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It is hard to imagine a time when every community in Canada was without a school. But there was a time, and not too long ago, when children were taught in their own home, a neighbour's home, or in a local church. Some children received no education except for the skills and knowledge that were needed for survival.
When a community had enough families with children, neighbours would get together to decide on a location and build a one-room schoolhouse so their children could get an education. In early schoolhouses, windows were expensive so there might only be one or two to let in some light. This made learning to read and write even more difficult!
Many early teachers were men. These early teachers often had no training to teach. Even more surprisingly, sometimes the only qualification they had was the ability to read and write. Many were retired soldiers or men who were unfit for hard labour. These men were wanderers who travelled around looking for work and were hired as teachers even though many had few skills for teaching. They were hired because often they were the only people available and would work for a very small salary. Once a teacher had been hired, he or she usually boarded with a student's family. Sometimes, each family took a turn at hosting the teacher. Teachers might be paid with money, but just as likely they would receive goods that they then traded at the general store for money or items they needed. Sometimes a woman would teach her own children or other neighbourhood children in her own home.
At this time, there were no laws requiring children to go to school. The number of students a teacher was expected to teach depended on how many children there were in a community and how many were allowed by their parents to attend school. Some children were needed to help support the family by working at home. Others simply did not have warm enough clothes or shoes to wear to school in the winter months. No matter how many students there were, the teacher had pupils of all ages and abilities in the same room.
I Remember . . .
Letitia Youmans, Campaign Echoes: the Autobiography of Mrs. Letitia Youmans, the Pioneer of the White Ribbon Movement in Canada (Toronto: William Briggs, 1893), p. 28.
There were no indoor toilets in early schoolhouses. The teacher and students had to go outside to an outhouse. When a student asked to go to the outhouse in the cold of winter, the teacher knew for sure he or she was not just trying to have a break from the lesson!
"It were well to put two or three of the older and more steady of the boys in charge of these outhouses every week or month, and render them responsible [for cleaning them]."
Alexander Forrester, The Teacher's Text Book (Halifax: A. & W. MacKinlay, 1867), p. 503.