Waldorf – a provision for everyone

By Christian Boettger, November 2019

Can something that was inaugurated 100 years ago still have meaning today? We all know how quickly social and political conditions change. Does education also have to change at such a pace?

The way Steiner viewed the child as an unfolding individuality was revolutionary in its day. And it still is today.  Children want to learn, although not necessarily in the way that adults think they should. Children want to overcome challenges, and they want to do it themselves. But they also have a desire for adults around by whom they can orient themselves, who are able to empathise with them in such a way that they can reveal to them in the direction in which they want to develop.

The following conditions, which secure the space for the developmental potential of children and young people, are therefore still relevant:

  • The child is the focus.
  • Waldorf teachers are in tune with contemporary events.
  • Waldorf teachers seek a comprehensive and spiritually rooted understanding of human nature.
  • Waldorf teachers are fully responsible for their own educational and social activities.

“I want to become a proper person”

Thorsten, a five-year-old boy who requires a lot of attention from his kindergarten teacher, once told her after one of his outbursts of rage: “Actually, I just want to become a proper person.” 

In another situation where he had hurt another child, he asked her: “Why did I hurt him?” The five-year-old already knows that he has to acquire social skills and is always disappointed when he doesn’t quite get it right. He knows how tough it is. And he needs a warm, inviting space, which we adults form around him, in which he can develop his abilities.

Steiner’s statement of the fact that, at its core, all education is self-education was groundbreaking in its day. From my experiences in upper school, I see that young people treat the educational provision of the school very pragmatically, but become immediately very active if they encounter a teacher with whom they have the feeling that they are treated as an individual and that they will be supported in their learning. A school that focuses on the development of the children and young people that it has in its care always has vision, pushing the envelope and recognising the future of its children and young people as the source of development.

Janis McDavid has been without arms and legs since birth. His foster parents have made some brilliant educational moves to aid his developmental support. He describes them himself in his biography My Best Life. He only has small stumps for arms and legs. His foster parents encouraged much of his educational and developmental progress by encouraging him to practice pouring a drink from a bottle into a glass and then drinking the glass completely empty. They couldn’t demonstrate it for him and also knew that if they did it for him, he would never become independent. I don’t want to know how much ended up being poured onto the tablecloth but he has developed an incredible technique to overcome such challenges. It was important to him to be able to do it with dignity. An education like this, in which he also ran the risk of failing, will always be timely.

Be and act in tune with the times

In 1919, Steiner demanded that Waldorf teachers take an interest in everything in the world around them and act in a contemporaneous manner. They should be open to their time. But today – and indeed 30 years ago – the image of Waldorf schools is not necessarily that they are schools for people at the leading edge. As teachers, are we really interested in the events of our time? Or do we prefer to shelter Waldorf away from the jungles of political power struggles, capitalist profit-seeking and rampant violence?

Being at the leading edge does not necessarily mean joining in with all the madness of development which can sometimes be too fast-moving. But neither does it mean getting bogged down in conventions and traditions. Being in tune with the times means gleaning what needs to be done from the pressing signs of current times and the questions they raise. This means balancing on an increasingly precarious tightrope. It requires attentiveness, presence of mind, awareness of processes and above all an open and honest dialogue with our fellow human beings, with colleagues, pupils, parents, but also with the world beyond the classroom.

Clearing obstacles

Waldorf teachers strive for a comprehensive developmental psychology. This is what the anthroposophical understanding of the human being requires us to do. It does not reduce the complexity of the human being. It examines physical, mental and spiritual existence in a nuanced way. Every aspect of being has development potential and undiscovered abilities, but sometimes also handicaps. Our task is to discover the potential and to clear the obstacles. Since every child is their own world, we as teachers often have to rely on our intuition, because all possible templates will miss the mark.

The diversity of subjects and the search for balance between art, science, and practical as well as social skills offers opportunities but also challenges. A person’s soul and spirit relate to the body, its health is a prerequisite for their development. Healthy development includes the experience of taking the initiative for oneself (self-efficacy) which promotes self-confidence and confidence in the future among children and young people. Self-efficacy is promoted through craft and artistic experiences, but also through projects that emerge from and promote individual creativity. In all learning, it is good to begin with experiences and then to reflect on them.

Autonomy doesn’t let us rest on our laurels

The concept of autonomy in Waldorf schools is one of the greatest challenges. Every teacher, every school is completely responsible for itself. How much easier would it be simply to follow a compulsory curriculum provided by the state or another institution than to develop a curriculum together with your colleagues, based upon an understanding of the developmental needs of children and young people? How much easier would it be to follow the salary regulations of the education authorities than to negotiate them in the self-governing college of teachers and agree them with the council and members’ meeting of the school association? What ensures this autonomy and why should it also be prioritised in the future over bureaucracy or a central hierarchical structure? Autonomy doesn’t let us rest on our laurels, but rather constantly challenges us. How could teachers, who are dependent upon and subject to directives, educate people to act on their own responsibility? 

New ideas are not the result of central educational planning; they are the result of creative individuals who are willing to take risks and make mistakes. To risk autonomy and human freedom is a balancing act, exactly because it also requires understanding between various people. Being free does not mean being able to do whatever we please. It means creating relationships out of freedom and in freedom – while taking into account the freedom of others. Individual teachers need to create dialogue on an equal footing with colleagues. Likewise, individual schools need to find common ground and reach agreements with one another. The term “network” comes from the idea of being connected to each other, as in the points on a net one cannot exist without the other – yet we often refer to such groupings as organisations, a term that does not fit, as it brings to mind the idea that such groupings are organised from above instead of working together in consensus.

It is my hope that Waldorf education will continue to be cultivated and developed in the next century in such a way that every parent that decides in favour of Waldorf education for their child can also receive it, regardless of their life situation, educational background or financial circumstances. Waldorf schools are schools for everyone. They provide individual developmental spaces and take different paces of learning into account. Every human being has their own individual goals which they connect with their life and want to make available to aid in the development of the world. Children are born to solve the problems caused by their parents and grandparents. They have the potential to do so, but they are dependent upon their parents and teachers to enable this potential to unfold.

Christian Boettger is the chief executive of the German Association of Waldorf Schools and a member of the Educational Research Centre. He was an upper school teacher for mathematics and physics at the Schopfheim Waldorf School.

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