Calm in the maelstrom

By Susanne Speckenbach, May 2021

Many feet scuffling, many hands rustling, many mouths chattering – there is always something going on in a class. So how can the children learn anything at all? We need quiet and activity. The class teacher, with their close connection to the pupils, has a number of things they can do.

Photo: © xx / photocase.de

We have known that the personality of the teacher and the teacher-pupil relationship are among the most important factors for learning success not only since John Hattie’s studies. This includes, in particular, the inner peace that a teacher can find within themselves. In today’s fast-paced society, this calmness does not come about on its own. On the contrary, we can even lose it in the hectic pace of everyday life. That is why we have to make an effort.

What does life today often look like? Exemplary is a biography that I came to know through a documentary film: Electroboy (director: Marcel Gisler).

A Swiss boy, Florian Burkhardt, grows up totally overprotected by his parents, with whom he breaks abruptly in his early 20s after training as a teacher; he starts a career in Hollywood, it seems with success, breaks it off and becomes a model in constant demand. He keeps changing agencies and also leaves this job from one day to the next, enters into an initially happy relationship with a farmer’s boy, followed by separation; he finally becomes an internet pioneer, later a party organiser, all very successful.

But then he cannot continue because a pronounced anxiety disorder sets in, which prevents him from leaving the room for months on end and finally leads to self-admission to a psychiatric hospital. Florian Burkhardt can only keep his life under control by taking medication every day. In the film we can see how he speaks and how he laughs, somewhat nervously, perhaps even insecurely, despite all his professional successes. And it is very touching to see how, over the course of several years of the director’s work, a new initial understanding between Florian and his parents begins to take shape.

Perhaps not every biography today is so torn apart with such abrupt breaks between the individual phases of life, but if we look at how often breathlessness, burnout and mental illness occur in our society, then we can see how necessary it is to do something about it. As class teachers, we are exposed to the storms of life in the same way as other people, but because of our close relationship with many children and our professional responsibility for them, we are even more called upon to deal with them consciously.

How do we come to rest? Some tips

I know situations in which, as a teacher, one is infected by the unrest in the class and does not get to what one has prepared. That is less than satisfactory. I asked myself what makes me calm. There are various suggestions for this, for example a meditation: I imagine a luminous column behind me that I enter. Another reassurance is that I am well prepared for the subject matter. Furthermore, in the evening I place the children before my mind’s eye and thus create a connection to them. Discussion and agreements with colleagues are also useful. Rudolf Steiner’s calmness meditation (GA 268) can also be a help:

I carry calmness in me,
I carry within myself
The forces that strengthen me.
I want to fill myself
With these forces’ warmth,
I want to permeate myself
With the might of my will.
And I want to feel
How calmness streams
Through all my being,
When I strengthen myself
To find calmness
As strength in me
Through the power of my striving.

In this verse “calmness” is attached to the will: I carry calmness within me clearly corresponds to I carry the forces that strengthen me, thus calmness = strengthening forces. These forces are warm, I want to permeate myself through my will’s might with the warmth of these forces. It is, after all, calmness as strength that I can find in myself through the power of my striving. All this is located in the will and metabolism of the human being: power, strength, warmth, striving.

Usually we are used to seeing will activity in movement and associate calmness with nervous activity: the head rests on the shoulders, has itself transported as in a carriage. That is why clear thoughts are possible. So it is obviously a different kind of calm that we are seeking here and that can come about through meditative engagement with this verse. Perhaps we can say that thinking needs calmness as a prerequisite, while volitions brings about calmness.

We find further help for strengthening the soul in another place. More than 100 years ago, Rudolf Steiner already observed the hurriedness of our mental life, the phenomenon that people cannot come to decisions, and psychosomatic forms of illness. He also noticed this in public life: “There is something like this nervousness present everywhere.” In the lecture “How to Cure Nervousness” (GA 143) he describes nine exercises which I understand and experience as having a healthy effect on the whole person. Every so often, these exercises can be incorporated into everyday life.

1. Connecting thoughts with images: “I have put the object down in this place, I remember the image of its surroundings according to shape, colour and so on, and I try to memorise that.”

2. “Being attentive [...] to what one does always means bringing one’s innermost core being into intimate connection with one’s activity” (e.g. by changing my writing).

3. Going through something in reverse: learning a sequence of numbers backwards. “Now it is extraordinarily good if one not only lets these be learned or learns them oneself in the order that is the proper one, but also acquires the matter in the reverse order, by presenting everything to oneself from back to front.”

4. Doing things and observing them at the same time: “In writing, it is relatively easy to do something and look at it at the same time.

5. Gaining an idea of our own movement, of the effect of our own action: “This is when a person tries to watch themselves walking, moving their hand, moving their head, the way they laugh and so on, in short, when they try to give themselves a pictorial account of their gestures.”

6. Doing familiar things differently (e.g. with the left instead of the right hand).

7. Refraining from something: “Now there is a simple means of strengthening the will for outer life, and this means is suppressing wishes that we have.”

8. Considering the pros and cons: “For everything there is a pro and a con; and for all things it is good if we get into the habit of treating them in such a way that we consider not only the one but also the other, not only the pro or the con, but the pro and the con. Even for the things we do, it is good to show ourselves why we would better refrain from doing them under certain circumstances, or in general to realise that there are also reasons against them.”

9. Refusing to judge: “The more we can get into the habit of making the judgement of particularly our fellow human beings independent of the way they relate to us, the more we can do that, the better it is for strengthening our I [...]. [...] It is good for strengthening the I to reflect on the fact that we can refrain from making a large part, nine tenths, of the judgments we make in every case. If we experience in our soul only one tenth of the judgments we make about the world, that is amply enough for life” (p. 34 f.).

“Create moments of inner peace for yourself and learn in these moments to distinguish the essential from the non-essential” (GA 10). This is one of the basic conditions Steiner gives for spiritual training. It seems to me to apply equally to every person today who wants to work on themselves. And class teachers are especially called upon and blessed to do this, because the class reflects back to them daily what they still have to work on. And precisely because the relationship becomes so close through the daily encounter and joint work over many years, we do it gladly – not only for ourselves but for the children entrusted to our care.

About the author: Dr. Susanne Speckenbach was a class teacher; she is currently in charge of the research project “The future of Waldorf education – Education in the digital age” and a lecturer at the Freien Hochschule Stuttgart – Seminar for Waldorf Pedagogy.

(Based on a lecture given by the author at the summer academy of the German Association of Waldorf Schools in 2016.)

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