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Schools were the centre of community life, used for meetings, social gatherings, dances and even at times for church.
There was often much discussion in a community about where to place a school because parents wanted it to be near where they lived. Sometimes, someone offered up the land for the schoolhouse for free. It was also important that the school was built away from a swamp or stagnant water so the students would not contract diseases, such as malaria.
Although a schoolhouse was usually constructed by the men of the community, it was the trustees' job to make sure that certain regulations were followed and that sanitary conditions were met. Communities did the best they could with the little funds they had. Some schools were made of brick; many were made of wood; some of stone; and on the Prairies, there were even some sod schoolhouses made of blocks of prairie grass, with roots and dirt included!
By 1900, some qualifications were required for teaching. A number of teachers had a teaching certificate. Others had trained at teachers' schools, called normal schools. Some teachers learned how to teach at model schools where they could practise on a classroom of students. Teachers were expected to teach as many as nine different grades with children of different ages in each grade. Most teachers were now women because they were paid less and many communities had little money. Many teachers only stayed a short time in the country schoolhouses because they preferred to work in towns and cities once they gained some experience. And if you were a woman, you were no longer allowed to teach once you got married! With so many unmarried men setting up farms, any young, single teacher had her choice of husbands.
Most teachers at this time still had to board with the students' families or with a household looking to make some extra money. Sometimes there was a cabin called a teacherage for the teacher to live in. Some teachers had to live in granaries, bunkhouses or sheds and in some cases, even barns or tents.
Alvena Silver Hallett with Michael MacKenzie, Little Red School Memories (Sydney, N.S.: City Printers, 1985), p. 51.
Glenn S. McCaughey, the son of one of the first trustees in the school district in Ponoka, Alberta, formed in 1901, remembers:
John C. Charyk, Syrup Pails and Gopher Tails: Memories of the One-Room School (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1983), p. 7-8.)
In 1900, except in Quebec, students were required by law to attend school. Yet not all of them did. Many of the children who did, came to school feeling tired. They had to get up early to do chores around home like milking the cows and feeding the livestock before going to school. Sometimes the weather made it hard to get to school. Some children did not have warm enough clothes to travel the long distances in the winter months. At other times, especially in the spring and fall, children were often needed to work on the farm. In many places, especially on the Prairies, newly arrived immigrants could swell the numbers of students in a schoolroom without warning.
Just like today, chewing gum was not allowed in school. But the gum that early students chewed was very different. It was made from hardened sap from spruce or balsam trees. Once warmed by the mouth, the sap became chewy and had a strong taste, not at all like the flavours we have today.
Jean Cochrane, The School (Markham, Ont.: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1986), p. 45.
In a letter to his mother dated November 13, 1915, Alberta teacher Paul Wallace wrote:
John C. Charyk, Syrup Pails and Gopher Tails: Memories of the One-Room School (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1983), p. 70.
Early inspectors were members of the clergy who travelled great distances to visit schools and report on how a teacher and the students were doing. Later on, inspectors were appointed men with teacher training and experience. They evaluated the teacher and helped him or her resolve any problems with the school, the trustees or the students.
Visits from the inspector were supposed to be a surprise and were a source of terror for both the teacher and the students. After a visit, the inspector would write a report rating the performance of the teacher and students, recording the school attendance, noting any signs of illnesses or disease, and also outlining what measures the trustees needed to make to improve the schoolhouse or grounds.
Eileen Matthews remembers an inspector in an eastern township of Quebec:
John C. Charyk, Syrup Pails and Gopher Tails: Memories of the One-Room School (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1983), p. 130.
Each community that wanted a school had to elect three local people to act as trustees, usually men. It was their job to hire the teacher, buy supplies, guide the running of the school, and take care of its finances and upkeep. They had the difficult job of convincing people to pay school taxes, especially those without children to send to school. Many trustees had no experience in school management, but simply believed in the importance of providing an education for the community's children. Sometimes this was not the case and to save some money, a less qualified teacher would be hired or a school would be closed for a few months.