Karl Schubert – the first special needs teacher

By Tomás Zdrazil, August 2019

At the start of 1920, Emil Molt received an unusual application. The linguist Dr. Karl Schubert from Vienna was enquiring “whether I might find employment in the factory under your management, working with my hands or head …”

Karl Schubert

Schubert was immediately invited to the Waldorf School and had to give a kind of test lesson in class 5 in the presence of Rudolf Steiner. The lesson went well but embarrassingly he tripped over as he bent down to pick up a piece of paper on the floor: “I hope you won’t see that as a bad omen,” Steiner said to him with a smile and in April 1920 entrusted him with a very special – and perhaps the most difficult – educational task in the school, taking charge of the so-called remedial class. 

For it was noticed very quickly after the school had been founded that not a few children from the workers’ families had great difficulty in keeping up with the age-appropriate teaching in their classes. Since no one was held back a year in the Waldorf School, and the pupils were not to be simply removed from their classes, they were sent for an hour each morning to Schubert in the remedial class in order then to return and take part in the other lessons with their own class. The task initially affected nine children in classes 1 to 6. But Schubert was able to pursue his new task only for about two months because then he had to take over the orphaned class 4. 

From September, he went back to class 7 and kept it for two school years in most of the main lesson subjects. 

In the early years of the school, he taught many foreign languages and – particularly in the higher classes – also history. So good use was made of his comprehensive language skills – after all, he spoke fluent French, English, Russian, Czech, ancient Greek and Latin – and universal education. It was only possible to reopen the remedial class properly again under Schubert’s leadership from the fourth year of the school onwards  (1922). Steiner gave Schubert the key advice that he should “awaken” the drowsy children “in their centre” through will exercises. He counted on Schubert’s special heart forces of service (“courage to serve”), his morality and humanity which turned him into the first Waldorf teacher working in special needs education – even before the first so-called special needs course was held and the first special needs institutions opened in 1924: “Now it is in turn such a blessing that it does not take long for the child joining the remedial class to grow so fond of Dr Schubert, whose character and temperament, whose capacity to love makes him so suitable, that they do not want to leave the remedial class.” (Steiner). 

Schubert was a deeply religious man who was able to combine the anthroposophical path of knowledge with his roots in the Catholic church. He assimilated anthroposophy with profound inner forces and was able to perceive the nature of the human being in a great all-encompassing context and in cosmic images. His numerous lectures were very much valued. “Dr Schubert worked with such credibility for the veracity of the Waldorf School as a whole,” Rudolf Steiner himself once remarked about him. 

Furthermore, it was also largely due to Schubert that from 1921 onwards the so-called Oberufer Christmas Plays were performed at the Stuttgart school. Schubert, who himself took on the important role of the “Tree-Singer”, describes the educational effect on the school community as follows: “The education of the Waldorf school […] is dependent, like the seeking humility of the shepherds, on loving devotion; and, like the seeking wisdom of the kings, it must be illuminated by a knowledge of the human being which recognises a person as the vehicle of an eternal essence. The greatest educational power lies in understanding the nature of the human being.” His attitude of service can also be recognised elsewhere: in his religion lessons and his ability to record in shorthand with great precision the faculty meetings as well as some of Rudolf Steiner’s lectures – such as for example the special needs course. 

The remedial class gradually changed over the years in that it increasingly also took very difficult cases, that is children who were unable to participate in any classroom teaching. Karl Schubert remained in charge of the remedial class for the great blessing of “his” children – but also all the children at the Waldorf School – without interruption until he had to leave the faculty in 1934 due to his Jewish origins. Yet he nevertheless succeeded in continuing with his remedial class, secretly tolerated, until 1945. It was a bitter blow to him that, as a special needs teacher, he was no longer welcome with his remedial class in this school when it reopened after the Second World War. 

About the author: Prof. Dr Tomás Zdrazil is a lecturer at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart – Seminar for Waldorf Pedagogy.

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