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The Teacher Problem

Before proceeding with the specific treatment of the problems of our own school movement, I have two more introductory remarks which I must make.

The first one is this. If you would take the trouble to check the past, you would discover that some 20 or 25 years ago these same problems were faced by the existent Christian School movement. At that time our Editor-in-Chief wrote a series of articles on the subject, “The Christian School Movement, Why a Failure?” And although his answer to the question of the above mentioned subject was different, he was not the only one who realized that there was something wrong. His series of articles was occasioned by an address by R.B. Kuiper, then president of Calvin College, (now professor at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia), to the Michigan Christian Teacher’s Institute, an address that was reported by the Grand Rapids Press under the caption: “Kuiper Points to New Peril; Says Christian Schools Are Facing Moral and Financial Crisis.” (See: Standard Bearer, VIII, p. 76, ff.) And in the third article of that same series of editorials reference is made to an address delivered by Dr. Herman Kuiper before the Educational Convention of the National Union of Christian Schools, 1930, on the subject: “How Should We Seek to Guarantee for the Future the Distinctive Character of our Christian Schools?”

It is not my purpose to go into detail regarding this series of articles that was written in 1932. But they hold a lesson for us, as does the history since that time. And the lesson is this. Unless we positively and vigorously face the problems which are before our own school movement, and unless we arrive at their proper solution—a solution incidentally which history proves was never reached by the existing Christian Schools—our own school movement is doomed to failure likewise. And I venture to predict that it will meet with failure more quickly and ignominiously.

And that brings me to my second remark. It is this. I want to emphasize that this series of articles has a positive purpose. It is not aimed at the destruction of our own school movement. I love the cause that is represented by that movement with all my heart. Nor is it aimed at the discouragement of those who are actively engaged in the mountain of work connected with that movement. Rather it is aimed at the upbuilding and solid establishment of our own school movement. I would consider it, as you well know from my previous series, a great calamity if ever our people should forsake the principle that all our education, primary and secondary, must be positively Christian, i.e., distinctively Reformed, i.e., Protestant Reformed.

Undoubtedly one of the most pressing problems facing our schools is the teacher problem, as we choose to call it. For the sake of convenience and clarity I will divide the problem into its various phases, and attempt to offer some suggestions toward solution after treating the entire problem.

As to Procuring Teachers

The above subtitle expresses a problem which every school board has faced to a greater or lesser extent. One need only recall the numerous public calls for help which have issued from the various school boards to verify this fact. In years gone by our school in Redlands repeatedly was in almost desperate straits because of this very difficulty, so desperate that they were on the verge of a forced closing of their school doors. And the story was much the same for the other schools. Personally I can recall the day when the mere question of the number of teachers was a very weighty one for the school in Grand Rapids. And Hope and Edgerton have had the same experience.

Now, it is a well-known fact that this teacher shortage is nationwide at the present time, not only as regards the Christian Schools, but also as regards the public schools. There is a very dangerous and acute lack of teachers. But the problem is made more acute for our own school movement by several factors. In the first place, there is the obvious fact that our boards are severely limited in their search for teachers. Ignoring for the moment any other requirements, it is clear that the teachers in our schools must be obtained within the bounds of our own denomination. And we are small in numbers. And proportionately as our denomination as such is small in numbers, so also is the number of available teachers small. Furthermore, although I have no statistics before me on which to base a comparison, I am reasonably certain that the number of teachers in proportion to the size of our denomination is also small. This already puts our schools under a severe handicap. In the second place, while it is true to an extent that the need of teachers declines as the size of the school declines, so that our smaller schools need but two or three teachers while the larger school may need a dozen, nevertheless our smaller schools labor under a more severe handicap in a way. Not being able to find teachers out of their own midst, they have been forced to look elsewhere, particularly to Grand Rapids, and in some cases to other congregations, for teachers. And it is sometimes difficult to persuade these teachers to take up their residence elsewhere, and especially to do so permanently. In the third place, and in close connection with the above, this whole problem becomes more acute according as our school movement grows. Time was when there was no school in Grand Rapids, and when the other schools could more easily draw on the supply of teachers there. Redlands, for example, more than once allured a Grand Rapids teacher. Now, however, there is a school in Grand Rapids which employs more teachers than all the other schools combined. And as the number of schools increases, the demand, for teachers increases. And unless the supply of teachers increases, the tension between supply and demand is going to create an increasingly difficult problem for our school boards.

You may object perhaps, in a laissez faire attitude, that up to now none of our schools have been forced to close because of this situation, and that therefore the above picture is rather pessimistically painted. 1 answer that such an attitude is detrimental to the welfare of any school, and that if a school board would assume the same attitude it would indeed result in the closing of school doors. The results of this teacher shortage are quite self-evident. Let me mention a few of them.

In the first place, as far as the school boards themselves are concerned, it is evident that they are forced to devote far too much of their time and efforts merely to the matter of procuring enough teachers each year. The simple fact which every school board faces is that a school must have teachers. That is an immediate problem. If there are no teachers, the school cannot be opened in September. The result is that every year, beginning shortly after New Year’s the board, either as a whole or through a subcommittee, must wrestle with this problem. Can they engage the same teachers for the coming year? If not, what other teachers are there, whom they might possibly contact? And, if they are contacted, are they willing to enter a contract? Sometimes a board may meet with one disappointment after another. And the result is that much time and effort are wasted only on this matter. The school board is not at fault. The matter is immediate and pressing. But all this means that the board cannot devote the time and effort that it should to other problems, and that it cannot give its attention to more permanent and valuable projects.

A second result which is inevitable is that the teacher standard is lowered. Often, merely in order to get a sufficient number of teachers, the school board is forced to overlook more important matters, concerning the qualifications of the teachers which it engages. This situation is also quite common in the schools throughout our country today, but is nevertheless more pressing according as the held from which teachers may be obtained for our own schools is limited. Our schools cannot be too insistent that their teachers have completed the standard four year course for teachers, or they will find themselves teacher-less. They must sometimes be satisfied with very poorly and incompletely trained teachers, therefore. They are forced at times to overlook the fact that a woman teacher is married and has a home and family to care for besides her full time task of teaching. And apart from this, they must be satisfied at times with teachers who show very little positive ability to teach, who have very little initiative, who even have little heart for truly Reformed education, who might be more interested in a salary than in their profession. But teachers are a necessity. Hence, the requirements must be reduced to a minimum. Do not misunderstand. This is not meant to disparage either the school boards or the teachers. I simply mean to point out the facts, while at the same time realizing the unselfish efforts of school boards and the unstinted devotion of the majority of our teachers. Nevertheless, the facts are there, and they make for a situation that is far from ideal.

Thirdly, and in close connection with the above, there is a very real danger that our teachers themselves hasten to meet the minimum educational requirements, in order to become actively engaged in teaching as soon as possible. Partly this may be due to pressure from the school boards, who approach prospective teachers with an urgent appeal to hey. them out. Partly too this may be due to a misconceived zeal for and devotion to the cause of our own educational movement. And partly these prospective teachers may be forced by their financial circumstances to go out and earn some money in order to continue their education at a later date, with the result that not infrequently their education is never completed. Again, I do not mean to deny that circumstances often force our teachers to take this path. And I can well see that under these circumstances it is often a good thing that we have teachers who are willing to forego a complete education in order to help out our schools. But the fact remains that from the overall point of view this situation is good for neither the teachers nor the school as a whole, nor for the individual pupil. And this is a fact which we must face.

A fourth result is that due to this shortage of teachers our schools are forced to resort to overcrowding of classes. If the ideal class consists of, say, 20 to 30 pupils, it stands to reason that it is not salutary either for the teacher or the class or the individual pupil to put one teacher in charge of 40 or 50 pupils, and that too, in the case of the smaller schools, pupils from 4 or 5 different grades. No teacher can do justice to such a task.

These then are a few of the very obvious results of this teacher shortage. We dare not close our eyes to them. If we do, we stand in danger of allowing the emergency situation become the normal situation, And to live in a constant emergency is dangerous, to say the least.

I have no doubt that our school boards are aware of these matters, to a degree at least, and that their eyes are open to the results which we have enumerated. I trust too that anyone who is a teacher at heart will be aware just how detrimental these things are for a school. And our parents should be aware of it. If they are, they will realize at once that the factors mentioned above spell out but one result for their children, the children for whose training they themselves are ultimately responsible. And that result is: inadequate, inefficient, and insufficient education.

The problem is indeed a serious one. And while it is but one phase of the whole “teacher problem,” it already raises the question: what can we do?