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BEACON Senior News

Lessons learned from one-room schools

Apr 15, 2019 12:10PM ● By Melanie Wiseman

Ruth Ehlers can still smell lunches warming on the stove of New Hope School during winter in rural Nebraska.

Wilma Baumbach relives the daily health inspections at Jerusalem School in Chelsea, Michigan, when she’d lay out her hands as the teacher checked for well-groomed hands and fingernails.

Although these two women have never met and their one-room schools were 700 miles apart, Ehlers, 80, and Baumbach, 88, share parallel memories, the only exception being their perspective—Ehlers was a teacher and Baumbach a student.

A teacher's role

Graduating from high school in May 1956, Ehlers began teaching in nearby Gage County three months later for $225 a month. Her only training was 12 hours of summer school at Peru Teachers College. For two years, she taught nine students between kindergarten and eighth grade. “I was actually hired before I graduated from high school,” said Ehlers. “It was the last year you could teach without having a two-year degree.” She lived with her parents and drove their car 10 miles to school. When she married and started a family, she chose to leave teaching and stay home with her children.

“My mom and aunt were both rural school teachers,” said Ehlers. “In that day, teachers were single women, and it was just understood that when you got married, you were done teaching.”

Ehlers played the piano and led children in song each morning and played games or cards with her students at recess. Time after school was spent tutoring students and doing extensive structured lesson plans for the next day.

Baumbach still remembers Miss Schanz, her teacher of eight years, as an intelligent, quick and high achiever but short on patience. Her firm hand was helpful in teaching and managing 26-30 students ranging from first through eighth grade in one room.

“I was fortunate to have her as a teacher because she was artistic and musical as well as an academic,” said Baumbach. “She attended Jerusalem School with my dad.”

Patriotism, respect and responsibility

Both Baumbach and Ehlers reflected on the roles that patriotism and respect played in their schools.

“We were taught respect for the flag,” said Baumbach. “We raised it outside each morning and said the Pledge of Allegiance. At the end of the day, we lowered it and learned how to fold it correctly.”

Showing respect for the teacher and fellow students was a given.

“Never once did I have a discipline problem,” said Ehlers. “Rural kids grew up knowing how to work, how to show respect and that you went to school to learn. The kids were mature, tolerant and there was no bullying.”

No matter their age, children had chores and responsibilities.

“There was no janitor,” said Baumbach. “The boys hauled water or wood for the wood stove, and the others kept the school room clean.”

Student life

There were only four kids in Baumbach’s class during all eight years (1935-1943), which meant she got to know them rather well. Detailed daily schedules were outlined on the blackboard to keep the day organized and all grades on task. Curriculum was current and standards were high. Children rotated to a table at the front of the room by grade level for a 15-20 minute lesson before returning to their desks to work on assignments. Older students often helped the younger ones.

“In high school, the kids from the country schools excelled academically, and were way ahead of town kids,” said Baumbach. “There was opportunity for extra projects, and the younger kids were listening to and learning from the older kids.”

While both schools were accountable to high academic standards, there was still plenty of opportunity for students to expand their social skills. “From a very early age, I had the opportunity to develop my God-given gifts and self-confidence,” said Baumbach. “I got up in front of people to sing and act in plays.”

She also recalled that country schools near Ann Arbor met at the University of Michigan twice a year for field day and a folk music festival. Outside of school, children took in social experiences through church, community events and clubs.

Pros and cons

Ehlers praised the tolerance, discipline and parental involvement of country schools, and treasured being able to know the students personally. She still connects with some of them when she returns to Nebraska for her own high school reunions.

Coming from a German farming community, Baumbach said the only drawback to attending a one-room school was the lack of cultural diversity, but like Ehlers, she wouldn’t trade it for the world.