"It could continue like this ...". What a young Waldorf teacher wishes for the future

By Laura Frey, March 2022

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

Motivated by the Basel school's concept of relationship studies and as a teacher of a class 8, I planned an anthropology and relationship studies main lesson together with a midwife which I carried out in 2019. I took an in-depth look at the sex education concept of our school and then made the topic the focus of my master's thesis.

In doing so, I explored the question of whether the concept commonly used in our school still adequately supports today's children and adolescents in their development fifteen years after it was devised. At the same time, a female pupil was admitted to my class who experienced herself as a boy. Supporting young pupils in the difficult process of finding their identity led to many questions and discussions with parents, friends, doctors, other professionals and with the class itself. In the conversations during the main lesson, I experienced the pupils' respect for all types of existence, living and relationships and their openness in dealing with the people concerned.

In the faculty, on the other hand, gender tended to be discussed rather guardedly. I was not really able to draw on their experience for a productive discussion. Some members were troubled by the idea that social gender can be chosen and changed. There were concerns about the dual choice of sexual orientation and gender identity. This could, they said, lead to confusion and uncertainty in the already fundamentally difficult process of a person finding their identity.

As I see it, such concerns can only exist until we are confronted with the concrete task of supporting a child who is actually affected by the issue. Inwardly and outwardly, negotiating sexual orientation or gender identity can be an incredibly difficult process. Despite openness and tolerance by the people around, it can be associated with enormous hurdles and crises, so that it makes little sense to speak of a free choice with regard to sexual orientation and gender identity. For this reason we have to do open and non-stigmatising awareness-raising work in the educational context. No one is suggesting that the idea of the nuclear family and heterosexuality be called into question or that children and young people be explicitly encouraged to experiment. However, every human being has the right to be carefully accompanied in the incarnation process, regardless of gender and the socialised understanding of gender that surrounds them. If we accept the individual developmental space, we take a burden from children as well as affected teachers and parents who do not live in a heterosexual family system or those who feel an incongruence in their gender identity. As a consequence, any potential embarrassment that may occur as a result of a feeling that deviates from the norm is replaced by the trust that everyone is allowed to articulate their feelings on an equal footing. Trust in turn promotes the ability to relate on all levels and supports the self-discovery of each individual in the physical world in their physical body.

As a Waldorf teacher, it is my task not to equate the sensibilities of the majority with normativity or naturalness and not to reinforce traditional role models. This is also how evolutionary biologist Meike Stoverock puts it: "The norm is not natural, deviation from it not unnatural [...]" (Stoverock 2021; 31).

For both girls and boys, the age of puberty begins earlier today than it did 100 years ago. The average age of first menstruation in Europe was still in the fifteenth year of life around 1900, dropped significantly by the middle of the twentieth century and has since stabilised between 12 and 13 years (Gohlke et al. 2009). Furthermore, we are confronted with children and young people today who have a changed relationship to physicality and intimacy. This can be seen, among other things, in the spread of personal representations such as selfies or audiovisual productions in social networks. Adolescents are confronted with sexualised bodies, distorted ideals of beauty, pornographic content and sexist language at a relatively early age. According to current research, such confrontation has a direct impact on the development and self-perception of adolescents and is difficult to prevent, despite well-intentioned attempts – for example through school-wide agreements on media use.

Steiner referred to sex education in 1919 in relation to twelve to fourteen-year-olds (Steiner 2019b; 596). He therefore placed sex education in the period between the end of the second and the beginning of the third seven-year-period in which a birth process begins on the soul level through the release of the astral body, something which physiologically expresses itself in puberty. According to his comprehensive understanding of maturity, young people during this time not only become "mature for sex", but also capable of making an impression on or gaining knowledge and coming to judgements about their surroundings and thus "mature for the earth" (Steiner 1969; 40). Steiner replaces the term sexual maturity with the more comprehensive one of "earthly maturity" (Steiner 1995; 18). He speaks in this context about an awakening consciousness for our own corporeality, indeed for the entire world. Here awareness of the other person or of gender was only a small part of the newly awakened consciousness. The awakening or working its way into the physical world of the astral body is – as in a natural birth – accompanied by pain and turbulence (Steiner 1993; 78). This manifests itself in impulsive behaviour, high risk-taking, mood swings, listlessness, self-doubt and grief extending to increasingly serious psychological problems in adolescence such as depression, aggression, anxiety or eating disorders, self-harming behaviour or suicidal thoughts (Herpertz-Dahlmann 2013).

If we accompany the pupils’ long process to maturity early, carefully and consistently and offer sex education not only as a one-time event in class 7 or 8, we can contribute to the adolescents first developing a healthy relationship to themselves and to their natural physicality in order to then be able to respond to the dialogue in other relationships.

In the run-up to the relationship studies main lesson in class 8, I did an anonymous survey. Here the girls' most frequent question was: "Does sex hurt?" One boy asked: "What do women like?" Certainly none of the boys want to hurt a girl and no girl wants sex to cause her pain. But if they aren’t familiar with themselves and don't learn to talk to each other about their body, desires and needs, the same questions will certainly still be asked 100 years from now ...

According to Rudolf Steiner's lectures in The Foundations of Human Experience, we are in contact with the spiritual world through our limbs and our sexual organs (Steiner 2019a; 334). Anyone who tries to understand this spiritual dimension of sexuality, procreation and incarnation will, Steiner says, find the right tone for talking about sexuality (Steiner 2018; 166 ff.). In a broader sense, I read from this the call to also design the teaching content in such a way that it repeatedly touches on the greater soul and spiritual space from which we come and that we should seek spiritual and soul images. This may be an additional challenge in the area of sexuality, which should not lead us to avoid the topic!

In my opinion, holistic sex education should also be approached pragmatically and with a certain levity and ease. In order to address the developmental stage of today's children, it seems to me unavoidable that we should use our educational imagination to help young people to understand their "physical precociousness" and the tangible processes of change associated with it. Concrete terminology should be introduced and should not wait until upper school. In this way we counteract unnecessary confusion, helplessness and disorientation and place the empathetic accompaniment of the developing human being at the centre of our work.

About the author: Laura Frey worked as a class teacher at the Basel Rudolf Steiner School. She took over a class 6 and accompanied them through middle school for four years. While working, she completed a master's degree in Waldorf education at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart – Seminar for Waldorf Pedagogy. During the intensive work with her class, she was directly confronted with various youth issues, including those of identity and sexual development. As part of her master's thesis, she examined her school's 15-year-old "Relationship Studies" sex education concept and conducted a sex education main lesson herself.

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