A plea for the class teacher model

By Christina Seidel, February 2014

The middle school concept is a controversial one. Based on an anthroposophical understanding of the human being, eight years as a class teacher or stopping with class 6 are equally plausible.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

When I sit in on classes, I notice time after time that children today – despite the great changes which have occurred in the environment in which they live – still react to the successful application of Waldorf methods in a similarly positive fashion as thirty years ago. The longer we study the way in which Rudolf Steiner understood the human being, the more we experience its coherence, the healing action it can have particularly with regard to the increasing damage caused by our culture. For some time now, a crucial concept of Waldorf education, namely the class teacher period of eight years, has been called into question. Why?

Can class teachers today no longer manage the disciplinary tasks? Are they less able to cope with the diverse range of subjects than previously? Are teachers overloaded with a significantly higher number of teaching hours? Is it an inability to deal with conflict which no longer sees crises as necessary developmental tasks and instead calls for so-called specialists for middle school?

At a time of school league tables, the popular “rankings” and anxiety about final exams even among lower school pupils, it is hardly surprising that attention has turned to the communication of knowledge rather than educating human beings. What, actually, is an educational system about which is so focused on the personality of the teacher?

One of the secrets of education in the second septennium is that the children actually educate themselves, and they do so by following what we do, as continuously developing teachers. Only what we make of ourselves has an educational effect, not what we know. “The important thing is the developing person, not a certain sum of knowledge. (...) Life itself is the great school of learning, and we only leave school in the right way if it gives us the ability to learn from life for the whole of our lives. But we cannot do that if we are stuffed full of knowledge in these years. We can only do that if school is used to develop these forces of thinking, feeling and the will in the soul of the human being,” is how Rudolf Steiner formulated his fundamental concerns in a lecture for the “Association of Younger Teachers” in Stuttgart on 19 June 1919 (GA 330). Steiner considered it important during the crucial period between the change of teeth and puberty, in which the soul life primarily develops, that the children should be entrusted to a person who as a “beloved authority” could give them an understanding of the world and all its phenomena in a pictorial way, through whom they could get to know the world.

For a new class teacher, looking ahead to the many subjects he or she will have to teach, this can of course feel somewhat daunting. But in the course of taking a class through the eight years we can experience how this constant preparation of new subjects has something tremendously inspiring and that this is the thing which ignites the spark which electrifies the pupils. I can well remember my own fear with regard to the subject of chemistry: yet it became the best main lesson in class 7 because the teacher learned the most. If we start again from the beginning after eight years, everything has to be discovered anew. But what happens if over many years the same teacher teaches the same main lessons every year or every two years, as is the case in the middle school concept? How inspiring can that continue to be? Can the so-called “experts” keep their imagination so lively with regard to the age they are teaching that they can always find a new aspect in the subject matter to be studied?

My greatest reservation about this school concept, however, is that it panders to the increasing trend in our society to start things earlier and earlier. Just as we are encouraged to start our children in school at an ever earlier age, and thus rob them of life forces, the umbilical cord is here cut abruptly and from outside, something which should actually be done by class teachers themselves in a transformative process. The crisis periods which occur in children mainly between the ages of nine and ten and at twelve need to be mastered, because crises are developmental stages which move us forward. The class teacher must change, put his or her authority on a new footing, take hold of his or her teaching in a new way; he or she should not leave the pupils at this time but should provide support and a protective cover. Because the physical and soul development of children is increasingly drifting apart; what is needed, precisely, is the cohesion provided by a person of trust.

About the author: Christina Seidel was a class teacher from 1983-2007. She has been working as a mentor and in teacher training since 2008.