Class teachers and their authority. A basic principle of Waldorf education proves its worth

By Peter Loebell, February 2014

Authority is deemed to be vital in education. This view is held not just by Waldorf teachers. But “authority” does not refer to a specific status which teachers have by virtue of their office but to the ability to engage in interpersonal relationships.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

A teacher who does not possess authority cannot meaningfully do his or her job, says the education researcher Hans Werner Heymann. Because “the person who is an authority for others is granted respect, is esteemed and taken seriously and on that basis is … accorded the right of guidance, leadership and decision-making which is also binding on others.” In the view of the German teacher Silke Riedl, the personality of a teacher is accepted by adolescents on the basis of the following characteristics:

  • He or she is seen as a role model in the search for orientation.
  • He or she communicates clear structures, clear rules and clear work instructions without these having to be debated at great length.
  • He or she supports pupils and takes them seriously.
  • He or she deals with the young people in an authentic manner without offending them personally.
  • He or she can also respond to questions which diverge from the actual subject matter of the lesson.
  • He or she is interested in the pupils.

The personality of the teacher has a direct effect on the self-belief of pupils and, among other things, is of central importance with regard where they believe their so-called locus of control lies. That is to say, the occurrence of events is seen as being dependent on their own behaviour. People who believe that they have an “internal locus of control” assume that they themselves influence the results of their actions and learning successes; and that is of great importance with regard to their own efforts to learn. Marcus Hasselborn from the German Institute for International Educational Research and the Frankfurt psychology professor Andreas Gold cite a longitudinal study of 1,600 children in grades 3 to 7: “Children who described their teachers as warm-hearted, reliable and predictable in their behaviour developed a particularly positive pattern of belief in their locus of control. This positive belief in their locus of control was associated with active involvement in lessons and better school performance.” The influence of the teacher’s personality on the learning success of pupils is also shown by a statistical analysis of more than 800 English-language meta-analyses carried out by the New Zealand education researcher John Hattie. The sequence of 138 different influencing factors shows “that active and guided instruction is much more effective than unguided, facilitative instruction”. In comparison, subject matter knowledge and teacher training were only of minor importance for learning success. Hattie ascribes a much more positive effect to practical teaching approaches and their review (“micro-teaching”).

Furthermore, the quality of the teacher-pupil relationship, teacher clarity, refraining from labelling learners, as well as professional development are of paramount importance for the learning processes. “Teachers are among the most powerful influences on learning.” In that they have to be “directive, influential, caring, and actively and passionately engaged in the process of teaching and learning,” Hattie says. 

Hattie’s huge analysis is supported by brain research. The neurobiologist Joachim Bauer notes in his book on mirror neurons that “the interpersonal relationship between student and teacher is of paramount importance” and that “personal instruction, including showing and demonstrating by the teacher, is a crucial component of teaching and learning”. His colleague Gerald Hüther has studied the conditions which promote resilience in children; that is, the emotional resilience, elasticity and toughness which allows a person to cope with serious stresses in life without being made ill by them. Accordingly, school must create an atmosphere of challenge, protection and trust: “Only with the empathetic protection and competent guidance of adult ‘role models’ can children also use various developmental options creatively and in so doing identify and develop further their own abilities and potential. This is the only way in which an own, inner picture of self-efficacy can be stabilised in the frontal lobe of the brain and self-motivation used in all subsequent learning processes.”

But none of the scientific findings are able to say anything about how long it takes to establish a credible relationship of authority and at which point of child development it must be replaced by something else.

Basis of the class teacher’s authority

A significant distinguishing feature of Waldorf schools is that the class teacher accompanies the pupils educationally through the first eight grades and teaches many different subjects in the morning main lesson. The authority of the teacher is not primarily determined by expert knowledge. On the contrary, it is based to begin with on an advance of trust from the children and their parents which must continue to be shown to be justified throughout the period of schooling. This advance of trust is kept alive by teachers engaging in continuous professional development and by the experiences which the pupils as well as their parents have in their interaction with the teaching staff.

  • Alongside the self-evident need to keep to agreements and announcements, teachers should remain flexible enough to be able to react on the spur of the moment to unforeseen events.
  • Children need to feel that they are understood by their adult caregivers. Individual demands and praise should always be encouraging and present a challenge for further effort.
  • Trust in and guidance by the teacher is consolidated through the recurrent experience that the work demanded and the proposed method for a solution lead to success.

But an important educational goal also consists of young people breaking away from authority during puberty and developing their own capacity to make judgements. Here it is important that this authority relationship is brought to an end in circumstances which do not create additional stress through a particularly serious developmental crisis. The questions which arise as a result are answered by Rudolf Steiner in a lecture given in Torquay in 1924. Here he characterises the authority principle as definitive for the whole of the second septennium: “Nothing is more useful and productive in teaching than if you present something to the child at the age of seven or eight in images and can subsequently, perhaps at age thirteen or fourteen, draw on it in some form. For that reason in particular we endeavour in the Waldorf school to keep the children with one teacher for as long as possible.

The children, when they start going to school at age seven, are assigned a teacher. The teacher then progresses with the classes as far as happens to be possible. This is a good thing because it means that the things which are prepared in the child embryonically can serve as an ongoing educational resource.”

The “class teacher principle” can withstand the challenges of the twenty-first century

At the start of the twenty-first century, modern societies are shaped by a range of developments which Werner Helsper, professor at the Institute for School Education and Primary School Didactics in Halle, describes as “antinomies” (paradoxes). He sees the four main areas of tension as “individualisation”, “rationalisation”, pluralisation” and “civilisation”. In his view the Waldorf school with its class teacher principle responds in a specific way to these paradoxes:  the Waldorf school counters the tendency for individualisation through the class teacher who as a role model and authority restricts the freedom of the pupils and relieves them of the burden of “enforced autonomy”. The Waldorf school responded to the increasing rationalisation of everyday life by slowing learning down and relieving it of performance and placement pressures. It did so by forming a community in which reliability and security in personal educational relationships played a major role. Waldorf schools furthermore took the pressure off young people and avoided their disorientation by means of educational role models and by the teacher taking educational responsibility in place of the pupils (this with regard to the subject of pluralisation). And on the keyword civilisation Helsper writes that children can develop an emotionally stable self if they are granted close and reliable educational attachments.

A qualitative study of the class teacher principle using three selected individual cases did not lead to any clear recommendation for or against the eight-year duration of the class teacher period. The researchers did, however, note that the relationships of the pupils with the class teachers up to the end of class 8 took a less critical course when the teachers succeeded in dynamising and modifying the authority concept reflexively in accordance with the individual development of the pupils and their search for the transition to independence arising therefrom.

Class teacher – for how long?

The total period of eight years cannot always be accompanied by a single teacher. There are many reasons – pregnancy, illness, change of school, change of profession – which can lead to a change of class teacher. But the great demands on the educational and subject skills of class teachers – particularly in grades 7 and 8 – have led to a debate about the appropriate duration of the class teacher period. In an empirical study on educational experiences in Waldorf schools, 69 percent of 827 upper school pupils from ten German Waldorf schools said they had gone through an eight-year period with a single class teacher. In 26 percent there was a change of teacher and in less than two percent the school reduced the period with a class teacher. Looking back, the overwhelming majority of pupils in the survey (more than 65 percent) expressed a positive opinion about the period with a class teacher. In review, eighty percent of pupils in the survey often found lessons “interesting” and 79 percent said their class teacher had striven to ensure that each pupil made progress in their learning. Negative views appear to be connected most frequently with the development of problems in the relationship between class teachers and individual pupils. Those who had eight years of teaching with a single class teacher were apparently less dependent on extra tutoring (43 percent) than pupils who had gone through a reduced class teacher period (51 percent). It does not therefore follow from the fact that many Waldorf pupils make use of extra tutoring in upper school that the teaching of class teachers is particularly deficient.

Yet there are also qualifications with regard to the evaluation of class teacher activity in middle school, because

  • almost 60 percent of pupils surveyed would have liked more lessons by upper school teachers in class 8;
  • more than half did not retrospectively find it good that they had so many subjects taught by one teacher.

These figures show that the needs of young people change significantly in grades seven and eight. The appropriate further development of methodology and didactics in all subjects represents a challenge for teachers which has in recent times become more acute as a result of social changes. If there is to be profound change in the relationship between educators and pupils, the class teachers of grades seven and eight in particular are called upon to display extraordinary adaptability and self-mastery.

About the author: Prof. Dr. Peter Loebell is a lecturer at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart.

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