Teaching in One-Room Schools

Looking back at rural education with schoolteachers from farm families

At the turn of the century the number of one-room country schools dotted the countryside. Each of DeKalb County’s 19 townships had between 3-12 schools. Teachers were in high demand to educate rural youth from first through eighth grades all under one roof.

One-room schoolteachers taught a variety of subjects like reading, spelling, arithmetic, grammar, penmanship, history, geography and occasionally art and music.

JoAnn English and Yvonne Johnson share their memories of country schoolteachers in their farm family.

JoAnn Willis English

JoAnn English’s mother, Mildred Powers, taught at Gibson School in South Grove Township for three years. Then she married and later substitute taught at Sycamore schools, as Mildred Willis.

JoAnn Willis attended Clare School, shown here with her class in 1940: (front row) Patty Willis, Lynn Pyland, Mary Ellen Gittleson, (second row) LaVoy White, Doug Overton, Joyce Pyland, Joe Quinn, JoAnn Willis, Beverly Synott, Harold Overton (third row) Maxine Overton, Jean Lockwood, unknown, Carl Mattis, Mrs. Finnegan, Elroy Overton, Gordon Jones, Richard Mattis.

“My mother and aunt were teachers so as kids we always had paper for writing and books to read. My younger sisters and I spent many hours playing school and since I was the oldest I was always the teacher.

When I started first grade in 1939 at Clare School, I really felt grown up and now was the authority on playing school. It was fun to learn and be with other kids who were older. They helped me with my reading and I listened to them as they learned their lessons.

Since my dad farmed the land that surrounded the school we saw him when we were outside. I could see our barn from the school windows so never felt very far from home.”

Mildred Powers, JoAnn English’s mother, is show with her 1931 class at Gibson School. (From left) Louise Paulson, Paul Paulson, Genevieve Worden, Dorothy Wold, Dorothy Weaver, Mildred, Dorothy Fleming, Christine Paulsen, Harry Allen, Virginia Adee, John Craig, Mary Rose Adee.

JoAnn attended Clare School in first through seventh grades and then went to Sycamore schools and graduated from Sycamore High School. She completed her nurses training in Chicago and NIU. For many years she taught nursing students at Kishwaukee College.

Yvonne Johnson

Yvonne Johnson’s family was either teachers or farmers. Her mother, Virginia Nelson Johnson taught at the Carter School in Afton Township and Schandelmeier school in Kingston Township. Her sister, Elaine, taught at Ziegler School in Pierce Township and her brother-in-law Leo Olson taught at Rooster School in Pierce Township and Ohio Grove School in Cortland Township. She also had cousins who were country schoolteachers.

Virginia Nelson, Yvonne Johnson’s mother, is shown with her 1911 Schandelmeier School class in Kingston Township.

As a young child, Yvonne attended four different one-room schoolhouses because her father was a tenant farmer and moved between farms. She finished her schooling at Sycamore High School and NIU.

Yvonne started her teaching career in a one-room school, at Love’s School in DeKalb Township, in 1951. Then she spent the next 50 years teaching at West School in Sycamore.

Yvonne Johnson was a student at Ziegler School. In 1936 her sister, Elaine, was the teacher. The class included (front row) Richard Ziegler, Imas Mack, Vera Ziegler, (2nd row) Yvonne Johnson, Art Schule, Donald Mack, Everett Ziegler, (3rd row) Eleanor Schule, Kenneth Hall, Duane Doane, Glenn Riedelsperger, Harold Ziegler, (4th row) Ida Ziegler, Dorothy Riedelsperger, Marian Hall, Ervin Riedelsperger, Donald Ziegler Earl Plapp.

“When I taught at Love School I had 75 children and wasn’t in love with it. Many of the kids were from the south and their parents got jobs so they moved back.

Being around farm boys, I learned every trick of the trade. I had it pulled on me so I would tell my students, don’t try it because I know what happens!

In my first years of teaching I had many farm kids, who knew what city life was like when they were there. But city kids didn’t know what farm life was like. I helped them understand farming better.

I always told my students, you get what you want to get out of your education. It’s not the teacher, but it’s you, the kid in that seat who decides how to embrace it.”

Love School in DeKalb Township was where Yvonne Johnson first taught for two years before going to West School to teach for 50 years. Photos and information courtesy of “Rural School Journeys” and the DeKalb County History Center.