The magic of the beginning

By Ellen Niemann, November 2020

Parents whose children are starting school this year needed a bit more imagination than usual in recent months when they attempted to picture schooling at a Waldorf school. The thought of the magic of the first day at school did not quite fit with schools covered in direction signs and floor markings. The enveloping atmosphere on entering a Waldorf school gave out a scent of disinfectant rather than wood and wool in recent weeks.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

The first information evening for parents before the summer holidays was not held in the nicely laid out classroom but in the gym, or it had to be split and so they could only get to meet half of the other parents. The college of teachers and the crisis team racked their brains as to how the start of school could still be made into a magical moment under the given circumstances and with all the restrictions of recent months. And we recalled the last few years in which the school community was able to celebrate the start of school for the new pupils and what made this event so special: the radiance in the faces of the children and parents, the walk through the flower arch, being given a sunflower, the stories and musical accompaniment forming the backdrop to the happy anticipation and creating light and joy like a cushion on which all worries and concerns can come to rest. A real treasure which we are allowed once again to raise at the start of the new school year. 

Which is the right school?

Choosing the right school is a milestone of the heart for the whole family. The last year in kindergarten is mostly already filled with looking ahead to school. Schools are visited, a “sense” of them is obtained at festivals and they are evaluated. Families go to several intake interviews at once in the hope of ultimately finding a place in the school they want.

They travel from information event to information event to obtain a picture as to which school probably best meets the requirements of their child. Parents learn how main lessons are structured, why what materials are worked with, how letters and numbers are introduced and why movement and artistic activity are so important for human development. More advanced events then explain the curriculum in middle and upper school, work experience, class trips and final qualifications.

A wealth of impressions gradually creates an outer and inner picture of what school should and possibly will be for the child and family. In almost all admission interviews the top wish of the parents is that the child should feel comfortable and like going to school. They should be seen and supported in their individual abilities. The parents declare their intent to support the school community and hope for good collaboration in the best interest of their child. They have already attended the monthly gatherings and festivals of the school and are taken by the presentations from the pupils and the harmonious atmosphere. Indeed, many parents expect nothing other than an uninterruptedly happy progression through school with a direct path to the university entrance exams. These aspirations are, of course, understandable. Who doesn’t want their child to be happy at school, particularly if this is topped off with all-round successful personality development and outstanding imparting of knowledge?

Many Waldorf schools indeed describe such or a similar picture in their guiding principles and the parents are only too willing to embark with their child on the path which is described there: the child at the centre, unfolding their individuality through a balance of cognitive and arts and crafts lessons, experiencing nature, appreciation and reliability in joint activity.

School – a task for all

Now the guiding principles are not a description of a state as is but of a goal towards which everyone wants to work together. An ideal has to be carried by the will of all those involved in order to take effect, otherwise it turns into an aspirational burden under the weight of which all the magic has disappeared.

That such work on the ideal is a task both for teachers and parents becomes clear as soon as the everyday life of school begins. Often it is already the first day of school which reveals that a lovely time at school doesn’t just happen but is a task for everyone involved. Saying goodbye to the child at the classroom door, for example: here letting go becomes a task for the parents which suddenly takes on a different hue from what it was in kindergarten. The building is of a different dimension, there are many more people than just the nursery teacher. The class 1 pupils have to find their bearings in a large, age-homogeneous group in which they are no longer the only “royal children” but have to redefine their place in the social fabric. “Letting go” becomes a whole new exercise for the parents, as it does for the children. It becomes their first test to show their children that they not only have trust in the school and the people who are there but also in their child to be able to manage this new situation. A task the success of which lies not just with the parents but which should be accompanied by the whole school community.

Keeping reconnecting to the spell, the magic and thus also the ideals is a gift and mission at the same time. We encounter many things in the everyday life of the school which casts a veil over the magic. When parents’ evenings no longer discuss anything other than class funds, organisational questions and homework arrangements, the parents rarely go home enchanted. But if they can learn through the teacher how the children experience watercolours, what transformation there is in a class through a fairy tale or a eurythmy exercise, when in their hearts they see their child in the way the teacher talks about them, then the magic is there and the good feeling of doing the right thing.

In order to preserve this magic during the child’s schooling, the parents have to connect with everything that happens in connection with their child in school. It requires interest in and warm-heartedness towards the education and an open attitude towards its implementation. That does not mean eschewing all criticism, on the contrary. If everyone remains in good and ongoing communication – and this applies equally to parents and teachers – then critical questions can also be embedded in the relationship such that they lead to something constructive which ultimately benefits the child.

This requires a respectful culture of discussion and debate which can be practiced in the appropriately set up structures of the school. Agreement can be reached about the form in which communication will take place, for example with the help of email netiquette; the constellation in which discussions take place; what the tasks of the parent representatives are; how confidential matters are handled; and the subjects about which there should be a regular exchange of views.

Waldorf as the last hope

Creating spaces for experience, enabling time for commitment and deepening are some of the tasks which Waldorf communities face up to. That there is a longing for these things is shown not just in the admission interviews with the parents of the children starting school. Often there is the hope that the search for the right school ends with the admission to a Waldorf school also for lateral entrants, that the child finally finds a school home where they can be happy when they can no longer cope with the performance pressure of mainstream schools or feel ignored and misunderstood there. The Waldorf school is then seen as a last hope by many parents, able to provide a return to peace and contentment for the child and thus the whole family. Often it does indeed work out that way and parents and pupils feel they can breathe again with a feeling of having arrived.

Sometimes, on the other hand, the expectations of what is possible are greater than can be fulfilled by a school community and the magic of the beginning gives way to disillusionment. This challenge can be met either with courage and heart-felt strength or resignation sets in.

The joint will counts

The time in Waldorf school comprises a period of life in which, as happens in life, all facets of joint doing can have their particular space. From our personal experience of our own time at school we adults have developed our ideas about an ideal school. Entering a community with our own ideas and learning from others is a task which pupils and adults equally face up to and which we solve sometimes better and sometimes not so well. What should unite us is the will to let this section on the route of our life follow a jointly shaped ideal and thus to make the time in school something incomparably precious not just for our children but also for us parents.

It is an impressive event when at the end pupils and parents look back on their time at the Waldorf school and experience once more what surrounded and shaped them: when we hear once more the verse the teacher found for each child in class 1, look at the old main lesson books, think back on the class plays the class community is surrounded once more by this magic power which often still shows itself many years later in contacts that have been maintained or in friendships.

And thus the magic of the beginning which Hermann Hesse refers to can indeed become something which protects us and helps us to live.

About the author: 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.

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