"We pass on our convictions to our children by the things we tolerate."
"The biggest reward to teaching is forming the bonds with the pupils," says William Byler, a teacher of twenty-four children in a one-room schoolhouse in Millersburg, Ohio. "I live in the same neighborhood as my pupils. I keep track of former pupils. We stay in contact."
William is a career teacher—a little unusual for the Amish. "Year after year after year," he says, "we're seeing more and more career teachers, rather than those who teach for a year or two." More men, too. Twenty-five years ago, mostly women went into teaching in Holmes County, Ohio. Today, William says, there are 38 male teachers out of 409 (200 schools). He explains that the school boards are offering better wages so that teachers, like William—who loves to teach—can make a living and support a family.
Today about thirty-five thousand Amish youth attend some thirteen hundred private schools that end with eighth grade. Most Amish children attended public schools before 1950. The Amish were comfortable with small rural schools that were controlled by local parents; in fact, some Amish fathers served as directors. As small public schools consolidated into large districts in the late 1940s and 1950s, Amish parents protested. They felt they were losing control over the education of their children. They also viewed formal study beyond the eighth grade as unnecessary for farming. In 1972, the United States Supreme Court, in a case known as Wisconsin vs. Yoder, ruled that Amish children could end their formal schooling at the age of fourteen.
In some states, a few Amish children still attend rural public schools, but the vast majority go to one- or two-room schools operated by Amish parents. A local board of three to five fathers organizes the school, hires a teacher, approves the curriculum, oversees the budget, and supervises maintenance. Schools play an important role in passing on Amish values, developing lifelong friendships, limiting exposure to the outside world, and preserving Amish culture across the generations.
William feels the best part of an Amish education is that students are more involved with parents, more connected to the community. "I see it in my own children. They have time to do things. Active activities, outdoor activities." William says teaching is one of those jobs where the longer you're at it, the more you realize all you don't know. "I've learned more about nature from my pupils than they learn from me. Some of my pupils are avid birders. I'm a library, behind-the-desk kind of teacher. They're teaching me!"
Pupils in an Amish schoolhouse learn how to work together as one. "There's constant reinforcement of what they've learned," William says. "The younger ones hear the older ones' lesson, and the older ones get their learning reinforced by listening to the younger children." He likes to be imaginative in his teaching, to keep school from being dull. "We enjoy doing unique things, but not too often. Otherwise, it loses being special."
The focus of the Amish classroom accents cooperative activity, obedience, respect, diligence, kindness, and the natural world.
William is keenly aware of the differences between Amish and public education by the catalogs he receives from educational publications. "How in the world," he quips, "does a teacher use thirty-six 'You are #1!' stickers?"
About Suzanne Woods Fisher: She is an author of bestselling fiction and
non-fiction books about the Old Order Amish. Why the Amish? Well, Suzanne's
grandfather was raised Plain. She's always been fascinated by her gentle,
wise relatives. Learn more about Suzanne, her books, and Amish Wisdom, her
weekly radio show, by stopping by www.suzannewoodsfisher.com. Please subscribe to this blog and consider leaving a comment!
Reprinted with permission from "Amish Values for Your Family" (Revell Books).