Classroom Management, 1920's Style (Part Two)

Old Classroom1I’ve been revisiting the chapter on “Classroom Control” from Vol. I of the 12-volume The Class Room Teacher (1927-28). We were introduced last time to a very listy list of possible methods: 

(1) No control, wherein the children all do as they please. 

(2) Teacher control, wherein rules are made and enforced by the teacher. 

(3) Group control, wherein rules are made and enforced by the group working together for a common purpose. 

(4) Unselfish self-control, wherein each person considers the good of the whole. 

Has much changed in 90 years? 

NO CONTROL – Example: 

1920's ActressThe teacher is attempting to carry on a class recitation with one group of children while the others are supposed to be studying. Two or three large boys are lying on the floor with their feet propped against the stove. They are reading fiction which does not contribute in any way to their assignment. They later show a lack of knowledge as to the lesson content. Several girls are holding an animated conversation about the ways of securing pictures of the favorite “movie” actresses.  

This passage is golden. 

The chaos meant to be implied by those ‘large boys’ with the feet on the stove would be a dream come true in many classrooms today. And ‘reading fiction which does not contribute in any way to their assignment’ is almost an oxymoron in 2015 – ANY reading is cause for cupcakes and stickers. But don’t sue me when you burn your feet. 

And aren’t you curious about what sundry, presumably devious means might have been utilized to secure those pictures? Can you even imagine a time you weren’t inundated with celebrity photo spreads every time you had to pick up a few things at the grocery store? Or when girls worried about illicit pics meant b&w head shots of actresses? Monday, Tuesday, Happy Days… 

The children who are trying to study have to dodge continual volleys of chalk, paper-wads, and even an eraser now and then. A note of unsavory character is passed about among the older children who laugh heartily at its contents. 

Out of Control ClassroomIn case we’re not sufficiently horrified by the stove thing, here comes a barrage of projectiles and dirty notes. I KNEW we should never have allowed pens and paper in the classroom – such technology has no place in school without careful controls in place! It’s too distracting!

The room is in an uproar; the recitation is a complete failure; but the teacher smilingly assures the visitor that she believes in “freedom.” 

Oh god, I know those teachers. I thought they were products of the 1970’s – I didn’t know they existed almost two generations before.


The result of no control is always chaos; children are denied the right to feel happiness in real achievement; habits and attitudes are formed during these years in the school room which may tend to make of them, in later life, unreasoning, selfish, and lawless citizens.

This is a point which could stand to be made more often and more loudly today – the deepest happiness, the most meaningful learning, real character comes from actually accomplishing something. Guide them, yes; encourage them, definitely; but unless they’re allowed actual risk – a real opportunity to fail – they’re being deprived of a legitimate opportunity to succeed. 

Why is this so easy to understand with our football teams and debate competitions, but so controversial in reference to academics? 

Perhaps it might be well to state that true freedom would not allow such an infringement upon the rights and liberties of others. 

There’s a year’s worth of socio-political debate for you.

Nip It In The Bud!


True freedom is something which should be earned and bestowed only upon those who can use it wisely. All teachers should be very careful to distinguish between real freedom and merely allowing children to do as they please. Real freedom leads toward right and true happiness; while allowing children to do as they please leads toward wrong and toward future sorrow. 

“True freedom is something which should be earned and bestowed only upon those who can use it wisely.” 

Progressive HousewivesToday I believe that would qualify as a ‘controversial statement’. Keep in mind that the 1920’s were still enmeshed in Progressivism – regulating the sausage factories and establishing national parks and such. It was also the age of more direct control of all levels of government by the ‘common man’, in hopes this would prove, um… purifying. 

With this increased role of government in solving society’s problems came efforts to prevent recurrence of those same ills. Why bandage the wound but leave the sharp edge exposed? Why support a humidifier and a dehumidifier in the same room? It seemed only reasonable, for example, to require sterilization of those unable to provide for themselves or their offspring. 

If it’s cruel to allow stray animals to continuously breed (thus perpetuating their collective misery), why allow those among our own species who’ve clearly demonstrated an inability to care for themselves to make increasingly destructive choices about procreation? “If you want me to take care of you, there are conditions. If you want to make your own choices, you’ll need to learn to take care of yourself.” 

It seems so reasonable in regards to student management. As long as we don’t let what we’re doing in school impact real life…

ABSOLUTE TEACHER CONTROL – Example: When the class assembles on the first day of school, the teacher firmly informs the children that they are there for business and she is there to see that they attend to this business of learning. In order to accomplish this, certain tasks must be finished each day before they leave school. Anything which interferes with the work of school, such as talking without permission, whispering, giggling, or writing notes to one another will be carefully noted and punished by the teacher. 

Ah… so it’s a math class! 

SnapeEver after the children study the lessons assigned by the teacher, answer her questions, and accept the punishment she doles out for misdemeanors and errors. They usually do no more than they are asked, and frequently they misbehave when the teacher is not looking. 

The teacher’s life is one of constant watchfulness. Her profession is not teaching; it is policing. She must be continually alert to catch the law-breakers, fair enough to pronounce just punishment, and persevering enough to see that punishment once pronounced is executed. 

And a charter school at that! (Erin – I’m kidding! I’m kidding!) 


Such a method is far preferable to the preceding no-control type and should be used, especially by the inexperienced teacher, until she can determine the type best suited to her class of children. If used by a teacher who is always just and fair, the class achievement is usually good and the children rather happy. If, perchance, the teacher is a benign tyrant, the children will often vote this type of control the best of all, because, like many adults, some children dislike sharing responsibility and making choices. 

Whoah, there, Sherriff – I was with you until that last little bit. 

Old Classroom 2As colorful a term as ‘benign tyrant’ may be, it’s a bit too loaded with connotation for my taste. One of the things too easily overlooked in our kneejerking any time those high-structure charters are discussed is that some students, in fact, do very well with so much structure.

There’s absolutely a problem when it’s abusive, and the racial issues inherent in some of these schools bother me, too – but let’s not write off the idea that there’s some security in knowing your day will be organized and methodical, your teacher tough but fair, and that the rules apply pretty much the same way to everyone, every day. Especially if you don’t have this in any other part of your world. 

As to “sharing responsibility and making choices,” recall that only a few lines before, freedom had to be earned. I know all you ex-hippies out there with your ponytails and elbow patches want your lil’ charges to discover the universe in their own special and wildly individualized ways, but there’s a name for that kind of freedom – “chaos.” Or, if you want to be more social-political-science-historical about it, “life in a state of nature.”  

Feel free to look it up. 

Under this system the children usually do the right thing, not because they know it is the right or why it is the right, but because they are trained to obey blindly. The great danger here lies in the fact that they may form habits of following blindly, and later may unthinkingly follow unworthy leaders. 

Wouldn’t THAT be a shame?

No teacher should be content to use this type continually unless she is handling groups, who, because of limited capacities, will always be obliged to "follow a leader." 

Old Classroom 3Ah, she means (insert whatever political party you don’t belong to), doesn’t she?

As soon as possible each group of children should be given a share of the responsibility for its own mental and moral achievement. The teacher should covet the position of guide and advisor rather than one of policeman. 

Therein lies the rub. How do we transition students appropriately from compliant to independently responsible? I don’t know about the feet-on-the-stove issue, but THIS one resonates a century later. All too well, actually. 

Next Time - "The Ideal Solution," in which it is revealed that... 

Daise was sobbing too much to talk, but the indignant lad and a dozen others could tell. John had given Daise a branch of Japanese cherry blossoms to bribe her not to report him. Before the investigation was over it developed that eight-year-old Daise had become richer by a box of raisins, two candied cherries, and a chocolate bar - all for not doing her duty. 

Dear god – it’s pure madness in there. And ladies, never trust a boy bearing Japanese cherry blossoms.

RELATED POST: Classroom Management, 1920's Style (Part One)

RELATED POST: Classroom Management, 1920's Style (Part Three) 


This is one of the best articles on classroom management (or student discipline) I've ever read, and I've read plenty of them! So thoughtful and humorous. ("Nip it!" is right on!)

through the last three of the methods of control, and truth-be-told, my first year might have looked like 'no' control. I followed others' suggestions for years and had rules...then fewer rules, then only positive rules, all in an effort to create teacher control.

Then, for years, my students 'wrote' rules together...individual, group, class, and combined classes...funny how they pretty much looked like the rules I wrote myself.

THEN, I started asking students to commit themselves to their own code of behavior...what they knew they needed to do in order to contribute to a positive class. They wrote, and then created, beatiful codes of personal conduct.

THEN, at the end of my career, I sort of went back to the 'no' control... No rules posted, no group rules, no individual codes. Just people, in the same space, working together...most kids never even noticed there were no rules. We just created our culture.

Kids know what's right and wrong. They will try to get away with exactly as much as they can. They will also rise to the occasion when we trust them...

Hmm..I may have more to say about this.


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