Picture: Pestalozzi Teaching

From the hotel where he recuperated, Pestalozzi could look over a large area of Switzerland.  He visualised the people in the villages.  He could not help thinking of the many worries that bothered them: how to earn their daily bread and how to pay their taxes.  He could not help thinking of the children and of the inferior schools they attended.  He wrote, “Our schools are like machines.  They stifle the natural vitality of the children.  The first five years of their lives they enjoy the great outdoors, but then they are fenced in like sheep.  They are driven into a stinking room, where they have to face pitiful, boring letters for hours, days, weeks, months and years.  That is worse than beheading a criminal.”  The longer Pestalozzi reflected on the miserable state of the schools, the stronger his conviction became, “Our schools must get much better.  The children must be able to enjoy school.  Schools must teach the children subjects that can be put to good use and not such useless things.  That’s what I want to promote.  I wish to become a teacher!”


That was in 1799.  Pestalozzi was fifty-three years old.  Once more, he started anew and became a teacher.


Most schools at that time were really bad.  The teachers were not trained for their task.  Most of them were discharged soldiers or craftsmen who needed an additional income.  The teachers were poorly paid.  There was still no compulsory education.  The teacher stood before a class of about eighty children with a cane in one hand and a thick book, the catechism, in the other hand.  This was a book of religion.  The children did not understand what was written in it.  The teacher spelt and recited it to them.  The children had to repeat everything parrot-fashion.  Woe betide the children who talked to their neighbours!  They became acquainted with the cane.  Such teaching was unnatural and artificial.  Most children did not learn anything that they could put to good use.


Pestalozzi got a teaching post in Burgdorf, but he was not allowed to have a class of his own; he was only allowed to teach some destitute children in the corner of a classroom.  The classroom belonged to the teacher and shoemaker Samuel Dysli.  That looked very funny indeed.  On the one side, in front of the pupils, there was Dysli with the cane and catechism in his hands; on the other side, there was Pestalozzi.  Pestalozzi’s children were allowed to describe whatever they saw: the ripped-up wallpaper, the holes in the wall, the trees in front of the windows and so on.  In this way, they learnt firstly to closely examine an object, then to talk about it in simple words, then to write about the object and finally to read what they had written.  For this, they were given slates to draw and write on. 


Pestalozzi’s lessons were lively and interesting, and the children enjoyed learning.  Dysli, the teacher, became jealous and suspicious.  He told the parents of Pestalozzi’s teaching of the children, “This man cannot read or write himself, otherwise he wouldn’t teach in such a ridiculous way.  However, the worst thing is his faith, he doesn’t even use the catechism!”  The parents believed Dysli.  Pestalozzi had to leave Dysli’s classroom.


However, his friends stood up for him so he was able to get another job.  He was permitted to go on with his experiments together with a young teacher.  Her name was Staehli.  Now Pestalozzi taught the children of the citizens of the town.  He wrote letters on small cardboard pieces; the vowels A, E, I, O and U in red and the consonants S, B, R, M and so on in black.  With the help of the cardboard pieces the children could put words together.  Pestalozzi also etched letters into transparent horn-leaves.  The children could then put these leaves over the letters they had written themselves.  In this way, they immediately saw whether they had written the letters correctly.  These teaching methods were absolutely unheard of in those days.  Nobody taught like that.  After eight months the school authorities conducted a test on his class and the results were outstanding.  Immediately, Pestalozzi was given a more advanced boys’ class, which he was allowed to teach by himself.

The City of Burgdorf lies on a rocky hill.  At the top there is a big castle.  In this Castle of Burgdorf the government wanted to establish a teachers’ college.  They wanted to appoint Pestalozzi as supervisor of the college.  At first he refused to consider the proposal.  “I want to become a proper schoolmaster, before anything else.  To begin with, I want to teach small children,” he said.  Soon after, the supervisor of the college died and Pestalozzi moved up to the castle after all, taking his own class of pupils with him.  A teacher with his twenty-six pupils from another part of Switzerland also enrolled.  There was a war being waged where they came from, so the children’s parents were happy that the children could go to a part of Switzerland where there was peace.


At long last, Pestalozzi could enjoy great success.  The school inspector wrote a report on Pestalozzi’s school.  He praised Pestalozzi enthusiastically and said that he was indeed a model teacher.  He wrote, “Pestalozzi’s children learn in half a year as much as the children of other teachers learn in three years.”  Pestalozzi’s good reputation spread all over.  In the Castle of Burgdorf there was a boys’ school, a teachers’ college – plus a school for poor children.


Pestalozzi carried out his old dream as soon as he could.  To help the poor was always his particular concern.  Of course, he could no longer manage everything by himself and now had several employees to help him.  Moreover, groups of scientists and politicians from everywhere came to Burgdorf.  They wanted to meet Pestalozzi and learn from him.


Studying all day long was not the only activity in the castle.  The pupils were also allowed to get out into the open air.  They went climbing on the sandstone rocks, bathing in the nearby river and hiking all over the country, singing songs.  Every evening they all gathered in the large assembly room of the castle.  Pestalozzi would be there too.  The students could tell him whatever was bothering them.  He listened to them, encouraging or admonishing them.  Together they asked for God’s blessing and then went to bed.  When all was quiet in the castle, Pestalozzi sat down at his desk and worked at his new book, ‘How Gertrude Teaches Her Children’.  In it, he wanted to show how to bring up children.  His opinion was that all children have the right to a proper education, appropriate for a child; that once the schools became good, nobody would have to suffer poverty any longer.  Pestalozzi’s book became widely known.  He was now considered a great educator and an expert on schools.


In Burgdorf, Pestalozzi at long last had his family with him again.  His wife, Anna, came and assisted him.  In 1801 his son Jean-Jacques died, at the early age of thirty-one, but his daughter-in-law with his grandchild Gottlieb, and Elisabeth the maid, moved from Neuhof to Burgdorf.


Even though Pestalozzi’s institution in Burgdorf was so famous, he had bad luck again, and had to give it up.  In 1803, Napoleon removed the Swiss government, which had supported Pestalozzi, and made the cantons independent again.  Now each canton could make its own laws, as in former times.  The City of Burgdorf belonged to the Canton of Berne.  The Bernese government did not approve of Pestalozzi and gave the castle to the new district magistrate as his official residence.  So the order came from Berne that Pestalozzi had to clear out of the Castle of Burgdorf by the 1st of July, 1804.  For all that, the Bernese government did not want to just turn the famous Pestalozzi out onto the road.  They left him an old, dilapidated convent in Münchenbuchsee to use for a year.  There, as the situation allowed, he settled down for a short time with his students and co-workers.


Near Pestalozzi’s institution, in Hofwil, there was another educational establishment.  The proud Bernese aristocrat, Philipp of Fellenberg, supervised it.  Fellenberg was an excellent manager.  Pestalozzi’s co-workers thought that Pestalozzi and Fellenberg would make a good team.  Pestalozzi had the good ideas and the big heart, while Fellenberg was the born organiser and ensured orderliness.  They suggested this idea to the two men.  They tried it out for a while but they did not get along for very long.  Fellenberg said, “We can’t take on pupils free of charge.”  Pestalozzi did not agree with him.  It was the poor children he wished to help.  For this reason he decided to leave Münchenbuchsee.


Then he got a proposal from the Czar of Russia, Alexander I.  Pestalozzi could become a professor in Russia and reform the Russian schools.  The offer was tempting and Pestalozzi came close to accepting it.  His relatives warned him, “You don’t know Russian and you don’t know the country.”  He may have gone, but he then received an offer from his own country, from the Canton of Waadt, which had belonged to Berne before the revolution, but was now independent.  The Canton of Waadt promised Pestalozzi the Castle of Yverdon on the Lake of Neuenburg, rent-free for the rest of his life.  Pestalozzi could carry on his educational institution there.


The following pages are based on documents by Adolf Haller and Arthur Brühlmeier, rewritten in German by Heinrich Rubi and transalated in English by Anne-Marie Widmer. The content was arranged and edited by Dr Joanna Nair with examples of Pestalozzi's Fables from 'Pestalozzi, His Life and Work' by Roger de Guimps.

These pages have been produced by Pestalozzi World Children's Trust to further the understanding of the Pestalozzi Legacy and are for non-commercial, educational purposes.

All photographs have been provided by Arthur Brühlmeier and the details and other excellent resources are available from his web site at

The Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi Society is an initiative of:

PestalozziWorld is a family of not-for-profit organizations serving and supporting children from some of the poorest regions in the world. This family is coordinated by PestalozziWorld UK and includes PestalozziWorld USA, PestalozziWorld Switzerland, PestalozziWorld Zambia, PestalozziWorld India and PestalozziWorld Nepal

PestalozziWorld Children's Trust, UK registered charity number 1172364 - Pestalozzi US Children's Charity Inc., US registered E.I. Number 04-3407363POCT Ireland Ltd, Irish registered charity number CHY17386 - Pestalozzi Overseas Children's Foundation, Swiss registered charity number CH-

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