Jacksonian Miscellanies, #80

April 13, 1999

More Gentle Advice to Teachers

Copyright by the editor, Hal Morris, Hopatcong, NJ 1999. Permission is granted to copy, but not for sale, nor in multiple copies, except by permission.

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The following completes the first chapter of Jacob Abbott's 1836 book, The Teacher: Moral Influences Employed in the Instruction and Government of the Young (online at http://www.umdl.umich.edu/cgi-bin/moa/sgml/moa-idx?notisid=AJB2427, as part of the wonderful Making of America web project - http://www.umdl.umich.edu/moa/), completing what was started in Jacksonian Miscellanies #79.

Its spirit is perhaps summed up in the following imaginary dialogue taken from it:

"Sir," we might say to [an unhappy and perplexed teacher], "what is the matter?"

"Why, I have such boys I can do nothing with them. Were it not for their misconduct, I might have a very good school."

"Were it not for their misconduct? Why, is there any peculiar depravity in them which you could not have foreseen?"

"No; I suppose they are pretty much like all other boys," he replies, despairingly; "they are all harebrained and unmanageable. The plans I have formed for my school would be excellent if my boys would only behave properly."

"Excellent plans," might we not reply, "and yet not adapted to the materials upon which they are to operate! No. It is your business to know what sort of beings boys are, and to make your calculations accordingly."

I will simply state one case, to illustrate what I mean by the difference between blind force and active ingenuity and enterprise in the management of school. I once knew the teacher of a school who made it his custom to have writing attended to in the afternoon. The school was in the country, and it was the old times when quills, instead of steel pens, were universally used. The boys were accustomed to take their places at the appointed hour, and each one would set up his pen in the front of his desk for the teacher to come and mend them. The teacher would accordingly pass around the school-room, mending the pens, from desk to desk, thus enabling the boys, in succession, to begin their task. Of course, each boy, before the teacher came to his desk, was necessarily idle, and, almost necessarily, in mischief. Day after day the teacher went through this regular routine. He sauntered slowly and listlessly through the aisles, and among the benches of the room, wherever he saw the signal of a pen. He paid, of course, very little attention to the writing, now and then reproving, with an impatient tone, some extraordinary instance of carelessness, or leaving his work to suppress some rising disorder. Ordinarily, however, he seemed to be lost in vacancy of thought, dreaming, perhaps, of other scenes, or inwardly repining at the eternal monotony and tedium of a teacher's life. His boys took no interest in their work, and of course made no progress. They were sometimes unnecessarily idle, and sometimes mischievous, but never usefully or pleasantly employed, for the whole hour was passed before the pens could all be brought down. Wasted time, blotted books, and fretted tempers were all the results which the system produced.

The same teacher afterward acted on a very different principle. He looked over the field, and said to himself, "What are the objects which I wish to accomplish in this writing exercise, and how can I best accomplish them? I wish to obtain the greatest possible amount of industrious and careful practice in writing. The first thing evidently is to save the wasted time." He accordingly made preparation for mending the pens at a previous hour, so that all should be ready, at the appointed time, to commence the work together. This could be done quite as conveniently when the boys were engaged in studying, by requesting them to put out their pens at an appointed and previous time. He sat at his table, and the pens of a whole bench were brought to him, and, after being carefully mended, were returned, to be in readiness for the writing hour. Thus the first difficulty, the loss of time, was obviated.

"I must make them industrious while they write," was his next thought. After thinking of a variety of methods, he determined to try the following: he required all to begin together at the top of the page, and write the same line, in a hand of the same size. They were all required to begin together, he himself beginning at the same time, and writing about as fast as he thought they ought to write in order to secure the highest improvement. When he had finished his line, he ascertained how many had preceded him and how many were behind. He requested the first to write slower, and the others faster; and by this means, after a few trials, he secured uniform, regular, systematic, and industrious employment throughout the school. Probably there were, at first, difficulties in the operation of the plan, which he had to devise ways and means to surmount; but what I mean to present particularly to the reader is, that he was interested in his experiments. While sitting in his desk, giving his command to begin line after line, and noticing the unbroken silence, and attention, and interest which prevailed (for each boy was interested to see how nearly with the master he could finish his work), while presiding over such a scene he must have been interested. He must have been pleased with the exercise of his almost military command, and to witness how effectually order and industry, and excited and pleased attention, had taken the place of listless idleness and mutual dissatisfaction.

After a few days, he appointed one of the older and more judicious scholars to give the word for beginning and ending the lines, and he sat surveying the scene, or walking from desk to desk, noticing faults, and considering what plans he could form for securing more and more fully the end he had in view. He found that the great object of interest and attention among the boys was to come out right, and that less pains were taken with the formation of the letters than there ought to be to secure the most rapid improvement.

But how shall he secure greater pains? By stern commands and threats? By going from desk to desk, scolding one, rapping the knuckles of another, and holding up to ridicule a third, making examples of such individuals as may chance to attract his special attention? No; he has learned that he is operating upon a little empire of mind, and that he is not to endeavor to drive them as a man drives a herd, by mere peremptory command or half angry blows. He must study the nature of the effect that he is to produce, and of the materials upon which he is to work, and adopt, after mature deliberation, a plan to accomplish his purpose founded upon the principles which ought always to regulate the action of mind upon mind, and adapted to produce the intellectual effect which he wishes to accomplish.

In the case supposed, the teacher concluded to appeal to emulation. While I describe the measure he adopted, let it be remembered that I am now only approving of the resort to ingenuity and invention, and the employment of moral and intellectual means for the accomplishment of his purposes, and not of the measures themselves. I am not sure the plan I am going to describe is a wise one; but I am sure that the teacher, while trying it, must have been interested in his intellectual experiment. His business, while pursued in such a way, could not have been a mere dull and uninteresting routine.

He purchased, for three cents apiece, two long lead pencils -- an article of great value in the opinion of the boys of country schools -- and he offered them, as prizes, to the boy who would write most carefully; not to the one who should write best, but to the one whose book should exhibit most appearance of effort and care for a week. After announcing his plan, he watched with strong interest its operation. He walked round the room while the writing was in progress, to observe the effect of his measure. He did not reprove those who were writing carelessly; he simply noticed who and how many they were. He did not commend those who were evidently making effort; he noticed who and how many they were, that he might understand how far, and upon what sort of minds, his experiment was successful, and where it failed. He was taking a lesson in human nature -- human nature as it exhibits itself in boys -- and was preparing to operate more and more powerfully by future plans.

The lesson which he learned by the experiment was this, that one or two prizes will not influence the majority of a large school. A few. of the boys seemed to think that the pencils were possibly within their reach, and they made vigorous efforts to secure them; but the rest wrote on as before. Thinking it certain that they should be surpassed by the others, they gave up the contest at once in despair.

The obvious remedy was to multiply his prizes, so as to bring one of them within the reach of all. He reflected, too, that the real prize, in such a case, is not the value of the pencil, but the honor of the victory; and as the honor of the victory might as well be coupled with an object of less, as well as with one of greater value, the next week he divided his two pencils into quarters, and offered to his pupils eight prizes instead of two. He offered one to every five scholars, as they sat on their benches, and every boy then saw that a reward would certainly come within five of him. His chance, accordingly, instead of being one in twenty, became one in five.

Now is it possible for a teacher, after having philosophized upon the nature of the minds upon which he is operating, and surveyed the field, and ingeniously formed a plan, which plan he hopes will, through his own intrinsic power, produce certain effects -- is it possible for him, when he comes, for the first day, to witness its operations, to come without feeling a strong interest in the result? It is not possible. After having formed such a plan, and made such arrangements, he will look forward almost with impatience to the next writing hour. He wishes to see whether he has estimated the mental capacities and tendencies of his little community aright; and when the time comes, and he surveys the scene, and observes the operation of his measure, and sees many more are reached by it than were influenced before, he feels a strong gratification, and it is a gratification which is founded upon the noblest principles of our nature. He is tracing, on a most interesting field, the operation of cause and effect. From being the mere drudge, who drives, without intelligence or thought, a score or two of boys to their daily tasks, he rises to the rank of an intellectual philosopher, exploring the laws and successfully controlling the tendencies of mind.

It will be observed, too, that all the time this teacher was performing these experiments, and watching with intense interest the results, his pupils were going on undisturbed in their pursuits. The exercises in writing were not interrupted or deranged. This is a point of fundamental importance; for, if what I should say on the subject of exercising ingenuity and contrivance in teaching should be the means, in any case, of leading a teacher to break in upon the regular duties of his school, and destroy the steady uniformity with which the great objects of such an institution should be pursued, my remarks had better never have been written. There may be variety in methods and plan, but, through all this variety, the school, and every individual pupil of it, must go steadily forward in the acquisition of that knowledge which is of greatest importance in the business of future life. In other words, the variations and changes admitted by the teacher ought to be mainly confined to the modes of accomplishing those permanent objects to which all the exercises and arrangements of the school ought steadily to aim. More on this subject, however, in another chapter.

I will mention one other circumstance, which will help to explain the difference in interest and pleasure with which teachers engage in their work. I mean the different views they take of the offenses of their pupils. One class of teachers seem never to make it a part of their calculation that their pupils will do wrong, and when any misconduct occurs they are discontented and irritated, and look and act as if some unexpected occurrence had broken in upon their plans. Others understand and consider all this beforehand. They seem to think a little, before they go into their school, what sort of beings boys and girls are, and any ordinary case of youthful delinquency or dullness does not surprise them. I do not mean that they treat such cases with indifference or neglect, but that they expect them, and are prepared for them. Such a teacher knows that boys and girls are the materials he has to work upon, and he takes care to make himself acquainted with these materials, just as they are. The other class, however, do not seem to know at all what sort of beings they have to deal with, or, if they know, do not consider. They expect from them what is not to be obtained, and then are disappointed and vexed at the failure. It is as if a carpenter should attempt to support an entablature by pillars of wood too small and weak for the weight, and then go on, from week to week, suffering anxiety and irritation as he sees them swelling and splitting under the burden, and finding fault with the wood instead of taking it to himself; or as if a plowman were to attempt to work a hard and stony piece of ground with a poor team and a small plow, and then, when overcome by the difficulties of the task, should vent his vexation and anger in laying the blame on the ground instead of on the inadequate and insufficient instrumentality which he had provided for subduing it.

It is, of course, one essential part of a man's duty, in engaging in any undertaking, whether it will lead him to act upon matter or upon mind, to become first well acquainted with the circumstances of the case, the materials he is to act upon, and the means which he may reasonably expect to have at his command. If he underrates his difficulties, or overrates the power of his means of overcoming them, it is his mistake -- a mistake for which he is fully responsible. Whatever may be the nature of the effect which he aims at accomplishing, he ought fully to understand it, and to appreciate justly the difficulties which lie in the way.

Teachers, however, very often overlook this. A man comes home from his school at night perplexed and irritated by the petty misconduct which he has witnessed, and been trying to check. He does not, however, look forward and endeavor to prevent the occasions of such misconduct, adapting his measures to the nature of the material upon which he has to operate, but he stands, like the carpenter at his columns, making himself miserable in looking at it after it occurs, and wondering what to do.

"Sir," we might say to him, "what is the matter?"

"Why, I have such boys I can do nothing with them. Were it not for their misconduct, I might have a very good school."

"Were it not for their misconduct? Why, is there any peculiar depravity in them which you could not have foreseen?"

"No; I suppose they are pretty much like all other boys," he replies, despairingly; "they are all harebrained and unmanageable. The plans I have formed for my school would be excellent if my boys would only behave properly."

"Excellent plans," might we not reply, "and yet not adapted to the materials upon which they are to operate! No. It is your business to know what sort of beings boys are, and to make your calculations accordingly."

Two teachers may therefore manage their schools in totally different ways, so that one of them may necessarily find the business a dull, mechanical routine, except as it is occasionally varied by perplexity and irritation, and the other a prosperous and happy employment. The one goes on mechanically the same, and depends for his power on violence, or on threats and demonstrations of violence. The other brings all Hs ingenuity and enterprise into the field to accomplish a steady purpose by means ever varying, and depends for his power on his knowledge of human nature, and on the adroit adaptation of plans to her fixed and uniform tendencies.

I am very sorry, however, to be obliged to say that probably the latter class of teachers are decidedly in the minority. To practice the art in such a way as to make it an agreeable employment is difficult, and it requires much knowledge of human nature, much attention and skill. And, after all, there are some circumstances necessarily attending the work which constitute a heavy drawback on the pleasures which it might otherwise afford. The almost universal impression that the business of teaching is attended with peculiar trials and difficulties proves this.

There must be some cause for an impression so general. It is not right to call it a prejudice, for, although a single individual may conceive a prejudice, whole communities very seldom do; unless in some case which is presented at once to the whole, so that, looking at it through a common medium, all judge wrong together. But the general opinion in regard to teaching is composed of a vast number of separate and independent judgments, and there must be some good ground for the universal result.

It is best, therefore, if there are any real and peculiar sources of trial and difficulty in this pursuit, that they should be distinctly known and acknowledged at the outset. Count the cost before going to war. It is even better policy to overrate than to underrate it. Let us see, then, what the real difficulties of teaching are.

It is not, however, as is generally supposed, the confinement. A teacher is confined, it is true, but not more than men of other professions and employments; not more than a merchant, and probably not as much. A physician is confined in a different way, but more closely than a teacher: he can never leave home: he knows generally no vacation, and nothing, but accidental rest.

The lawyer is confined as much. It is true there are not throughout the year exact hours which he must keep, but, considering the imperious demands of his business, his personal liberty is probably restrained as much by it as that of the teacher. So with all the other professions. Although the nature of the confinement may vary, it amounts to about the same in all. On the other hand, the teacher enjoys, in reference to this subject of confinement, an advantage which scarcely any other class of men does or can enjoy. I mean vacations. A man in any other business may force himself away from it for a time, but the cares and anxieties of his business will follow him wherever he goes. It seems to be reserved for the teacher to enjoy alone the periodical luxury of a real and entire release from business and care. On the whole, as to confinement, it seems to me that the teacher has little ground of complaint.

There are, however, some real and serious difficulties which always have, and, it is to be feared, always will, cluster around this employment; and which must, for a long time, at least, lead most men to desire some other employment for the business of life. There may perhaps be some who, by their peculiar skill, can overcome or avoid them, and perhaps the science of teaching may, at some future day, be so far improved that all may avoid them. As I describe them, however, now, most of the teachers into whose hands this treatise may fall will probably find that their own experience corresponds, in this respect, with mine.

1. The first great difficulty which the teacher feels is a sort of moral responsibility for the conduct of others. If his pupils do wrong, he feels almost personal responsibility for it. As he walks out some afternoon, wearied with his labors, and endeavoring to forget, for a little time, all his cares, he comes upon a group of boys in rude and noisy quarrels, or engaged in mischief of some sort, and his heart sinks within him. It is hard enough for any one to witness their bad conduct with a spirit unruffled and undisturbed, but for their teacher it is perhaps impossible. He feels responsible; in fact, he is responsible. If his scholars are disorderly, or negligent, or idle, or quarrelsome, he feels condemned himself almost as if he were himself the actual transgressor.

This difficulty is, in a great degree, peculiar to a teacher. A physician is called upon to prescribe for a patient; he examines the case, and writes his prescription. When this is done his duty is ended; and whether the patient obeys the prescription and lives, or neglects it and dies, the physician feels exonerated from all responsibility. he may, and in some cases does, feel anxious concern, and may regret the infatuation by which, in some unhappy case, a valuable life may be hazarded or destroyed. But he feels no moral responsibility for another's guilt.

It is so with all the other employments in life. They do, indeed, often bring men into collision with other men. But, though sometimes vexed and irritated by the conduct of a neighbor, a client, or a patient, they feel not half the bitterness of the solicitude and anxiety which come to the teacher through the criminality of his pupil. In ordinary cases he not only feels responsible for efforts, but for their results; and when, notwithstanding all his efforts, his pupils will do wrong, his spirit sinks with an intensity of anxious despondency which none but a teacher can understand.

This feeling of something very like moral accountability for the guilt of other persons is a continual burden. The teacher in the presence of the pupil never is free from it. It links him to them by a bond which perhaps he ought not to sunder, and which he can not sunder if he would. And sometimes, when those committed to his charge are idle, or faithless, or unprincipled, it wears away his spirits and his health together. I think there is nothing analogous to this moral connection between teacher and pupil unless it be in the case of a parent and child. And here, on account of the comparative smallness of the number under the parent's care, the evil is so much diminished that it is easily borne.

2. The second great difficulty of the teacher's employments is the immense multiplicity of the objects of his attention and care during the time he is employed in his business. His scholars are individuals, and notwithstanding all that the most systematic can do in the way of classification, they must be attended to in a great measure as individuals. A merchant keeps his commodities together, and looks upon a cargo composed of ten thousand articles, and worth a hundred thousand dollars, as one; he speaks of it as one; and there is, in many cases, no more perplexity in planning its destination than if it were a single box of raisins. A lawyer may have a great many important cases, but he has only one at a time; that is, he attends to but one at a time. The one may be intricate, involving many facts, and requiring to be examined in many aspects and relations. But he looks at but few of these facts and regards but few of these relations at a time. The points which demand his attention come one after another in regular succession. His mind may thus be kept calm. He avoids confusion and perplexity. But no skill or classification will turn the poor teacher's hundred scholars into one, or enable him, except to a very limited extent, and for a very limited purpose, to regard them as one. He has a distinct and, in many respects, a different work to do for every one of the crowd before him. Difficulties must be explained in detail, questions must be answered one by one, and each scholar's own conduct must be considered by itself. His work is thus made up of a thousand minute particulars, which are all crowding upon his attention at once, and which he can not group together, or combine, or simplify. He must, by some means or other, attend to them in all their distracting individuality. And, in a large and complicated school, the endless multiplicity and variety of objects of attention and care impose a task under which few intellects can long stand.

I have said that this endless multiplicity and variety can not be reduced and simplified by classification. I mean, of course, that this can be done only to a very limited extent compared with what may be effected in the other pursuits of mankind. Were it not for the art of classification and system, no school could have more than ten scholars, as I intend hereafter to show. The great reliance of the teacher is upon this art, to reduce to some tolerable order what would otherwise be the inextricable confusion of his business. He must be systematic. He must classify and arrange; but, after he has done all that he can, he must still expect that his daily business will continue to consist of a vast multitude of minute particulars, from one to another of which the mind must turn with a rapidity which few of the other employments of life ever demand.

These are the essential sources of difficulty with which the teacher has to contend; but, as I shall endeavor to show in succeeding chapters, though they can not be entirely removed, they can be so far mitigated by the appropriate means as to render the employment a happy one. I have thought it best, however, as this work will doubtless be read by many who, when they read it, are yet to begin their labors, to describe frankly and fully to them the difficulties which beset the path they are about to enter. "The wisdom of the prudent is to understand his way." It is often wisdom to understand it beforehand. You can support this site at no cost if you make an Amazon purchase using this link to get to Amazon: Thanks