School Life

In the early days of the United States, there were very schools and even fewer teachers and educators. As the country grew, they built small schools, usually one room to hold children of all ages. However, it cost money to have a teacher, so most schools had older children that did the teaching, and they were called “monitors.” During this, the monitors would get instruction from the only teacher in the area and then return to teach the lessons to the students. This “monitorial system” existed in the country for about thirty years. By the early 19th century, schools were being changed so that the local communities funded the schools, equipment, and teachers.

  • The monitorial system was useful as it gave the opportunity to have one teacher for large groups of kids and rarely required any books. It was viewed as a thrifty way to offer education as the teacher only had to organize and oversee. In some communities, the children didn’t go to school at all or had to leave for extended periods of time to help with the farm and crops and other duties in the family. This all changed when Joseph Lancaster, a British teacher, created a system for education and convinced many towns and cities that they could afford to pay for it.
  • Known as the “Lancaster principle,” it had all the kids separated by their success with subjects instead of by age. There were monitors that took care of managing the class, including making sure that they gave any child that missed class the information to catch up. The monitors were also responsible for the exams, moving students to different classes, caring for the materials for the classroom, and even for other monitors. School sizes depended on the community and could be from a few students to thousands. There weren’t any real privileges for the monitors, including the fact that they weren’t paid.
  • The biggest schools set aside an area known as the “station” where the lessons would happen. The proper teachers may have provided them with pre-printed cards, and they might have visual aids on the wall. However, the smaller schools didn’t have such benefits, and most just sat, getting their lessons said to them. They required students to memorize their lesson or complete the written assignment on a “slate.” A slate was a miniature chalkboard that could be used by the student. Monitors could rise in rank if they passed special examinations. They would wear a badge showing their status, and they could have a few privileges.
  • They gave kids that successfully moved up a class a lot of congratulations. Throughout their time at school, they would often get tickets for excellence in lessons or good conduct, and they could “buy” a small prize for themselves when they moved up. For those that did poorly, they were humiliated if they had to move down a class.
  • Teachers during this time weren’t paid well or even respected. Because of this, teachers were hard to find and keep. Almost all were men, and many left the profession to find work that paid better. It wasn’t until the women took over teaching that things improved. Women were less interested in leaving because there weren’t many jobs for women.
  • Horace Mann was an educational reformer and established the idea that education should be a profession. He encouraged organizing classes by ages. Once established, the monitors had little to do but be responsible for passes and the halls. It took a long time for the “pupil-teacher” idea to fade, and sometimes, they remained just as assistants to the teachers.


Why did the male teachers often leave during the 1800s?
Teachers weren’t paid well and weren’t respected

How were the kids in school organized using the Lancaster principle?
By class and not age

How did the monitors learn the lessons to teach the kids?
They all went to a single teacher to get a lesson and take back to the school

How did Horace Mann change the educational system?
He organized classes by age and encouraged teachers as a profession

When did the profession of teaching settle down with consistent teachers?
When women became teachers

What is a lesson slate?
A miniature chalkboard