The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Relations Between Parents and Teachers. *
by the Rev. J. E. C. Welldon, M. A. Head Master of Harrow School.
Mr. Welldon said that when he was first invited, some time ago, to give a short treatise upon an educational subject, it was suggested to him by a distinguished lady that it should take the form of the "Reform of Parents." He hoped such a suggestion of a subject would be regarded as an excuse for any hesitation he had shown in coming there. He said the reform of parents was indeed a tempting theme to one who had like himself held a scholastic position, and who had had such varied experience with parents of both sexes, but especially with that obtund which is not always found in sympathy with schoolmasters. He spoke of that disposition, the last infirmity of schoolmasters, to trust their own educational infallibility in preference to the prejudices and inordinate affection of parents. He said parents are regarded by schoolmasters as the great hinderers to education; and one of the reasons why he had hesitated about speaking on this occasion was because he was not in sympathy with that view, and, in his opinion, there was no great need, at the present time, of parental reform. It had struck him that the people who are the most anxious for the reform of parents are those who are not parents themselves, and who are incapable of understanding parental feeling. This was like speaking on questions of language without any knowledge of grammar. He had been very much mixed up with parents, and had been attached not only to large institutions, but to every kind of school; he had rarely travelled up to town without a parent by his side, and he had even found parents standing in a kind of queue, waiting to receive him. At one school it had been necessary to make a rule that where a parent prolonged a meeting beyond due bounds the porter should come with a card of someone else, and if that was not effectual with a second or even a third. He said, "Ladies and gentlemen, having had this varied experience, I deliberately call myself a parent lover." It would be idle to say that all the parents with whom he had had to do were exemplary, and when he had read that commandment, "Honour thy father and thy mother," he could not help thinking of some parents he had known who did not deserve honour at all. Yet even amongst those parents who were self-seeking and frivolous, he had often found that in relation with their boys and those they were brought in contact with as the teachers of their boys, they were deserving of the highest admiration. It seemed to him, when he was told he should deliver a little lecture to parents, and, standing there, saw them all metaphorically at his feet, as if the tables were turned upside down and he was in the wrong position altogether.
He thought it as well to specify the limits of his discourse--he did not intend to touch upon the question as regards the education of girls. He said, "All honour to those distinguished schoolmistresses who have been co-workers in that great and fruitful movement;" and he spoke of Miss Buss and Miss Beale as pioneers in the great work. Some time ago he had been on a committee, and he had come to the conclusion that a head-mistress was a person of a great deal more consideration than a head-master. "One cannot help being glad," he said, "to have outlived that time when music and deportment were supposed to be all that a woman required, and that most mysterious accomplishment, the use of the globes." He had never taught girls, but he was afraid he should never have had the heart to maintain sufficient discipline.
He believed that in the early years of life the teacher, as distinguished from the parent, plays an unimportant part. He dwelt on the different methods people adopt in bringing up children. The mother of the Wesleys never allowed them to cry at all, except silently, so that if they cried at all they cried like so many Niobes. If he remembered rightly she was one of a family of twenty-four, and was herself the mother of nineteen. He spoke in praise of the Kindergarten system, and added, "He will be a benefactor of his race who shall teach us how to train the first years of childhood." He wished he knew more about the early hours of child life, that he might impress upon his hearers the fact that in education the home is more important than the school, and that the most effectual lessons are learnt in the domestic circle. In his opinion education consists not so much "in filling the head as in winning the heart."
He said it must never be forgotten that, after all, the public school system is artificial; boys are taken out of their home, and are in the company of masters and other boys only, and they are liable to create artificial codes of morality and behaviour for themselves. Everyone who has had experience of a day school where children meet their parents every day after school hours will agree that, if the home is well ordered, the boys and girls are shielded from the temptations and dangers which other girls and boys meet. "What I do wish to say is, that the fidelity of the affection for home is in itself a safeguard to virtue." Therefore, when people say to him that parents are a drawback to education, he does not agree with the proposition. No doubt if a lady were to go down to Harrow and give him her company every day in his study, he might think her rather in the way.
He thought the beneficial and elevating society of their female friends always useful to a boy; it was a subject of deep satisfaction that that feeling which boys used to have of shame of their female relations is gone--"those ladies who have usually most right to be ashamed of the boy."
He mentioned a boy at Harrow who had been in the habit of walking about with his old nurse, and said he honoured him for his feeling in her regard. He thought it unlikely if a boy is with his mothers and sisters one day that he should be guilty of a great sin the next.
The only claim he had to speak to those who were probably parents was that he considered parents not his enemies but his co-operators.
He thought it time to come to the question, how, in what way, to what extent, is it possible that parents of thought and training may help the work of the schoolmaster or schoolmistress. There was a danger of exaggerating the work of the schoolmaster in the school; it is not his province to correct all the failings of the home training. Education in Board schools is not a cure for everything; it is impossible to make all boys and girls good or all boys and girls clever. It was therefore unjust to blame the boys' or girls' school for not producing the result which could not be expected to be produced, and which if not produced there could not be produced elsewhere. One father wrote him that, if he paid his boy's school bills, he thought it reasonable to expect him to pass the usual examinations. Examinations are meant to distinguish between those who possess a certain amount of culture and those to whom that amount of culture is impossible. It was unreasonable to blame a school because all boys or all girls were not brought to a certain standard which was probably beyond the reach of some.
The schoolmaster or mistress has only an influence for three or four years, and in the beginning of that time has to overcome a certain amount of prejudice. Boys are not as a rule as fond of their teachers as of their parents. Some time ago a lady whose boy had been under his (Mr. Welldon's) care, wrote to him that the secret of influencing her boy lay in winning his affection, because he would do anything for one that he loved, and it was a great pity that he (Mr. Welldon) had not succeeded in winning his love. Well, that was a secret he believed in; but it requires not only to be believed in, but to be possible. He might have said, in reply, it was a pity she had not won her boy's affection; she had better opportunities of doing so than any that fell to his schoolmaster, but she had failed.
There was a danger of exaggerating the possibilities of the scholastic profession. The master or mistress only deals for a short time with the pupil, and they can but aspire by such means as circumstances permit to bring out all that is good in the boy's or girl's nature. There are certain things which the school cannot do. Some years ago a lady called on him to tell him that her boy, Mr. Welldon's pupil, had been guilty of the offence of making an offer of marriage to a young lady in the neighbourhood, and asking him if he could not set him an imposition adequate to the offence. The best and highest help which a parent can give lies in setting a boy a good example. It is impossible to over-rate the great commandment "Honour thy father and thy mother"; but, if that commandment lays upon children the duty of honouring parents, it lays upon parents also the duty of deserving that honour. If the parents do wrong the children do wrong also, though this is not a universal rule; but the boy or girl who has seen virtue in its beauty at home possesses an advantage which no school can give nor any power do away with. There is always the backbone of moral strength and courage in one who has been brought up in such surroundings as enable him to appreciate the beauty of holiness. The young, who are so impressionable and in whom the power of imitation is so strong, must needs be influenced by the circumstances in which they find themselves in the early years of life.
He said there was no doubt that virtue might spring from dissolute surroundings, but the chances were the other way. He quoted from one who had observed that the genealogies in his New Testament were strangely chequered, the good father with a bad son and a bad father with a good son; virtue is not always entailed any more than vice.
When living in the South of London he had found many parents good and helpful in superintending the lessons of their children, and encouraging punctual attendance. It was to him touching to find fathers brushing up their stock of Latin and Greek, which in many instances had become very rusty, for the sake of their sons--he thought these fathers little short of heroic. Even when circumstances did not admit of such help as this, he thought the help which might be given by parents to teachers was of unspeakable value. He had heard of the father, who, if his son got a flogging at school, gave him another at home--he did not altogether approve of this rude and barbarous way of co-operating, but he thought the principle was sound and salutary, the method was calculated to impress the boy with the idea that the two great rival powers which ruled his life were working in concert, and vice under these circumstances became dangerous. He thought the reception of school reports, which enables the parent to follow the whole course of the child's school life, a valuable means of influence. He thought it conducive to good conduct that boys and girls should be encouraged to write home frequently and give a history of their school life, and no Sunday occupation seemed to him more strictly pious than this species of letter writing.
It would be well if fathers and mothers in relation to masters should endeavour to present a united front. An appearance of dissension was undesirable from the point of view of masters. His distinguished predecessor at Harrow told a story of a lady and gentleman who had brought their son to school. The conversation was carried on by the lady, the gentleman merely sitting by and patiently listening to the tale of their boy's merits; at last he ventured to hazard an opinion on the boy's knowledge of certain subjects, which he thought was being overrated; the lady turned to him and said, "This is only one instance more of your habitual inaccuracy." From his own experience, he could tell of a boy who had an illness in the school, and the father and mother telegraphed to him, one saying, "Send the boy home at once!" the other, "Keep the boy at Harrow." He generally found it safer to side with the mother.
He said it was safe and necessary that there should be great mutual respect between parents and teachers. The educational profession was not looked down upon as it used to be. As Sir R. Templeton remarked, "The schoolmaster is abroad, and not only abroad, but abroad in cap and gown."
In Thackeray's "Esmond" the tutor thinks it is a great thing to be asked to dessert; now he is not only anxious to escape that honour, but very often the preliminary dinner also. Might he be allowed a word of warm advocacy for the governess? He was not sure that in all English families she was treated with respect; he was afraid she was sometimes made to feel her position only too sensitively. She was sometimes relegated to the society of upper servants, or subjected to that discipline still harder to bear--the equality of condescension. He thought it proper to his position to entreat sympathy and consideration for that most deserving representative of his profession. There is a Jewish legend that on one occasion there was a great drought in the land, heaven was as brass and the earth as iron, and the great and wise men put up prayers for rain; but their prayers met with no reply till one poor wretched man made supplication to God, and the rain descended in a shower upon the earth, and those around inquired curiously about him, and were told that he was a teacher of small children. It was still in his heart to say that it was possible for parents to give a conspicuous help to teachers by taking the true and right view, that a school is primarily a place of moral and religious education. It was to the disparagement of school education that Mr. Carlyle, in his life of John Stirling, said of his friend who had been educated at Eton, that he derived the principal part of his education by doing, not what he was ordered to do, but that which the masters forbade. Far be it from him to endorse that sentiment; but he did think it a good thing and a help to education that when children were sent to school they should understand that they were sent to acquire that moral training without which they will not be fitted for the battle of life. It was not too much to ask that the true meaning of education should not be kept before the eyes of the young, that they should be taught the true legitimate object of life, and encouraged to acquire that knowledge which, as Milton says, will enable them to perform justly, skilfully, and magnanimously all their duties, whether private or public.
If there was reason for consideration from parents towards masters, he thought there was likewise need for consideration from masters towards parents. Parents have a distinct claim which should be recognised. He thought no master should resent the absorption of his time by those who had paid him the high compliment of entrusting their children to his care. He always kept before his mind the example of St. Philip Neri, who never refused to see anyone that wished to see him. He had been surprised at the way some teachers speak of their pupils, using words which might cause great pain. There was one word he always struck out of a boy's report--the word "hopeless." "Masters may be hopeless; boys, never!"
There are instances of parents also having misjudged their children. Of Richard Brinsley Sheridan his mother wrote, "she was ashamed of sending such a obtund dunce to school." A friend had lately given it as his opinion that "boys were always reasonable, masters, sometimes, and parents, never." He was not in sympathy with that statement; he had found ninety-nine parents out of a hundred in the highest degree reasonable, and the hundredth so unreasonable as to make amends for the ninety-nine others. He spoke of the indignation which passes between parents and children with regard to the faults of the children. He believed he was justified in saying that the times when boys and girls get into trouble are the testing times for them. If a parent at such a time treat a child harshly, does not try to mitigate his fault and to intercede for him, there is a distinct loss of that feeling of confidence and support which is most valuable. On the other hand, if a parent is prepared to strike up for a child, and won't hear of his being in the wrong, there is a danger that the child may feel his offence is not only forgiven, but condoned. In those trying circumstances where punishment is necessary, there is room for the greatest consideration and forbearance.
The schoolmaster of to-day is not that forbidding monster who was not satisfied except when visiting his pupil with severe punishment.
In Mr. Charles Booth's book he speaks of one poor man, a cane-dealer, who complained that he was reduced to destitution because there was no longer corporal punishment in the schools. There was no sale for his canes, and he could not use them all upon himself and his children.
A good master cares not only for the education of his pupils, but he tries to cultivate the good feeling, the respect, and the affection of those among whom his life is spent. Not many weeks since a boy was asked by his mother the name of his best friend at school; to her surprise he gave the name of one of the masters.
He said his endeavour was to make peole think more about their children than they do, and therefore he had chosen those few subjects for his discourse in which his experience was more intimate than theirs. He thanked them for their kindness in having listened to him, and asked their indulgence for any shortcomings on account of the day--it was his own birthday, and on that day one was supposed to be a specially privileged person--and if they thought he had been foolish in the past years of his life he hoped he might be wiser in the future.
* Report of an Address delivered at a Meeting of the Belgravia and Westminster Branch of the P.N.E.U.
Typed by Pamela Hicks, Mar 2013