The teachers’ meeting as spiritual training field

By Hartwig Schiller, June 2012

If we describe the individualisation of the human being as one of the central aims of Waldorf education, we can hardly go wrong. Because as Rudolf Steiner sketched out in the “sociological basic law” formulated by him as long ago as 1898: “In early cultural conditions, humanity strives to create social groupings in which the interests of the individual are sacrificed for the interests of the whole; subsequent development leads to the liberation of the individual from the interests of the group and to the free development of the needs and forces of the individual.”

This brief quote (GA 31) spans a huge cultural and developmental history. Against its background a contemporary twentieth century education could no longer have nationalistic, class-specific or dogmatically ideological intentions. Consequently Steiner developed an education system between 1906 and 1925 in which the aim is to support every child in accordance with his or her innate skills and abilities irrespective of origin and social status. The consequence of such an impulse is to awaken the specific forces of initiative in each individual child. This is an education for the I which takes the I as its starting point.

Such an approach appears possible through educators and teachers whose “I” has developed in a healthy way. That raises the question what is meant by “I”, because by its nature this cannot be about the promotion of egomaniacal self-centredness. After all, educators are service providers for the development of the child and not autocratic seekers of self-fulfilment.

The three dimensions of the self

In his curative education course, Rudolf Steiner says that to be qualified as a teacher means exercising a motivating force which acts on abilities in the pupil which have not yet developed. The results of the development of the older generation become the soil in which the younger generation can grow. In the Waldorf school all these things become humanly concrete, in other words, they become applied knowledge of the human being.

On that basis, the motivating effect on the still developing I of the pupil should be precisely determined. Where does the motivation which supports such development come from? It comes from the ability of teachers to know themselves and determine their actions, called “spirit-self”, which is able to develop the self with its ingrained habits and routines, its one-sided inclinations, prejudices and emotions. “Spirit-self” enables an attitude towards the world and the encounter with other human beings in which the I is sovereign. Goetheanism is a reliable teacher in that respect. “Watching one’s every step, making sure to avoid any hasty actions, always keeping one’s purpose in mind without, however, allowing any useful or harmful circumstance to pass unnoticed, being the strictest observer of oneself and always being mistrustful of oneself in one’s most earnest endeavours,” that is how Goethe describes the conditions under which we should strive for knowledge in his essay “The experiment as mediator between subject and object”. “The measuring stick of like or dislike, attraction or rejection, benefit or harm” must play no role in this. “As dispassionate godlike beings” we should investigate “what exists and not what we would like exist.”

Steiner describes the specific aspects relating to the training of the spirit-self in Waldorf teachers at the first meeting of the college of teachers at the start of their training in the “study of the human being”. In that context he expressly also thinks of the governance of the future school. One should be aware of the ideals in such an educational project, flexibly cope with internal and external resistance, develop initiative and cultivate a non-hierarchical collaboration with one’s colleagues.

The “spirit-self”, which goes beyond one’s ordinary self, is revealed in spiritual initiative (ideals), resolution (flexibility), responsibility and collaboration (collegial school governance). Separation and being oneself are the prerequisites for independence but do not yet represent its realisation. That requires more, for example the ability to respond to other people, to enter into dialogue with others. This ability reveals a higher type of I which arises in the connection between the I and the surrounding world and which is part of the concept of the “life-spirit”.

A third level comprises the sovereign inclusion of the surrounding world in one’s own endeavours and actions. Doing one’s work with the inclusion of the interests, feelings and intentions of other people broadens the horizon of the actor to include the context in which he or she is working. He or she then does not just develop an awareness of self but also an awareness of the world. His or her centre lies within himself or herself and the surroundings at the same time. The realisation of this quality belongs to the “spirit-body”, the third level of the higher I.

The dimensions of the community

These thoughts lead to the image that one cannot be a Waldorf teacher alone. On the contrary, part of the idea of the Waldorf school is that it arises from collaboration. That includes the totality of parents, teachers and pupils as much as the way the teacher directly relates to classes and his or her specific work together with the college of teachers inside and outside meetings. School administration is therefore not an irritating add-on but a constituting element of the educational aims of a Waldorf school. The teachers’ meeting represents the basic instrument of a school’s self-governance. The aim of self-governance is not to save on administrative staff, on the contrary, it is the indispensable prerequisite for the development of the competence of the I, in other words, educational effectiveness.

Self-governance is a term which can have several meanings including both one’s own work and an activity relating to oneself. It can mean: I manage something myself, I am active. But also: I manage myself, I act in a sovereign way. The latter is an indispensable prerequisite for the individualisation of education because such sovereign “acting out of oneself” relates to the competence and credibility of teachers with regard to their pupils.

The work in the teachers’ meeting offers plenty of practice for acquiring such competence. In ever new ways it confronts a person with the thinking, feeling and intentions of equal adults and raises questions about their thinking, attitudes and intentions. With regard to ideas, that can give rise to conflict and misunderstandings, in the emotional field it can produce discontent, and when we look at intentions it can cause irritation. It frequently happens that this is followed by psychological games in conflicts with the other party which tend to hinder rather than promote the intended meeting between the I of the one and the other person.

But if the effort is made to achieve collaboration starting from the I and directed at the I, the contributions of colleagues can also be received with spiritual interest. Then “what” a fellow teacher says, its factual importance or the brilliance of his or her rhetoric or compelling logic is not quite so important. Spiritual interest can enquire as to what lies behind the thinking of the other person. That must be distinguished from the psychological game-play which is common today. We are not looking for what the other seeks to achieve as his or her secret agenda, but what is at work within him or her, what is trying to emerge but which he or she can never quite put into words. That may also include intentions. But that is not just about purpose but about essential impulses which are connected with his or her innermost being which he or she wishes to reveal. At an emotional level one can practice something similar by trying to look into the feelings of the other person. Experiencing the emotional world of the other in a calm way means showing an unprejudiced interest in him or her, absorbing their emotional processes as emotional atmosphere. Looking at the other person in such a way is necessary in order to make an encounter at the soul level possible in the first place. We allow any emotions quietly to fade away. The human qualities of the other person resonate and come alive.

It is in the sphere of the will that different directions most frequently and violently clash. Here, too, psychological game-play mostly plays a disastrous role. It assumes intentions, constructs constitutional constraints in the personality of the other and makes it much more difficult to gain access to the other person rather than easing such a process. On the basis of a spiritual interest in one’s fellow teacher one can ask what lies beyond his or her intentions. What are his or her higher intentions? What is the hidden meaning of his or her endeavours? Sometimes someone else can better express the concerns of a colleague than they themselves.

This exercise looks at the intent behind the thought, seeks to experience what the other is feeling and practices seeing what lies beyond his intent.

Work in the teachers’ meeting enables knowledge of the human being and the self as the prerequisite for social competence which can turn into educational skill.

About the author: Hartwig Schiller, former class teacher at the Hamburg Wandsbek Rudolf Steiner School, then lecturer at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart, former board member of the German Federation of Waldorf Schools and since 2007 General Secretary of the Anthroposophical Society in Germany.