In the beginning is the path

By Albert Schmelzer, August 2021

The word initiation contains the Latin “initio”, which means “beginning”; initiation refers to the ability to enter into the magic of the beginning, to learn something new and anew. In this sense, Waldorf teacher training can be understood as an initiatory process.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

The initiation process already begins with the effort to understand the human being. In this process – in addition to the study of other concepts – a differentiation is made from an anthroposophical point of view between bodily, soul and spiritual aspects. What is meant by the spiritual character of the human being? When studying Rudolf Steiner’s Theosophy, a first answer seems to be found quickly: the human spirit expresses itself in the ability to think; it can look not only at things according to aspects of sympathy and antipathy or usefulness, but recognises laws in and between them. Accordingly, the brain appears as the central organ of the human being: “The whole body of the human being is formed in such a way that it finds its culmination in the organ of the spirit, in the brain.” In contrast, in the fourth lecture of the first teacher’s course, The Foundations of Human Experience, the spirit is located in the will, as a desire “to do the same action better in a next instance”. And in the thirteenth lecture of the same course, the spirit operates in the activity of the limbs: “By stretching out the hand to do meaningful work, we unite with the spirit [...].” Blatant contradictions?

Gradually the realisation may dawn that the complex reality of human beings cannot be captured in rigid definitions, but should rather be illuminated through an approach involving many different perspectives ... This is particularly evident in the attempt at a child assessment which is part of an internship or training course-associated childcare. How do I learn to perceive and describe a child’s appearance, gestures and gait in such a way that their characteristics shine through? How do I acquire the ability to deal with the concepts of the anthroposophical understanding of the human being – such as temperament – in such a way that they do not serve to pigeonhole children but contribute to understanding them? Finally, how do I find educational solutions for concentration and learning difficulties, how do I succeed in supporting the children entrusted to my care?

On the trail of the phenomena …

In the field of “general and teaching methodology “, too, the students are challenged to familiarise themselves with new ideas. Here the aim is not a linear procedure from the outline of the problem to the solution within a lesson, but a process of acquiring knowledge that unfolds in three phases and extends over two days: in a first step, the aim is to lead to an encounter with the world through a vivid representation or an experiment, followed by the effort to characterise the phenomenon addressed – a stone, a plant, an animal, a personality or a process – in a joint discussion. Only after the unconscious processing in sleep, on the next day, is there an attempt to penetrate to the essence of a thing, for example to the motive of an action or the law of nature.

Even the first step is challenging. How do I acquire the art of vivid and pictorial narration? Do I manage to make Pericles walk through ancient Athens, do I have a vivid picture of the personalities he met there? Will I succeed in vividly depicting how a lioness in the middle of the pride dozes idly for hours in the shade of a eucalyptus tree, how she gradually wakes up, scents some antelopes and then – together with other lionesses – goes hunting? How she stalks, creeps up, then bursts out with powerful leaps and pounces on the victim? Or – even more difficult: am I able to make an oak tree talk to a birch tree in one of the lower classes in such a way that the narrative is appropriate and supported by an accurate imagination? The further phases of the methodological triad are not easy to realise either; we keep having to ask how we can stimulate the pupils to characterise a world phenomenon in as many ways as possible and which question is suitable to initiate the step of developing concepts.

Artistic practice

But it is not only in the intellectual field that studying to become a Waldorf teacher is a challenge. According to my own recollection, the experiences in the arts made a particular impression – today’s students confirm this. There is, for example, the recitation of Goethe’s poem “Prometheus” in creative speech. A titan rebels against the supreme deity: “Cover your sky, Zeus, / With cloudy mist / And practice, like the boy / Beheading thistles, / On oaks and mountain heights! / Yet you must leave my earth / To me [...]” Is it possible to make the inner attitude from which such sentences are hurled out come alive in me? How should I speak them – without shouting, but also without seeming too harmless?

In eurythmy, the whole body becomes an instrument to express language or music. How do I enter the required flexibility? Do I manage to walk rhythms accurately and sensitively? In group forms, can I develop a feeling for what my neighbour and the whole community are doing? Painting is also challenging. After some practice, for example, the task is to conjure up an evening atmosphere on the sheet using the watercolours yellow, red and blue in a layering technique. What an exercise in patience and perception! After each application of paint, you have to look again: what happens when I put red over the primed blue? Or yellow? What if I condense some areas and leave others more open?

In sculpting, after a lot of hard work, the required organic form is finally before me. We look at it in the group of fellow students with the lecturer. After a while, he takes the shape and turns it upside down. General astonishment: now the form seems more alive. Had I got caught up in too rigid ideas? Finally, music. How wonderful that even an untrained voice can sound good after a time in the choir and that it really is possible to learn to conduct simple songs! The impressions could be multiplied. Artistic practice leads us to overcome the limits of what we have become, to leave the conventional behind, to refine our perception and to increase our expressiveness – and it prepares us not to lose our composure in uncertain situations and to enter confidently into the living stream of the educational process.

Spiritual openness, self-development and the art of education

Despite all the preparation – no matter how good it is – a certain shock when real teaching starts cannot be avoided. Suddenly there is the responsibility for a whole group of children or young people. Add to that the high and varied expectations of the parents; the settling into a new college of teachers; the professional challenges posed by ever new main lessons. And then the experience arises: all of it can be managed if an inner support is found, a source from which new strength flows. This source will be different for each individual, it may consist of experiences of nature, artistic practice, religious or meditative practice.

This is another aspect of the initiatory principle: initiations, which have historically taken place in many different ways, have always prepared people to open themselves to spiritual influences and forces. Waldorf education has been placed in this spiritual stream by Rudolf Steiner through numerous practice ideas and through the suggestion to meditate on the motifs in the Foundations of Human Experience. The entire developmental path of the teacher can be understood as an initiatory process.

This process is fundamentally incomplete. A teacher of many years’ standing will be shipwrecked if they rely on their past experience, on the skills they have acquired in the past. For the children or young people they have to teach are always new and different – and they are constantly developing. Therefore educational effectiveness depends to a great extent on the self-development of the teacher.

One year after the founding of the first Waldorf school, on 15 September 1920, Rudolf Steiner particularly emphasised this aspect in the course Balance in Teaching. Teaching, it says, is a constant learning process for the teacher: “You are making an effort in the noblest sense of the word but you aren’t actually capable of that much; but you gain a certain strength by working together with the children.” Then follows a crucial sentence: “In life, it is not finished knowledge that has value but the work that leads to finished knowledge, and especially in the art of education this work has its very special value. It is actually the same as in the arts. I don’t believe that anyone is a right-minded artist who, after completing a work, doesn’t say to themselves: only now would I actually be capable of this.”

Such sentences are not an endorsement of professional or educational amateurism. Of course teachers need to know their subject and possess methodological and teaching skills. However, knowledge and educational “tricks” become counterproductive when they are “finished”, degenerate into a recipe and convey the deceptive feeling of having the teaching business “under control”. A work of art can only be created from present experience and action – also and especially in the art of education.

About the author: Prof Dr Albert Schmelzer is a historian and Waldorf teacher and lectures on the teacher training course at Alanus University in Mannheim.

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