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Moving away from the one-room schoolhouse
Peggy Burkhard
Peggy Burkhard - photo by Dena Harris

The educational system in Wisconsin has transformed from community-driven to results-dependent, and those who still remember the old ways wonder what happened over the years to create such a change.

Peggy Burkhard, a retired teacher from the Potosi and Platteville communities, remembers her first years teaching at one-room schoolhouses and the connections she made with her students and their families.

Burkhard taught in three country schools: Rockville, Big Patch and Cornelia, all in the rural Platteville area. The country schools were independent school districts, where the families would elect a school board and run the school.

Rockville had grades one through eight. She taught there one semester and was the only teacher for all eight grades.

“It was really a good way for me to start,” Burkhard said. “The building at Rockville was unusual because it had two rooms. One of them was a gymnasium. That was really nice. The kids could let off steam on rainy days. We had indoor toilets, too. That was a nice amenity that the other schools I taught at didn’t have.”

She spent a year at Big Patch and a year at Cornelia, both one-room, one-teacher schools that were under the auspices of the Platteville School District. Big Patch was grades one through six while Cornelia was one through five. There were approximately 24 students at each of the schools.

“We had a lot of back-up there,” Burkhard said. “A music teacher would come out. I still taught physical education and art, but other support was there that I couldn’t get at Rockville because of the way it was set up.”

Burkhard earned her degree in elementary education from what is now UW-Platteville.

“It gave me enough of a background to teach all eight grades,” Burkhard said.

She taught reading, arithmetic, science, social studies, spelling, art and physical education. The country schools had the state education radio program that would offer education on various topics.

“Sometimes the way we taught phy. ed. was to have a baseball game at recess,” Burkhard said. “They always had a game going. Sometimes I had to umpire the game.”

She said the kids in all of the communities were great.

“They were really cooperative,” Burkhard said. “Once in a while there was a problem, but not very often. There was much more respect and they knew when they got home that if they had goofed up at school, they’d get more punishment at home. There was a lot of respect for the teacher. And it was mutual then, too, because I got to know a lot of the families, which was pretty important.”

Burkhard said the Christmas program was always important.

“We would work on it for months and the kids would practice poems, readings or plays or even some kind of performance,” Burkhard said. “Then each student would get up and perform, sometimes together with other and sometimes alone. The families would all come. They would fill the room. They were so supportive. It helped build that respect. The teachers and the families got along so well and the kids therefore respected the teacher and their parents more.”

She said parents knowing all of the other families that their child associated with was important, too.

“It was really quite an experience,” Burkhard said. “The country schools were so community-driven. The families would get together and they would make the decisions about what was going on at the schools, and what they thought the teachers should and shouldn’t do. The idea of it being community-driven was really a wonderful thing.”

Once a month at Rockville, a mother’s club would get together. They would cancel classes and the children would play outside all afternoon while the mothers would meet. They would talk about what they could do for the school and the children. They would have fundraises to buy school supplies. They’d bring refreshments and socialize.

“All of the families would get together once a month,” Burkhard said. “Can you imagine that at the public schools today?”

She said there was a lot of communication and a lot of interaction between the families and the teacher.

“That’s something that seems impossible with our bigger schools,” Burkhard said. “I think the schools do a good job now, but it’s just not as possible to get everyone involved.”

The teacher would sit at the front of the classroom. Sometimes the grades would be combined for certain lessons in science or social studies. Each grade would go up to the desk to have their lesson.

Some topics, like art, would be school-wide projects.

“The older kids were always helping the younger ones,” Burkhard said. “I think they learned just as much doing that as the younger kids did, too. That was an important part of it.”

After each lesson, the children would go back to their desk to do “seat work,” where they would finish up their lessons on their own.

She said the kids were great. They seemed to want to learn.

“In my later years, it didn’t seem like the kids wanted to learn as much,” Burkhard said.

At one point all of the students were bused to the city for school and Burkhard took a position at Platteville’s Hamner Robins School, where the Rollo Jamison Museum is today. She taught sixth grade there.

The transition from country school to town school was a different experience. She taught one or two subjects instead of all of the subjects. The class sizes stayed about the same, 22-25 students.

She taught 27 years at the Platteville Middle School and Hamner Robins.

“There were lots of changes, the biggest, of course, being the computer,” Burkhard said. “Some of the older teachers had quite a struggle transferring over to the computers. Nowadays, on demand, a teacher has to have how a student is doing. There’s a big load on teachers today, maybe more than when I was teaching seven or eight subjects. Maybe we’re doing a better job; I don’t know that we are.”

She said it’s difficult to gauge when everything is so different from when she first started.

Classrooms were equipped with blackboards and chalk 30 years ago.

“Later on when I was at Platteville, I had to learn to use the computers, which was a big step,” Burkhard said. “Computers are involved in about everything at schools now. You have to go with the times to get the kids ready for the world that they’re going to be living in.”

Burkhard’s transition from the country school to the city was a relief for her.

“Having only one grade made a lot of difference in preparation,” Burkhard said. “Teachers spend lots of time on preparation. To prepare for eight grades in five subjects, that’s quite a lot of preparation. I was able to be more creative with just one grade. I could think of more projects and teaching strategies.”

Burkhard said the family structure has changed so much to transform a teacher’s role in the classroom.

“In some ways there is a lot of communication with parents and the school, but in some cases there is no communication at all,” Burkhard said. “You can send lots of notes home but they never get read. The change in family structure has made a big difference to what’s happening with kids.”

She grew up in Platteville and, with a college close-by, she knew she wanted to teach.

“I just love watching growth and development, watching the kids and how they change and how they learn,” Burkhard said. “It’s fascinating to think of what’s going on in a kid’s brain. Just observing them can be lots of fun sometimes.”

Burkhard has many people in her family who also went into teaching, including her father, aunts and uncles and a daughter.

“There aren’t many now who want to go into teaching,” Burkhard said. “It’s tough out there with so many regulations and the testing.”

Burkhard retired in 2000. She and her husband, Jerry, raised three children in Platteville. They have 11 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Since retiring, Burkhard has taken up spinning yarn.

“We have a guild in Southwest Wisconsin and we get together once a month,” Burkhard said. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I used to sew a lot and had this itch to make yarn. That’s what I do.”
She also is part of a family history committee that focuses on genealogy research. She reads a lot, too.

“It’s the things that I didn’t have time to do while I was teaching,” Burkhard said.