“It’s normal to be different ...”

By Silke Engesser, January 2014

The common path through school of children with and without disabilities started in 1995 with the establishment of the Emmendingen Integrative Waldorf School. At the time, the initiative counteracted enormous resistance from the authorities through an immense input of effort and parent energy. This comprehensive – also political – commitment has supported the school ever since. Not least in the legal dispute with the state of Baden-Württemberg, which caused a stir throughout Germany and which finally in 2009 led to the conclusive recognition of the school as the first integrative school in Baden Württemberg.

Picture: © Charlotte Fischer

The lower school corridor in the old manor house rapidly fills up. The foyer is a hive of activity, some parents still quickly tell each other or the teachers something. Things are more quiet, cool, in the middle school corridor. Parents are rarely seen here by this time. Silence reigns in the upper school corridor this morning. Exams are in progress today – German. Concentrated quietness. An impression which is likely to be the same in many schools during the exam period. And yet something is different at the Emmendingen school. 

Four young volunteers on a voluntary social year who are helping in the lower school classes make their way to receive the pupils arriving on the “extra” school buses. The children and adolescents come to their school from all over the place, some of them from quite some distance away.

About 290 pupils attend the IWS, including 47 with disabilities. A class has 24 pupils on average. The various levels of the school leaving exams can be obtained, some of them in collaboration with the Freiburg Waldorf schools. As a rule, the pupils with disabilities have not (so far) sat any of these exams. In their case it is a matter of preparing them for as independent a life as possible once they leave school. That also includes introducing them to possible workplaces in the last two years of upper school.

Lessons bringing together various classes and groups in the later years of school benefit the different needs of the pupils (above all pupils with disabilities) and are intended to create peer groups and friendships which might not otherwise arise within a single class.

Positive challenges

The concerns of inclusion are complex and not immediately revealed in all their ramifications. At the present time the way the teachers deal with this as a group takes the form of carefully feeling their way forward and searching for the next steps – for answers to their own questions. The overwhelmingly positive experiences of the previous years give grounds for optimism that teaching the pupils together in this way really is where the future lies. Inclusion stands for “individualisation” and a high degree of “flexibility” – particularly the latter is a great challenged in a thoroughly structured school day. But there must be room for manoeuvre in terms of time, space and human interaction. The (everyday) obstacles are enormous, the expectations huge. Yet the moments in which togetherness and community arise can be so fruitful and illuminating that they compensate for doubt and mobilise strength.

Modern Waldorf education, particularly its understanding of the human being, offers a fruitful and comprehensive foundation for the idea of inclusion. Carrying on the research, gathering experience, empirical and academic findings and sometimes also the courage to make mistakes are all included on the wish list of the college of teachers.

Pros and cons

Since its foundation, the Emmendingen Waldorf School has placed its trust in team work (also called team teaching or the two-teacher principle). A class teacher and a special-needs teacher form a team which takes its class through the first eight years. Their skills are available to the pupils at all times.

In upper school, this class team is replaced by a guardian team. Here the collaboration in the main lessons given by various specialist teachers is not quite so close. In its ideal form, team work represents a positive and desirable form of guidance and teaching for a class. It has a definite effect on the college of teachers, the class, the work with parents and reciprocal trust.

Experience has shown that binding written agreements between the team partners, including the specialist teacher team, are necessary. Supervision (by external specialists) is of equal importance for the success of the team work – in addition to the team’s weekly preparatory and review meetings.

Waldorf teachers, and frequently also special needs teachers, do not generally have training or experience in this kind of team work. And not everyone is prepared to take on the additional time required, keep to agreements or support commitments.

Why do parents decide in favour of the Emmendingen Waldorf School?

The majority of parents are looking for Waldorf education, a smaller section for an alternative to state education. Most of the parents of children with a disability are seeking a school which does not set them apart; often enough they have already had to endure a great deal of difficulty and are looking for understanding and an open door for their concerns.

As happens so frequently, some of their expectations are fulfilled, others not. An inclusion group consisting of parents and teachers is working on the themes of transparency and communication because experience has shown that these are the most difficult points.

About the author: Silke Engesser is a handwork teacher and public relations officer at the Emmendingen IWS and a member of the inclusion working group.