Education Like it Used to Be

© 2012 Reynold R. Kremer

Amish education has had only a brief history. Compared to public education in the U.S., Amish schools are still in their infancy. Up until the mid-1900’s most Amish children attended one room public country schools. However the 1950’s brought about a consolidation of many public schools and forced high school education. Neither idea was acceptable to the Amish. Consequently the Amish began purchasing many of the empty one room schools. They wished to use them exclusively for their own children. Some dates given for establishing these new one room Amish schools were: 1938 (Pennsylvania), 1944 (Ohio), 1946 (Iowa), 1948 (Indiana), and 1966 (Wisconsin). By operating Amish only schools they could establish their own curriculum and secure their own teachers. Today there are about 1400 Amish schools, a number that is increasing rapidly year by year.

Nineteen seventy-two brought about a landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Wisconsin vs. Yoder. The case was centered around a Wisconsin Amish man who refused to send his children to school beyond the eighth grade. After being arrested by the State of Wisconsin an English group that stood up for the Amish rights took the case to court. The ultimate ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court was totally in favor of the Amish, stating that eight grades was sufficient for their formal schooling because the Amish youngsters continued their education at home in the years following.

Today Amish children attend school from first to eighth grade. Their teachers also are only eighth grade graduates. Teaching is a paid position with the salary being provided by the parents who are assessed by the number of children per family and estimated personal wealth. Although many of the teachers are young ladies who have not yet married, there are more and more young men who enjoy the vocation. All Amish schools are regulated by school boards usually made up of three men who are responsible for caring for the school property and overseeing the teachers and curriculum. Parents must also sign an agreement prior to the start of the new year. Parent-teacher meetings are held regularly. Teachers also meet periodically with one another to discuss problems and discover new teaching ideas. The Blackboard Bulletin (published monthly) is the Amish periodical most teachers rely on for classroom hints and suggestions.

The Amish school year generally runs from September to April with few days off for mid-term vacations. The early dismissal allows the children to help on the home farms in spring. Daily scheduling is similar to all other U.S. schools with subjects including reading, writing, arithmetic, history, singing, and phonics. Writing is especially important because that is the means by which most Amish communicate with each other. Although religion permeates all that is taught in the Amish school, it is not usually taught as a separate subject. That is left to the fathers and ministers. German is spoken exclusively in the Amish home to children younger than school age. The Amish want their little children to learn German before they enter first grade where English is first taught to them. (Most Amish text books are printed in English.)

Amish school buildings are simple yet practical. Rooms are bright and cheery with plenty of windows that allow in necessary light since there is no electricity. Many of the schools still have wood stoves in the classrooms and outhouses for boys and girls, although newer buildings now have indoor plumbing. Some schools are also built with a small upstairs apartment for the teacher. This single room provides a bed, table and sink. Chalk boards topped with English and German penmanship charts hang in the front of the rooms. Many classrooms have walls filled with delightful artwork, poetry, Amish proverbs and posters. If the class size becomes too large for one teacher, a second teacher will be added – usually in the same room with a necessary drawn curtain dividing the large room in half. In most classrooms one will still see a thick rope dangling from the ceiling for ringing the school bell. During recess children love to run around outdoors and play games of softball or kickball. There are some very conservative communities that do not allow team sports.

Children are taught to be quiet in the Amish classroom and keep to their work throughout the day. Beginning each lesson, teachers invite the grade to come to the front of the room and sit around a large table. Here the students receive quiet one on one teaching. The young scholars (as Amish students are called) dress according to their church Ordnung. This would determine a black or white prayer cap for the girls and the type of shoes and color of shirts worn by the boys. Some Amish schools allow children to attend in bare feet. Noticeably missing in any Amish classroom are references to the United States such as a flag, picture of a former president, or the Pledge of Allegiance.

I have had the wonderful opportunity to visit several Amish classrooms over the years. It has always been a delightful experience that brings back memories of the fifteen years I spent teaching. Interestingly, children are children no matter what their dress or background. Giggles, blank faces deep in daydreams, and intense pencil pushing seem to be universal traits. A visit always includes signing the classroom register book. I have observed that Amish classrooms demonstrate a godly work ethic among the scholars. The extreme quiet allows the teacher to speak in a soft voice as well as setting an atmosphere conducive to good learning habits. Amish children do not boast of good grades yet they realize they are there for the purpose of learning. Desks are kept neat and orderly (sometimes even having a small paper wastebasket taped to the side of them.) Children are also responsible to keep the room and outside property clean and respectable. One item I noticed at each school I visited was the Amish love for proverbs. Often at the start of the year each child chooses a personal proverb that remains theirs throughout the year.

Today there are some problems that Amish schools face. One is the closeness in age between students and teachers; sometimes as little as a year or two. There is also considerable teacher turnover since most young ladies only teach until the time they get married. From then on their sights are focused on the family and home environment. Other problems they share with the English schools are parents not taking a great enough interest in their children’s education, and simple respect for the teachers.

The English would do well to step back in time and return to the basics that Amish education still uses. Their proven methods of teaching, classroom design, curriculum, and discipline repeatedly turn out scholars who are ahead of the national norm of children. Generally speaking, Amish children are better prepared to live as a young man or woman than are English children. Hopefully the Amish will stubbornly adhere to their practices for many years to come. And, by the way, if ever you have the opportunity to attend the year end program that the scholars prepare for their parents and friends, don’t pass it by!