Sometimes, changes in teaching take decades. Sometimes, changes can take less than a decade.
George Capps is among educators, active and retired, who have seen both.
When Capps began his teaching career in the early 1970s, the education process hadn’t altered much from three or four decades earlier.
“Desks in rows, teachers in the front of the class,” the 34-year teacher and school administrator said recently. “It’s like it had always been.”
By the time Capps retired, in 2005 from Plainfield Consolidated Community School District 202, that scenario was obsolete. Technology was much more advanced. Government dictates were much more prolific.
In Plainfield’s case, teachers and administrators also were dealing with explosive growth in student enrollment and in facilities to house them. They also were recovering from a 1990 tornado that caused $165 million in damage, including to some school buildings.
None of it was easy, to hear Capps describe it.
“Building schools was a way of life,” he said. “Hiring and training teachers was a way of life.
“As we got bigger, if you were at all reflective or worked with a group of people who could sit down and say. ‘What can we learn from this?’ you can learn a lot. Instead of the whole ‘It’s not my job’ thing, we shrugged our shoulders and said, ‘Let’s go.’”
That might summarize the attitude of a lot of teachers over the past century. From one-room schoolhouses to Zoom-based learning, adaptability and flexibility have been vital.
“You had to be a jack of all trades,” said Kurt Begalka, administrator of the McHenry County Historical Society and Museum in Union.
One-room schoolhouses were common 100 years ago
Begalka could have been commenting about any era of teaching, perhaps. But given his organization’s focus, it particularly fits early-to-mid-20th-century McHenry County education.
In the pre-Depression era, one- and two-room schools were common. McHenry County had more than 100 of them, said Bob Frenz, who taught 35 years in Huntley. He wrote a book about such facilities – “Historic Country Schools of McHenry County, Illinois.”
The historical society maintains more tactile reminders of that era. On its campus is the restored West Harmony Schoolhouse, which from 1895 until 1955 stood near Marengo.
By the 1920s, almost all who taught at West Harmony and at comparable facilities were women. They replaced men who went off to fight in World War I, Frenz said.
“When they can back, there were more [other] job openings for them,” he said. “Some women were nurses, but many of them had to take the jobs in the schools.”
Said Begalka: “It’s kind of a scary thing, in the sense of when you think about women’s rights and the opportunities they had. Then, one of the few careers a woman could have was a teacher.”
One-room teachers taught students from first through at least eighth grades. Buildings had separate entrances for boys and girls.
Depending on time of year and grade level, girls might predominate in class, because boys were helping to plant or harvest on their family farms.
Curriculum emphasized the three R’s, along with another one. Recess was important, in part because the one-room rural school was more than just a place to learn.
“There was a lot of interaction in class, games inside and outside the schools,” Begalka said. “Schools back then were sort of like the community hubs for the entire area.”
For teachers, it led to a lot of long days and weekends. Frenz discovered that through his research and by talking with educators from that era. Some still were active when Frenz began work at Huntley in the late 1960s.
“It was a very difficult job,” he said. “They had a lot of help from families. The families were very supportive, unlike some situations today. It was like a family.”
Economic, government factors
By the late 1940s and early 1950s, that family was less and less confined to one-room education.
Consolidation swept McHenry County. Single-school districts in rural areas merged with colleagues in cities and villages. Some of those old schools had 20 to 30 students, but others had fewer.
“It didn’t seem cost-effective to employ a teacher for five or six students,” Frenz said.
As schools consolidated, working conditions for teachers changed.
In the 1930s, a state-organized teacher pension system was organized. That enabled teachers to have a retirement fund, something that didn’t exist before, Frenz said.
Unionization in the 1960s and 1970s helped lead to higher teacher salaries and benefits. Still, professional training might not have advanced quite as rapidly, Capps said.
“In the 1970s, when we went to school to be teachers, we didn’t really know what the heck we were doing,” he said. “You hoped you had a good experience with your teacher, and you modeled yourself on what you think would work.
“There wasn’t a lot of research on teaching. What was being applied was punishment-and-reward stuff, not much beyond that.”
Professional development became more emphasized as the 1970s progressed, Capps said. Also evident was more federal- and state-government involvement, including special-education programs and standardized testing.
Tools of teaching changed, too. By the time the 1980s ended, personal computers were becoming common. As time progressed, possession became more widespread and devices became smaller.
“Almost all students probably were carrying around something with more computing power than we have,” Capps said. “It’s like the whole thing has turned on its head, and people have a hard time dealing with it.”
During almost 30 years as a teacher, Bryan Leonard has dealt with it. Some might say he’s excelled at it.
The advanced chemistry and physics teacher at Ottawa Township High School has adapted his curriculum to fit modern technology, as well as the short attention spans that might be a result of it.
Leonard uses DVDs, laptop computers, projectors and the internet to convey his lessons. He’s created 8- to 10-minute videos he’s posted on YouTube.
“I always had the idea that in teaching, you’re kind of not only giving them the material, but you have to keep it entertaining as well. You’re part P.T. Barnum,” said Leonard, who since 1996 has taught at his high school alma mater.
“The material really hasn’t changed a lot over the past 25 years. It’s how you present it.”
In some ways, the students haven’t changed, either, Leonard said. Some are eager to learn. Others do the bare minimum.
But the omnipresence of email, social media and other forms of communication has altered the nature of teacher-student interaction.
“They want everything instantly,” Leonard said about his charges. “You’ll have kids email at 11 o’clock on a Saturday night, thinking they’re going to get a response right away. I think kids have more stress because of that.”
Perhaps some teachers do, too. As the 52-year-old Leonard approaches retirement, he said he isn’t sure if he’d do it all over again. A private-sector chemistry job would have been more lucrative.
“It’s nice to make a lot of money,” Leonard said, “but on the other hand, it’s nice to see former students and see how they succeed.”
That appeared to be Capps’ philosophy, too. He continues to regard teaching as a noble profession, despite all the changes in society and in education. And there have been plenty, as Capps noted.
“Rap music and hip-hop will destroy the world,” he said. “Which I guess was already destroyed by grunge, which was already destroyed by heavy metal, which was already destroyed by the Rolling Stones, which was destroyed by Elvis Presley.
“Which should have been destroyed in the ‘20s by jazz music.”