ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED | JUNE 24, 1920 | THE FARMER'S ADVOCATE
NO; the school-teacher has not been of much account. In the rural districts she has, perhaps, been a leader, socially, but she has not been of very much account. If she had been, or, rather, if her office had been considered so, trustees would have “tumbled over themselves” trying, first to get the best woman available for the place, and then to give her a salary commensurate with the importance of the work she was expected to do.
Twenty years ago teachers in Ontario taught for $300 or less a year, and the story is still handed down about one School Board who received an application from a young woman stating that she would teach for “five dollars a year less than anyone else who applied.”-- And the Board of Trustees engaged her!
In those days schools went, as a rule, to the lowest bidder. It was taken for granted that anyone who had a certificate could teach “well enough.” Personal characteristics, aptitude for teaching, interest in community welfare, went for naught. A teacher for so many dollars a year was the only consideration.
Things have improved, for the teacher, so far as salary goes, during the past few years. But has the public to be thanked for it? Did teachers’ salaries advance beyond, as one teacher put it, “enough to pay one’s board and buy a postage stamp” until, between scarcity of teachers upon the one hand, and action of the teachers themselves, the public found nothing else left to do but to push them up? A few years ago the teachers took matters into their own hands, decided that the years of hard work and expense incurred in getting a certificate merited at least a little more than a bare living wage, and formed an association of their own to claim their rights.
Then the Farmers’ Government came in in Ontario. It was almost amusing to read the evident surprise expressed in some of the newspaper recently (when commenting on the work of the session) that the highest grant of all was appropriated for education--not agriculture. Worthy as agriculture is of all assistance that can be given to it, our law-makers have recognized the fact--true, although some may not see it--that education is the foundation of all advancement agricultural and otherwise. The teachers’ salaries must still depend, to a great extent, on the sections in which they may chance to teach, but the very fact that the largest appropriation in Ontario this year has been made for education augurs well for everything connected with progress in this way--establishment and equipment of schools, scientific research, and the payment of teachers according to their value to the community. As yet few “good” teachers receive all they really earn; the salary of the most highly paid may look large in figures, but the buying power of the dollar to-day is low.
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So much for the teacher’s side. Now to the other:
It is a question whether the “section” always realizes to-day, much more keenly than it did twenty years ago, the real importance of the teacher outside of the actual work done in school. It takes real vision to see what she may mean, to the community, to the whole lives of the children, and, perhaps, the lives of the generations succeeding them. If the sections did realize that, one would not hear, even yet, of trustees engaging a girl from heaven-knows-where simply because her “handwriting is ‘good’!”
“Handwriting good”! Save the mark! The girl may be “age seventeen,” the merest little whippet of a butterfly, without common sense, without teaching ability, without any realization of her responsibility in dealing with human lives. Her “handwriting is good.” -- That settles the matter.
One hears, however, once in a blue moon, of a really efficient Board of Trustees, whose members feel their responsibility. These trustees insist upon talking with a girl before they engage her for the school. Or they send inquiries far and near and choose a real educator whose fame has gone abroad. Money is a secondary consideration. They recognize the fact that a “labourer is worthy of his hire,” are willing to pay a good salary, but insist upon good work in return for it. The children are the first consideration. Nothing can be too good for them,--the best teacher, the best available equipment is the natural right of these little one who will be men and women tomorrow, carrying on the work of the world for better or worse.
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And the sort of teacher these trustees choose? Perhaps they choose a “him” -- a young man of life and ideals and vigor, suited to being a real leader for the boys. If a young girl is selected she is sure to be one mature for her years (some girls are as old at twenty as some women at fifty), alert, filled with ideals of what she owes to her work. But preference is usually given to a woman past the “flapper” age; she isn’t so likely to go off the trolley over a love-affair.
The School Board keeps critical watch--not, perhaps, upon the teacher, but upon the children. That is partly what the Board is for. And when, one day, the members come together for a meeting, some such conversation as this takes place:
Trustee Jones -- ”I think, somehow we’ve got the right teacher this time. I know my boy is downright interested in his lessons, and he seems to want to go to school! That’s something new for Ted.”
Trustee Smith -- ”See the garden the kids had back of the schoolyard this year? I dropped in one day and I’ll be beggared if some of ‘em weren’t out there measuring the length of their oats! All by themselves, too! They had beets and carrots and parsnips that beat any in my garden.”
Trustee Brown -- ”I’ve noticed a big improvement in their manners. That girl’s making little ladies and gentlemen of them, that’s what she is!”
Secretary Green -- ”Talks to them on health, too--makes ‘em keep their rubbers on when it’s wet,, and advises ‘em what to eat and why. She’s cutting up a dido because some of the desks are too low compared with the seats, says it’ll give the youngsters round shoulder or curvature of the spine or something… And say, that school-house hasn’t been kept as tidy in ten years!.... But listen to the inspector’s report.” (Upon which is read a glowing account of the scholarly attainments of the school.)
Trustee Smith -- ”Yes, I guess we’ve got the right schoolma’am this time. It’s the youngsters themselves she seems to be thinking about. She wants to make them first-rate men and women,’ so she told Mrs. Lawton, an’ Mrs. Lawton came out of her way to tell me. I move a raise of $100 to her next year’s salary. It’ll make her feel we’re appreciating her work, and I’ll help out a bit on clothes. When a girl has to pay $60 for a cloth coat, as my missus had to the other day, $100 is no great shakes of a raise. But I guess it’s all the section can stand for just now.”
So the new teacher stays on, pleased, with the mark of favour, enabled to get the new coat that she really needs, and more anxious than ever, if possible, to make the very best of the lives of the boys and girls entrusted to her care.
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In conclusion may it be said that the people of Canada, notwithstanding all their actual disregard of the matter, have not really undervalued education itself. They have been too busy making a living, or have felt that they could do nothing personally. The remark of Premier Drury (a keen observer) in his address to the inspectors at the Ontario Educational Association last spring, “Give the people credit of having a zeal for education,” presupposes that the interest is there, and the energy too, latent though it may be. Perhaps the time has come when they, “the people” shall realize that all real development comes from inward effort plus a grasping of external help.
When the people themselves, in every province, join with the various Departments of Education in a determined pull for progress, then shall we be in a fair way to bring about an educated Canada.
-- And not the least factor thereto will be the teachers in the schools.