E. A. (Edward Austin) Sheldon.

Autobiography of Edward Austin Sheldon online

. (page 8 of 18)
Online LibraryE. A. (Edward Austin) SheldonAutobiography of Edward Austin Sheldon → online text (page 8 of 18)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

best I could find, regardless of locality, or minor, or per-
sonal considerations. If one thing more than another has
contributed to my success, it has been my ability to select
good teachers. Without them success is impossible. With
them a superintendent may succeed against all odds.

My plans were now all laid, a course of study decided
upon, and the teachers employed. The old-fashioned and
rickety school furniture had been replaced by the newest
and most approved to be obtained, the buildings were re-
novated and everything abqut them was made not only
respectable, but inviting.

I had the entire plan, including the course of study, the
boundaries o'f the different districts, the character of the
grouping, all published in detail in the daily papers, ex-
plaining everything as clearly as possible. I called my
teachers together and gave them careful instructions how
to proceed, I charged them not to be too tenacious about
qualification, saying, "So far as practicable, accept the
children as they come, and leave the adjustment of minor
matters to the future. Let us avoid friction as far as



THE first day of school under the "new system" was
the strangest one ever experienced by either parents or
children connected with the public schools of Oswego.
Families were separated, some members going one way to
a Primary school, others a different way to a Junior
school ; and others still to a Senior or the High school. As
might well be imagined, the confusion was complete. I
went as rapidly as possible from one point to another,
helping to bring order out of confusion. The day went
quite as well as could have been expected. At least the
beginning had been made.

The very complexity of the arrangement in one way
seemed to have a good effect. The curiosity of the people
was aroused to know what would come of it. It was
something that attracted their attention and aroused their
interest. The machine was now running in all its parts,
and I venture the assertion that a more perfect piece of
educational machinery was never constructed. All that
was necessary now was to make some adjustments, re-
move some causes of friction, and provide the necessary

The several local district libraries were ordered sent
to my office, then on Water Street, on the first floor of
the City Hall building (now D. L. & W.), and out of



[The Old United States Hotel.]


this miscellaneous mass one central library had to be or-
ganized. With such assistance as Mrs. Sheldon could give
me, this work was done with my own hands, and to my
duties as secretary of the board were added those of city

I opened a set of double entry books. I examined and
certified to all bills, kept all the accounts of the board, and
annually made a detailed report of all the doings of the
board and the schools. This report was always published
in pamphlet form, files of which have been kept and bound
together for the city and Normal school libraries, and a
few for private use.

These various duties kept me fully occupied. At this
stage of progress in the organization of the schools, I felt
it incumbent on me to be everywhere and to keep things
moving as smoothly and harmoniously as possible. If I
heard of any disaffected parties, I went to their homes and
talked matters over, and rarely failed to bring about a re-
conciliation. If it became necessary to make any important
change in the location of children at school, I would visit
the parents and so pave the way for the change. By dint
of the greatest care and diligence we succeeded in getting
through the year without going to pieces, and came out
with an improved organization and on a good footing, as
the children were now in their proper places.

However, we did not have altogether smooth sailing.
Much opposition manifested itself, and it was said that
a petition signed by eight tmndred citizens was sent to
Albany asking for the repeal of the law; but this was the
last serious effort made agaiast the "new system." Yet
at each annual election of new commissioners something


of discontent and the spirit of disorganization manifested
itself. It was always at this season that I felt the deepest
anxiety. Next in importance to good teachers were good
commissioners. It was for this reason that I felt it incum-
bent upon me, as far as possible, to run these elections. I
had the credit of doing it, and in an important sense it was
true. Four new men were elected each year, or old ones
returned. Some time before election I was on the alert,
would have a good, man picked out, would get my friends
interested in the nomination. As the day approached I
was active, going from one to another, urging the import-
ance of attending to this matter. On the day of election
I was not idle. I went the rounds among my friends
again to see that they did not neglect their duty, and espe-
cially if there was any danger point, I guarded that in
every possible way. It rarely occurred that a man hostile
to the schools was elected.

It was by this eternal vigilance that we succeeded in
keeping a good board. Occasionally, the opposition was
too strong for us and a "kicker" would be elected. In
such a case I was careful to give him every possible atten-
tion. I took pains to take him to the schools and show
him their practical working, and in this way I never failed
to make of him an everlasting friend to the schools. I well
recall one marked case of a man who was elected on the
issue of economy in the administration of the schools. He
was made chairman of the executive committee. I took
him the next morning after his appointment to this commit-
tee and went from building to building and showed him
conditions and appurtenances. As a result, when the time
came for making the budget, he was the most liberal man


on the board, and moved to advance the budget beyond
what the board were willing to sanction.

It was in such ways that I gained the reputation of win-
ning over to the interest of the schools every man how-
ever serious his opposition when elected. I doubtless de-
served all the reputation I got in this way, for I made it
as much my duty to train every new member o'f the board
as to train in my new teachers. Without the backing of
my board I could do nothing. I must have their hearty
co-operation and support in order to accomplish anything.
I am happy to be able to say that I had in this respect all
I desired. They gave me carte blanche to get what was
necessary for the schools. I never abused their confidence,
and they trusted me implicitly. They invariably gave me
the teachers I wanted and any necessary facilities for run-
ning the schools. In fact I had things my own way so
completely that I got the title of "Pope Sheldon."

If one is to be responsible for the success of a system
of schools, he must be allowed freedom in their organiza-
tion and management. The Board of Education under-
stood this, and, holding me responsible, gave me the lib-
erty. In this way the public schools of Oswego became
what I made them. I could have done little without the
moral backing of a board composed of some of our most
highly respected citizens. The people had confidence in
them and they in me, and by the combination of these
moral forces we were able to accomplish much.

At the end of the first year we were able to make a
good financial showing. We demonstrated that notwith-
standing the many extraordinary expenditures incident to
the opening of the schools and while the number of chil-


dren in the public schools had nearly doubled, the expenses
over the previous year were only $266.83, while the range
and quality of instruction given had been greatly improved.
With this showing there was little danger of going back
to the old system. The experience of one year had won
'the people to the new order, and we entered upon the new
year with the feeling of confidence and permanency.



DURING the second year of my administration the most
important new feature engrafted was the opening of what
we termed "arithmetic schools." These were a new fea-
ture, not only of Oswego, but, so far as I know, of any
'system of grade schools. They were designed to accomo-
date a class of pupils who had occupation during the sum-
mer, but were idle in the winter. The attendance was
always large, often crowded. In many ways it could have
been disastrous to the graded schools to have thrown this
crowd of uncouth, untutored, hard, rough overgrown boys
into them, provided they could have been prevailed upon
to go, which is very doubtful. Had they gone, they would
not have found what they wanted, and would have been
brought into association with pupils much younger than
themselves which would of itself have been a source of
mortification to them, to say nothing of the dangerous in-
fluence on their younger associates.

What they all wanted was arithmetic, and as much of
it as possible hence the name. They usually took with
this subject, reading, writing, spelling, and sometimes geo-
graphy or bookkeeping. They were earnest, attentive
students, and most of them accomplished a good deal of
work in the winter months. It was practically a boys'



school, because no girls applied. Two of these schools
were opened, one on each side of the river.*

Evening schools were included as a part of the system
from the very first. One hundred and thirty-nine pupils
registered the first winter, requiring the services of Mr.
I. B. Poucher and Mr. V. C. Douglass. These schools had
a marked success from the very beginning.

One important measure was the establishment of an Un-
classified School. This put the finishing touch to the "new
system." It was an innovation on the "graded System of
Public Schools." Nothing of the kind had ever been
known before, but it became an essential feature of the
Oswego schools, and I understand that such schools have
since been opened in other cities. They ought to consti-
tute a part of every system of closely classified public
schools. They meet difficulties that constitute serious ob-
jections to such a system. It often happens that pupils
come from the country, or from some other town, where
there is no system of classified schools, and they are be-
hind in some subjects required for admission to classes
they would be prepared to enter in other subjects. Such
pupils can enter the unclassified school and bring up the
neglected subject, and thus qualify themselves to enter
at the point suited to their age and other qualifications.

Again there are some pupils whose term of attendance
at the public schools is necessarily short, owing to pecuni-
ary or social conditions, and who wish to pursue special
subjects important to employment in some branch of in-
dustry, perhaps bookkeeping or arithmetic, or both. Such

*For full reports of these and of the evening schools, see Second Annual
Report of Board of Education of Oswego, pp. 18-29, from which it will be
seen how essential a part of our educational system they formed.


pupils cannot give the time necessary to reach the point
in the regular prescribed course, where these subjects are
completed. In the classified schools they can take them
up and go forward in them as rapidly as they are capable
of doing, without being kept back by others.

It often happens that pupils, for one reason or another,
have fallen behind the classes to which their age might
otherwise entitle them. On account of their age and size
"they are not comfortable in the classes where their ad-
vancement in the prescribed branches of study would place
them, but they can go into the unclassified school, where
they will find their equals and can take up here such
branches as are adapted to their advancement and press
forward in them as rapidly as they are able to progress.
In this way such a school meets conditions that cannot
well be provided for in the regularly graded schools.*

During the second year of the schools, much time and
attention were given to a more careful classification and
grading of the pupils, to the enlargement of the accommo-
dations arid in every way to the perfecting of the work

The most serious embarrassment experienced was the
need of greater school accommodations. The law allowed
too limited an amount for building purposes to meet the
demand of a growing school population. This had already
doubled in a wonderful way. The private schools, of which
there were a large number, had vanished in the presence
of the new system, until not a single one was left. More
or less of the furniture of these schools was purchased

This feature was added first in 1859, much later than the two pre-
ceding. ED.


by the board for use in the public schools. Among these
schools was the one presided over by "Brother John," which
we had started. The public schools were now too popular
to allow the existence of a single private school, however
excellent. It was said that there were five hundred chil-
dren away from home in private schools. The new system
brought them home. In this way all the children of
school age were brought into the public schools, and it
'was very difficult to provide room for them. But during
the course of the year new buildings were erected, and
other facilities added.

Teachers' meetings were an essential feature of the
administration of the schools from the very beginning.
These were held weekly, at which time I had an oppor-
tunity of giving the necessary instruction in regard to
organization, classification, instruction and discipline.
Without these frequent meetings with my teachers, I do
not see how it would have been possible for me to carry
out my plans and methods of administration and instruc-
tion. In fact I relied upon the meetings very largely for
this purpose these instructions being followed up by per-
sonal visits. The discussions dealt with principles of edu-
cation and methods of teaching in detail. I have never
seen the time from that day to this when I felt that I
could dispense with these meetings. It is essential in every
system o'f schools, or even in a single school, that there
be unity of thought and work in order to realize the high-
est success, and such a state of things can only be realized
by a frequent conference of the principal or superintendent
with his teachers. They must understand each other per-
fectly and work in harmony.


Discipline was one of the subjects frequently discussed.
From my present standpoint, I now seem to myself to
have been what might be termed a straight, rigid discipli-
narian, although not so considered at the time. Theore-
tically I was not, but practically I was.

I realize that I have grown away from many things that
I now condemn. In no one direction is this so evident to
me as in the matter of discipline. My tendency was to
restrain the activities and impulses of children, while now
I would encourage and cultivate them by giving them
proper direction. My influence was then toward repres-
sion, but now I would give the greatest liberty possible.
Repression tends to stultify and deaden the activities of
the soul; freedom tends to give growth and vigor. That
work is of most value to the pupil which is voluntary,
which is done without restraint or compulsion. That teacher
who has to resort to forceful methods to secure order or
study is of very little value. The best work is done where
there is a warm, sympathetic relation between teacher and
pupils. The children are drawn into right doing, not
driven. There is a vast difference in the value of the two

I question very seriously the wisdom of our compulsory
education laws. As a place of confinement, the school
may be good, in that it keeps the children off the street
and away from worse places, but a very large discount is
deducted from the value of the education gained under
such conditions. As a rule, we attribute too high im-
portance to our compulsory laws as a means of educating
the people. Freedom here, as everywhere, is essential to
the best results. In our schools, direct interest must lie


at the foundation, of all true educational success. If you
cannot draw a pupil to school by the interest he feels in
the work, it is very questionable whether you will benefit
him very much by driving him. The whole tendency of
such a process is to disgust him by the driving.

For ten years I was sent to school against my wishes. I
am not conscious that I derived any good from it, and I am
sure that I got very much that was evil. I believe it would
have been better for me if my father had listened to my
wishes and allowed me to stay at home and work on the
farm. I would surely have gotten some good out of the
work, for in this there is genuine education.

From the very first I emphasized moral training, and
had a course of formal lessons arranged in this, the same
as in other subjects. The teacher was not to depend on
these formal lessons alone, but to seize every occurrence
on the school grounds and in the school, and treat it as
an object lesson. Much must also be done in an indirect
way in the life, manner and work of the teacher. For the
'formal work we used pictures, books and every-day inci-
dents. As time went on, the formal work dropped out,
and the indirect influences were more and more emphasized.

In those early days I attached great importance to writ-
ten examinations. The last month of each year was de-
voted to them exclusively. They were designed as a re-
view covering all the work done for the year as a test of
its thoroughness. I personally prepared the questions for
every grade. I marked the answer to every question, keep-
ing a personal account with each pupil and teacher. The
results were all tabulated and printed in the annual re-
ports of the board and sometimes in the daily papers. In


this way I kept up a high pressure on the schools. The
rivalry and competition were something tremendous. It
took me a long time to learn that there was a better way,
but at last the lesson was learned. I carried a straight-
jacket system of close classification to its highest point
of perfection, accompanied by a course of study as pre-
cise, definite and exacting as it is possible to make, tested
by complete and exhaustive examinations which left no
room for doubt as to the thoroughness of the work done.
I have good reason for believing that I had organized and
perfected the most complete educational machine that was
ever constructed. By looking at my watch, I could tell
exactly what every teacher in the city was doing.

At the end of the year the classes were passed up from
grade to grade as result of the examinations. All that
were passed from one group to another, as from Primary
to Junior, from Junior to Senior, or from Senior to the
High School, received certificates signed by the president
and secretary of the board. They were, to all intents
and purposes, diplomas, to which the children attached
great importance.

In August, 1854, the State Teachers' Association had one
.of its annual sessions in Oswego. This was a new experi-
ence for the town. Every hotel and private house was
crowded to its capacity. This was an introduction of the
educational fraternity to Oswego, and an introduction of
Oswego to the educational men of the State. We were
better known after this meeting and the schools had grown
into the confidence of the people.



NOTWITHSTANDING all perfection of organization, and
I think it would be very difficult to find anything more
complete, there was something wanting to give life, spirit
I may say, soul to the school system. As a machine it was
perfect, but it lacked vitality. It was not a living organism.
This I felt strongly. But exactly how to go to work to
remedy the defect I did not know. I realized that our
work was too formal, too much of a memorizing process.
We wanted something that would wake up the pupils, set
them to thinking, observing, reasoning.

About this time (1859) the superintendent of schools
in Elmira, Rev. Mr. Scofield, came to see me and spend
a day or two in one of our schools. I freely expressed to
him my dissatisfaction, and something of the way in which
it seemed to me the work of the schools might be im-
proved. It must be more objective. But there were no
facilities for carrying on such work. For this purpose
we wanted collections of objects of all sorts, illustrations
of every kind. We wanted more reading matter, and that
which was better adapted to the ages of the children; we
wanted charts of color and form, natural history, pictures,
objects for teaching number, etc.

I found him fully in sympathy with my ideas, and we



then and there resolved to make a beginning in the prepa-
ration of the facilities so much needed. He agreed to
prepare a set of color charts and cards accompanied by a
manual of directions to teachers, and I was to prepare a
set of reading charts and cards with a book to accompany
the same.

This was in September, 1859. A month later, in pur-
suance of the plan I had adopted at the time o'f my first
'entering upon my duties as superintendent of schools
to visit one or more towns having a reputation for good
schools I went on a tour of inspection to the schools of
Toronto, Ontario. To my astonishment I found here very
<many of the facilities I had been wishing for., Dr. Ryerson,
then Minister of Education for Ontario, had been spending
a year or two abroad, making a collection of all sorts of
educational tools and facilities from all parts o'f the world.
Here I found, greatly to my surprise, what I did not know
existed anywhere collections of objects, pictures, charts
of colors, form, reading charts, books for teachers, giving
full directions as to the use of this material. These were
mostly the products of the Home and Colonial Training
Institution, London.

I invested three hundred dollars in these pictures, ob-
jects and books, and hastened home a happier man than I
went. I was not long in making out a new course of study
for my Primary schools, introducing a complete course of
objective work, employing the material brought from
Toronto. This was submitted to the board, met with their
approval, and was put in operation in the lowest grade
of the Primary schools the 'following term.

A new era had come to our public schools. Important


changes were being inaugurated that were destined to revo-
lutionize methods of teaching not only in Oswego, but in
the whole country.

Illustrative of the above brief sketch, we quote the following
extracts. ED.

From Seventh Annual Report of Board of Education,
Oswego, N.Y., Year Ending March 31, i8<o. "


There has, for some time, been felt a necessity for a
change, or at least some modification, of the programme of
studies in our Primary Schools. There has been too much
teaching by formulas, and not enough by oral and collateral
instruction. We are quite too apt, in the education of
children, to "sail over their heads" ; to present subjects
that are quite beyond their comprehension, or in a manner
which fails to leave in the mind of the learner a clear
perception of the truths inculcated. How to get out of
the rut into which we had fallen seemed difficult to tell.
By means of moral and object lessons, teachers had en-
deavored to awaken new interest and break up, in some
measure, the old routine of study and recitation. These
exercises were, however, without much system or order,
and with but little idea of what was to be accomplished by
them, and no satisfactory results were obtained. In every
exercise it is of the highest importance that there should
be some definite aim and purpose on the part of the teacher,
and that she should work with reference to obtaining cer-
tain results. We have felt the need of proper text books
or manuals, as guides for the teacher in oral instruction.
This want has been, in some good degree, met in the pub-
lications of the "Home and Colonial Infant and Juvenile
School Society," of London. This society was established
in the year 1836. The object with the founders of the

1 2 3 4 5 6 8 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

Online LibraryE. A. (Edward Austin) SheldonAutobiography of Edward Austin Sheldon → online text (page 8 of 18)