Engaging the heart. The future of parent involvement

By Ellen Niemann, November 2019

When there is a failure of communication between parents and teachers on social and educational questions, this gives rise to misunderstanding, distrust and lack of transparency and thus the breeding ground of conflict.

At the 86th German Parent Council conference in Bexbach, which took place at the end of March, twenty parents from various Waldorf schools in Germany came together in the “Future of parent involvement” workshop to discuss this subject. It was mainly of interest to parents who are active on boards and in other bodies. Their common question was about best practice examples from structural work and in conflict resolution.

After a hundred years, it seems that Waldorf schools still find it difficult to structure themselves internally in such a way that a living exchange of views can come about which enriches the life of the school rather than inhibiting it. Furthermore, very little basic work seems to be taking place which would make it easier for parents and teachers to support the school together. When there is a failure of communication between parents and teachers on the social and educational questions, this gives rise to misunderstanding, distrust, lack of transparency and thus the breeding ground of conflict.

In Berlin, an officer from the state’s supervisory authority for schools recently called on the independent  schools to involve parents to a greater extent in structural matters and content. Schools of a specific educational character in particular should include parents in the school processes at all levels. Helpless parents increasingly turned to the authorities because they could not find their way around their own school or were uncertain what they could or could not do as parents.

It might be assumed that this is not something that happens at Waldorf schools, given their goal of being institutions with autonomous responsibility, but that would be a wrong assumption. Something that is taken for granted in state schools scrapes by in Waldorf schools between being unknown and being unwanted. When the parent council of a Waldorf school feels it necessary to study the education act in order to find out what they can demand of their college of teachers, it is high time to consider whether the collaborative path the school has gone down is the right one, rather than informing parents that the education act does not apply to independent schools in this or that instance.

“Shaping the future with courage” was the topic of the German Parent Council meeting in Bexbach. In facing this task, Waldorf parents proceed less courageously than the Waldorf pupils at their conferences. For Waldorf parents, shaping the future in the first instance means understanding the present. The dimension of the challenges today is revealed particularly in the questions relating to teacher training (too few Waldorf teachers) and finance (rising pupil rates). It is astonishing how badly Waldorf parents are informed about finance and education questions. 

We might draw the conclusion from this that these topics are not of any great interest to most parents of the schools or that parent engagement is so low anyway that information about such subject fields tends to deter rather than lead to greater engagement. If we look at the situation locally at the schools and hear the complaints from parent representatives about too little support and help from other parents, that may appear to be true. 

But these questions deserve a broader view. The Waldorf school movement has taken on a different dimension from what it was in the first years after its foundation. When their children start school, parents encounter a load of expectations to become involved in all possible areas and contribute to the self-governance of the school other than just financially. Parent representatives are elected on the first parents’ evening, a dozen school bodies want contributors, involvement in and help at the monthly celebrations are obligatory and frequently also contributing a certain number of hours of work. Mostly both parents work, many are single parents – the pressure is enormous. But what it means to be a Waldorf school, how it positions itself in society and opposes the one-size-fits-all appraisal of pupil performance is only mentioned in passing in many schools.

When parents and their children approach a Waldorf school, they often come with no more than a positive feeling about the school and its system of education. This basically represents a warm invitation to the school to follow up this feeling and familiarise the parents with the system of education, to explain to them the path which will allow their child to develop their potential and individuality such that the parents can feel it with their heart; and beyond that perhaps then to broaden the perspective beyond the child’s own class to include social policy. By this means the parents can be engaged in a way that acts from within and is much more productive than a mere sense of obligation.

But the opposite mostly occurs: we are flooded with excessive demands and too much information which is not relevant to our feeling life, ensuring that we go into an emergency routine and look for hierarchies that tell us how something should be done where and when, breaking the connection with our inner concerns and developmental needs.

If the Waldorf schools in future want to make themselves stand out in the educational landscape with strong self-assurance, this cannot be done without the parents. But to this end it is not just our brain and organisational talent which has to be activated but also our hearts. I come across real interest from parents in all my work contexts when those things are addressed which move the heart. That is no different with the teachers and children. It is a future task for all our school communities.

Ellen Niemann has been a member of the Berlin-Brandenburg Parent Council since 2007 and of the German Parent Conference since 2013. She works in the German Conference and the European Network of Steiner Waldorf Parents.