Together we are strong. On the partnership of parents and teachers in the Waldorf school

By Karl-Martin Dietz, June 2012

Teachers and parents who set themselves the task of supporting children in their development must work together intensively. This is not about behavioural norms or patterns of action but independent spiritual intentions and their daily realisation.

After all, Waldorf schools are not about the implementation of a prefabricated educational model nor about any systems theory or catalogue of measures. Neither is it like a ready-made pizza which we take from the freezer and bake in the heat of what happens in the classroom in a more or less tasty way. Continuous communication about the objectives (intentions) is therefore a primary task in the educational partnership between parents and teachers. Because otherwise the independence of the individual cannot develop into communality. And if we want to educate children to become responsible adults we must act as such ourselves. We cannot hide behind “regrettable constraints”, alleged instructions or group decisions. High-quality education therefore demands relationship skills – a new task since the first Waldorf school was founded in 1919. Its innovative solution is not based on the collective telling individuals what to do but on the cooperation between individuals; not on rights and duties but on spiritual productivity and free receptivity. This work and social principle was applied by Steiner for the first time within the context of the “free cultural life”; it has, however, been little observed even to the present day.

Productivity and receptivity  

If no one makes any productive contributions, the spiritual life as such succumbs. It is not always noticed immediately if the inner substance has gone when regulations, rules or traditions still keep the enterprise going. Stimulating and supporting spiritual productivity is therefore one of the main characteristics of work in the spiritual and intellectual life. But how can the productivity of the individual create a whole? Even the best idea remains without effect in society if no one picks it up. But if the contributions of others are met with interest, if further questions are asked, ideas developed further and thus new productivity is created, then collaboration develops on the basis of active interest. If my contributions are not welcome, they will soon cease. But if others are waiting for them, then my productivity grows. Interest is just as much a free act as productivity. No one can force someone else to produce an idea. But neither can anyone demand that someone else take up an idea. That is why the practical fostering of free interest down as far as the decision-making is a vital element in a Waldorf school. In contrast, statutes and structures which are otherwise normally used to regulate the interaction between people remain subordinate. They are seen by Steiner as a necessary evil with regard to the outside world but actually “as a curse for every kind of societal action which must be based on a living coexistence”. Because anything that is fixed in advance is an obstacle to productivity just as much as to interest. It creates remoteness from life. It is not the way to create a viable community.

Dialogue as a social art

The way in which productivity and interest can work in a social context is by means of what has been described as a culture of dialogue. It combines the various aspects of collaboration:

1. Seeing the other person as an individual: a living interest in the other person instead of seeing them as their function or instrumentalising them;

2. Transparency with regard to the given situation and its complexity: independence of the individual in the context of the whole instead of using knowledge as power or of chaos;

3. Consulting and developing ideas with regard to the future: originality instead of tradition or structural rules;

4. Determination with regard to action: responsible action out of oneself (initiative) instead of the mentality of self-realisation or giving or taking orders. The individual element is increasingly penetrating the communal element while at the same time developing in that context. With hindsight, that can create the impression of structures in the same way that a river forms its bed as it flows and on the other hand is influenced in its course by the bed. “Dialogue” in that context means bringing into flow what has been fixed by tradition. If that happens, meetings and assemblies become spaces where encounter can take place, workshops to build the future and the location of communal action. That also governs the collaboration between teachers and parents. Everything is based on the individual and not on apparent group membership (“the” parents, “the” teachers).

Numerous suggestions by Rudolf Steiner on the partnership between teachers and parents are worthy of note in this respect. Here a summary of the most important perspectives.

Steiner’s suggestions on the partnership between teachers and parents

Teachers need the involvement of parents. A living partnership between teachers and parents was therefore seen by Rudolf Steiner as the basic condition for a school to prosper. In detail, this was about understanding, communication, reciprocity, the meeting of souls. Structural questions did not play any role.

Understanding: the work of the school depends on an understanding community of parents. We need “this school to be surrounded by the understanding of the parents like the walls of a fortress”. Because “we cannot do our work without such understanding”. Such understanding creates “firepower” – not in the sense of a political defence or economic support but in the sense of insight into the way that Waldorf education is connected with “the most important cultural demands of our time”. Steiner wanted intellectually independent parents and rejected any kind of “belief in authority”. “That is of no value to us. The only thing of value is what comes to meet us as understanding, down into the details, with regard to our intentions.”

Communication: “I would like to initiate the greatest possible communication between those who are involved in managing the Waldorf school and who work there and the parents of our school.” Communication is “a basic element for everything that we see as our task in our school”. If the Waldorf school really is to be a free school, “we are dependent on the help of the parents to an exceptionally great extent”.

Reciprocity: in addition, active “collaboration” and “cooperation” is endeavoured. Reciprocity is also what underlies the parents’ evenings. “As teachers we hear what the parents think about the education of their children and the parents hear – and we always speak with great honesty and openness – what is happening in the school and how the education and the future of the children is seen.” “And the echo which comes back to the teachers from these parents evenings gives life ... to what the teachers ... need to remain inwardly active themselves.”

Meeting of souls: this is not simply about behaviour towards other people in the sense of social intelligence but a soul and spiritual harmony. It is from the latter that the actual strength of the school arises. Education is not possible without “the full trust of the parents”. The collaboration with the parents therefore has to consist “of a common feeling, a common sentiment and a common way of thinking ... with the families of the children” in the encounter between one person and the other. “Waldorf school teachers should not disdain to reveal themselves as they are to the parents of the child. Sometimes you can do that in five minutes so that the parents know with whom they are dealing.” That requires great reciprocal openness. “Intentions, methods, facilities at the school” should be discussed with the parents at parents’ evenings and their wishes should be listened to. That creates a community based on interest, trust, harmony. The quality of the encounter replaces formality.

A great deal of developmental potential is contained in these suggestions from Steiner even today. We take our lead from the intentions of the people involved instead of placing our faith in a (mostly illusionary, in any case) consensus of opinions.

The aspects of the partnership between parents and teachers highlighted by Steiner are exclusively concerned with education. Anyone claiming parents should not bother about what happens educationally in the school would have to justify that in detail. In any event, Steiner expressly highlighted precisely the opposite. Both the exercise of power and interference are alien to this kind of collaboration but it is based on the committed interest of all those involved. That this can be laid down neither systematically nor by way of statutes is obvious. Committed interest also forms the basis for the desirable enthusiasm, which is often complained about as being absent, in such collaboration.

All the other things which are part of the educational partnership lie in the field of the concrete division of labour and cannot therefore be meaningfully discussed without looking at the individual situation of each school. There are, in any event, a wealth of possibilities. But the key thing remains that we have to start where we live in full awareness as individuals, namely in the intentions underlying our action. Where do they arise? Where do they lead? What do they need for their realisation?

About the author:

Dr. Karl-Martin Dietz founded the Friedrich von Hardenberg Institut für Kulturwissenschaften in Heidelberg together with Thomas Kracht in 1978.

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