My dad’s first teaching job was in a one-room schoolhouse on a reservation way out a dirt road in northern California in the early 1930’s. He was responsible for teaching all of the children from first grade through eighth grade in that one room. Besides teaching math, reading, and history at eight different grade levels, he also taught music, sports, and drama-and was the administrator, counselor, secretary, and janitor. Whether the children were advanced for their age or needed remediation, anything they learned was taught by him; he was their special ed teacher, their subject-matter and resource specialist, and their gifted-and-talented mentor. I don’t know how he did it all. By today’s standards, such an assignment would be considered primitive, inefficient, overwhelming, and nearly impossible.
But from a teacher’s point of view, there is something immensely appealing about a one-room schoolhouse: you are in total control of the situation! And the all-encompassing nature of the work gives you a fully informed perspective: you know what the younger pupils are going to study when they get older, and you know what the older students worked on when they were younger. If you don’t feel your sixth-graders are adequately prepared for the rigors of seventh-grade math, you are not at the mercy of another teacher’s presumed incompetence. All you have to do is consult with yourself, and then do something about it to prepare them properly. You have the opportunity to address surmountable difficulties, organize your thoughts and resources, and work until the problems have been resolved to your satisfaction. Then if things don’t turn out the way you want, you have only yourself to blame. And when things do go right, you deserve and get the praise. If there was ever a profession where “the-buck-stops-here,” teaching in a one-room schoolhouse was it.
Things are so different nowadays. Take a typical seventh-grade math class for comparison. In a usual middle school situation, the math teacher is likely to have only three classes to prepare for: sixth-grade math, seventh-grade math, and eighth-grade math. Without all those other subjects to prep, the seventh-grade math teacher can be clearly focused one thing and one thing only: seventh-grade math standards and content. The teacher’s job-it is supposed-is to lead the class through all the chapters in the book, expose all the children to all the concepts and skills, and prepare them to do well on the inevitable standardized test.
If only it were that simple. Unfortunately, not all seventh grade students are actually ready to learn seventh grade math. Some of them were taught by another math teacher during the previous year, who didn’t succeed in having them master sixth grade concepts and skills. Some of the sixth graders were taught by the teacher who also teaches seventh grade, but they were so poorly prepared by the fifth grade classroom teachers that they didn’t have full access to the sixth grade curriculum, and spent a major part of the sixth grade year struggling with remedial topics. And some students moved into the school district during their seventh grade year, coming from other districts where their education was inadequate. And many struggle with English, which is not their native language, so they have trouble understanding directions, doing homework, and taking tests.
So the typical seventh grade math instructor has to struggle with teaching a mixture of students who are at grade level, above grade level, below grade level, and far below grade level-all in the same classroom. In other words, the math teacher is still working in a one-room schoolhouse! There are, of course, some differences. In my dad’s classroom, there were students of many ages working at a variety of different math levels. In the modern classroom, there are many students of the same age operating at a variety of different math levels. In the historic classroom, the teacher had actually taught all the students year by year at the lower levels of instruction. In the modern class, the seventh grade teacher knows what the students should have learned previously, but often has little direct experience in exactly how to develop those underlying lower level concepts and skills when the need arises with older pupils.
In the old-time schoolroom, it was not that hard to differentiate challenge levels to accommodate individual levels of readiness. Older students could temporarily join in with younger students to address a lower level math topic that was still challenging. Likewise, younger students could join in with older students to study topics for which they were ready. And even though the students might be working on math above or below the level thought suitable for their age, they could still be held accountable for doing the classwork, the homework, and the tests-and receive credit for doing that work. In the modern math class, students are sometimes offered remedial instruction by the math teacher within the whole-class setting, but are not always offered credit for the hard work they must do to catch up. They may be encouraged to seek help, but are not generally required to do so.