Back to School – Amish Style

While driving by some of the approximately 300 Amish one-room schools in the Lancaster Amish settlement, visitors often wonder what a typical day is like in these private schools. Here is an “inside look” adapted from the comments of an Amish schoolteacher…

Who are the teachers?

School is typically taught by young Amish women in their late teens or early 20’s, who teach for several years before getting married. No one usually teaches after marriage; it is too big of a commitment. There are some women who never marry, however, that may continue to teach. 

How many students and teachers are there in the school?

Schools are usually one room, one teacher, although occasionally there is a helper in schools of more than 30 pupils. (Special schools for students with learning or other disabilities often have one teacher per four pupils.) Usually there are 25-30 “scholars” from grades 1-8, and ages 6-13. They may start at the age of five if their birthday is before the end of the year.

How long is the school term and day?

We have a 180-day term, with the five 7-hour days. School usually begins around 8:30 am. There are 15-minute breaks in the mid-morning and mid afternoon. Then, there is a one-hour break at lunch, which includes recess. There are four class periods of about an hour and a half in length, two in the morning and two in the afternoon.

What subjects do you teach and how?

Lessons taught include arithmetic (not math), and we often use agricultural arithmetic books printed in the 1930’s. Lots of drill games and flash cards are used, especially for the lower grades. Workbooks are used for most subjects. Spelling is drilled well with spelling words being assigned for use in sentences and written many times in an exercise book to practice for the test, which is given orally at the end of the week. As for reading, the first grade learns phonics, sounding out the letters rather than recognizing words. By Christmas they are reading out of Readers, either McGuffy, Dick & Jane, or another series from the Amish publishing house in Canada that uses Amish themes and illustrations. Every grade has reading once a week “in class.” The first and second grades read “in class” daily. Pupils stand up front of the class in order of age and take turns reading by sentences or paragraphs, depending on the grade. When a scholar who is reading makes a mistake, if another student notices, he will raise his hand. The teacher will call on him and he will mention the error, be it mispronunciation, skipping or adding words, etc. Students are so eager to do this that the teacher very seldom has to correct them. 

Amish children learn to speak English in school, since they speak the Pennsylvania German dialect at home. English lessons are taught twice weekly in all grades, including parts of speech, vocabulary, etc. And by the way, English is usually spoken in the classroom and on the playground, with exceptions made for a first grader who is not very fluent yet. First graders usually know some English before they get to school but may not be really fluent at the start of the year. 

Many a scholar’s favorite subject is American History, with special emphasis on the early days of our country. Geography/Social Studies is also taught, with the best students learning the States and their capitals. Penmanship is considered to be very important. And German starts in the second or third grade, beginning with recognition of the German alphabet and advancing to German reading and comprehension in the upper grades.  

What is a typical day like in your school? 

A typical day starts with the teacher reading a chapter from the Bible. Then students rise and say the Lord’s Prayer. Students file to the front and sing three or four songs from the songbooks. The teacher has arithmetic assignments on the board for grades three to eight daily. The teacher begins with first and second grade phonics or reading. Each class is taught for about 10 minutes, “hands” are answered between classes. During recess, softball is usually played whenever weather permits. Smaller children play tag, prisoner’s base, jump rope etc. On rainy days, ping-pong, board games, or party games are played inside. At lunchtime, a prayer is recited in unison. A story is read to all after the lunch recess. Classes continue in the afternoon. At dismissal, a goodbye song is usually sung.

What happens after grade eight?  

There is vocational training after grade eight, until one session past the student’s 15th birthday.  While students work and help their parents at home, they keep a journal of their activities. And once a week they meet with the teacher, where they further their German studies.  

What about discipline? 

Discipline varies among the teachers, but parents are notified of an unusually disrespectful child. It really all depends on how the teacher earns the respect of the students and parents. 

Please Note: Amish schools are, of course, private, and not open to the public.