that so many pupils may not be detained from school by colds contracted there. We trust our teachers will be more particular in the future in this regard. Such care ought to be taken of the health of our pupils that they will be safer, when in charge of the teacher, than when they are at home.” (p. 2) Apparently, opening a window was considered the main danger. The following year, the Superintendent wrote, “We hope, too, that better provisions will be made for ventilating the school-rooms. Teachers too often open windows and expose the children to drafts of air. Boards should be so arranged against the lower window sashes that this danger will be avoided.” (1880-1881 Superintendent’s Report, p. 8)
A few years later, the Superintendent raised the issue of air quality, this time because of the foul air produced by coal stoves. “In the absence of the janitor the teacher is ex-officio master of the situation, and his comfort and success, and that of the school, hangs largely upon the temperature and quality of the air in which the work is done. No amount of zeal or tact in conducting recitations will overbalance a vitiated atmosphere. One good current of air from the outside world will often settle problems in discipline and in arithmetic all at the same time.” (School Committee Report 1887-1888, p. 33) One presumes that boards were no longer across the windows to keep them from being opened.
As mentioned in our previous blog post on maintenance in Acton’s schools, the disagreement over ventilation continued for years. Ventilators were argued over, installed, seen to fail, and argued over again. Acton managed to defer improved ventilation systems in its schools even after having been ordered to install them by the state inspector, yielding to the argument that opening windows was adequate... and free. (1891-1892 report, p. 45.)
Even after improvements were made, ventilation systems were still problematic. Teacher Ella Miller wrote in her diary on March 16, 1911: “Cold, blustering day, hardest to be out in this winter. The ventilator cap blew off the top of the schoolhouse, just before school began.” Obviously, school ventilation is a never-ending struggle.
Teachers Need to Work... But Not Necessarily for Money
In 1919, teachers had expected to be paid every other week for their efforts, as previously voted by the town. It was socially unacceptable for female teachers to be demanding, but when the teachers had reached the four-week mark without pay, they expressed their annoyance. (The janitors of three schoolhouses had also gone without their pay.) The Sept. 25, 1919 Boston Globe ran a headline that “Two Acton Teachers Threaten to Strike” (p. 7), although it made sure to put quotation marks around the word “strike” in the article. It also pointed out that two of the teachers did not live in town and had to pay for room and board, a justification for their speaking up. (Others, including Ella Miller and Julia McCarthy, were local and apparently were expected to be patient.) An unsourced clipping in the Society’s collection was headlined “Teachers Didn’t Mean Strike Talk.” The article explained that the persuasive out-of-town teachers waited at the depot until the secretary of the school committee stepped off the train and convinced him that they needed pay. Their approach apparently did not go over well in some parts of town, and a story circulated that teachers had threatened a strike and tried to “coerce the school committee into paying them.” Whatever was said, the teachers did manage to get some pay, half of what they were owed, with a promise of the rest and prompt payment in the future. (Boston Globe, Sept. 28, 1919, p. 14) One hopes that the town made good on the promise.
The More Things Change...
Every school has issues to address, whatever the era. Though we’ve focused on past Acton school issues that are different from today’s, some problems are universal. Ella Miller’s diary of June 11, 1913 reported that “All of us at school are tired and sleepy. Went to bed early.” After all the adjustments of this year’s reentry into school life, one imagines that a few teachers and students might have experienced a day like that.
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