From Monte Azul to Erftstadt

By Christina Hermanns, November 2020

When I set foot in the Erftstadt Free Waldorf School about eight years ago, I did not yet know that my life would fundamentally change – after twelve years of secondary school without any contact with Waldorf education and at the beginning of training as a primary school teacher.

I started my orientation practice placement at a Waldorf school having learned about Rudolf Steiner’s holistic school concept as part of my advanced education course. The crucial part for me was the experience of a real encounter between teachers and pupils – joint learning based on openness, interest and mutual respect. For example, teachers in the arts and crafts who were able to inspire pupils to such an extent that they begged to be allowed into school at a weekend, or upper school pupils who with a broad smile told me about their practice-oriented main lessons. I broke off my studies and changed to the Institute of Waldorf Education in Witten/Annen to study Waldorf education, special needs education, handwork and visual arts there.

After an intensive five years, I was then drawn for a year to the Monte Azul favela in Brazil where I experienced Waldorf education in the practical way it applied to life. With the simplest means and in a small space I taught English there for the lower school. Back in Germany, I was very interested in the further development of Waldorf education and its practice in a way that was appropriate for our time. Happily I was able to take over the new class 1 in my first choice of school, the Erftstadt Free Waldorf School, and was thus given the opportunity as a class teacher to accompany thirty-four children in their school career from the beginning.

I saw myself as a development researcher and worker who was embarking on a joint path with the children and to the best of her abilities offered the support they needed. I had understood in the favela already that the strength of a single person is not enough for such an important task.

What I had not been aware of was that complex tasks are associated with the occupation of a class teacher which go far beyond the search for the best possible support for the development of each pupil. Thus I had to take care not just of the class community but also of the community of parents. To this end I organised a parents’ evening every one to two months to integrate the parents as team players in the educational process, inform them about the content and methodology of my teaching, and at the same time further the community among them in an artistic way. Thus we set up a small parents’ evening preparatory group consisting of four parents and myself; we met regularly before the parents’ evening to take up suggestions from among the parents and together prepare the subject matter.

We also developed the concept of a parents’ Saturday instead of a parents’ evening to which the pupils could also come. While several parents took turns in supervising the pupils, we discussed educational subjects in the class. Afterwards there was a small joint artistic action with the children. The morning together was concluded with a breakfast buffet. This led to everyone really getting to know one another and to valuable encounters.

Knitting with the cleaner

One challenge for me is the school as a social organism. The latter requires the engagement of each individual in order to become a living community in the sense of threefolding. Freedom in the intellectual and spiritual sphere, which enables diversity while at the same time demanding tolerance, equality in the sphere of rights, and fraternity in the economic life form the basis of our work as a faculty. Not a hierarchical system but joint doing, lived in the delegation principle, was something completely new for me.

I had already been able to experience a living example of this principle in Brazil. There workshops took place at the “Escola Oficina Social” which every member of staff could offer and which everyone could attend. Thus the cleaner could offer a knitting course, the janitor a workshop in calligraphy and a practice student a choir. This led to many encounters which significantly strengthened the community and led to better collaboration.

I presented this principle also to my new faculty in Germany and learned that there were already individual colleagues who offered such opportunities for encounter. Developing such a voluntary provision did, however, turn out to be difficult for, after all, it demands additional time of which we often seem to have too little as teachers at a Waldorf school. Nevertheless, I set up the “Supporting school together” working group with the idea of a weekly exchange of views together with a reciprocally appreciative perception of one another and joint artistic work. We are also working with the “subsidiary exercises” described by Rudolf Steiner for spiritual deepening and joint schooling, developing into a exercising working group from which substantial ideas for the education meeting have arisen.

Building on this, I decided this school year to lead the education meeting to create greater space for encounter. Joint artistic units, meetings while going on a walk, garden afternoons, but also more child reviews were planned. The faculty was happy to embark on the adventure.

The one with the barefoot class

I am also grateful for the opportunity to take part in further training. Thus I was able to fly to Moscow to participate in an international conference on emergency and trauma education. Through many conversations I obtained a new view of the refugees in our school and was better able to react to their special emotional needs. A special further training event was the young teachers’ conference in Göttingen which brought together young, motivated teachers. In dialogue with experienced experts, we worked on significant subject areas concerning teacher health – not insignificant for those joining the profession. Following the idea of a supra-regional faculty, we will continue to meet regularly.

Of course there are recurring moments in which the plethora of tasks appears like an insurmountable mountain to me. But the certainty that I have the support of the school community allows me to concentrate on my most important task: to educate my pupils with love, respect and reverence.

I also introduced some innovations at the class level. My class is known as the class that walks in bare feet: daily barefoot walks across the playground followed by a footbath have a harmonising and relaxing effect on the pupils which supports their concentration. Often I also sing in Brazilian and dance circle dances I became acquainted with in the favela. In this way I try and communicate something of this culture with its zest for life. Additional small fundraising activities for Brazil at bazaars mean that the pupils continue to feel themselves connected with the children there and are thus growing up with a different awareness.

I often have the feeling that we fail to appreciate the privilege of not having to fight for our existence here. We must not rest on our laurels but have to keep reconnecting with our educational ideals to find the strength for our work.

About the author: Christina Hermanns is the class teacher of a class 2 and additionally teaches handwork, visual arts and religion.

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