Relationships above subjects. New forms of cooperation

By Christian Boettger, June 2021

This article draws on experiences of the first lockdown and shows a possible form of cooperation between teaching staff that has already been successfully implemented in several schools.

The regulations restricting contact were found to be particularly difficult by the teachers, because in these circumstances it was not possible to interact and consult with each other as usual within the faculty or at teachers’ meetings in order to be able to provide the children with appropriate learning material and assignments to be completed at home.  Familiar forms of cooperation were not allowed. In addition, overnight all regular contact with the pupils disappeared and many class teachers simply did not have enough time, alongside all their other tasks, to maintain at least one extended period of contact with each pupil each week. So what solutions can be found to overcome these two specific problems on the one hand, and, on the other hand, to move beyond a purely organisational solution and see the crisis as an opportunity and potential for development?

The attempt to address this issue in several schools has been “teamwork in small teams”, i.e. teams that have full responsibility for one group of students at a time in terms of individual guidance, choice of material and learning challenges. This formation of teams for a specific group of pupils represents a paradigm shift away from the prioritisation of subjects towards the prioritisation of relationships. If a handwork or English teacher is no longer responsible for 90 to 150 pupils per week, but only for 30 to 40, they really have the opportunity to form a much stronger relationship with the children.

Effective cooperation in small teams is superior to central control from above, or an attempt to “go it alone”, when dealing with crisis situations – for example, also in crisis education. The complex organisational conditions of a complete school are no longer manageable for many people, so it is advisable, not only for crisis situations, to create other forms of cooperation that are clear, internally engaging and supportive for the individual, and ultimately effective.

The first hurdle, however, is the organisation of the team formation. In a school with a single class per year group (40 teachers work with about 450 pupils in 13 classes, with about 36 pupils per class), two to four people would be needed for each class to form a competent team – whereby more flexible solutions would have to be found for classes 12 and 13, because here the requirements of the examination preparations may require a broader range of subjects, depending on the federal state. 

In schools with smaller classes, groups of pupils would have to be combined in such a way that there would be three teachers each responsible for about 30 to 40 pupils, for example by combining two classes in a “cluster”. It would also make sense to look at lower, middle, and upper school separately, assign the teachers to the respective levels and only then go on to further subdivision. This division may not be an easy process socially – but I am convinced that for the well-being and care of the children and young people entrusted to us, we would have to put aside all personal reservations that we may have. The division of the school into autonomous working teams has already been practised in many schools with regard to self-administration for certain delegations – now these skills should be transferred to educational cooperation. This will result in a reduction in the complexity of the organisation of the school and thus more people than before will have the ability to have an overview of the situation in a crisis situation, and thus be able to act accordingly.

In my opinion, there are three key tasks for a team:

  • The personal guidance of the children and young people, for which the teachers can coordinate in detail.
  • The responsibility for organising the course material according to the time allotted.
  • Cooperation and exchange with the other teams in the school as well as maintaining contact with parents.

These three tasks provide an opportunity for the participants to connect with each other more deeply on a soul level. Working together on these three levels will significantly strengthen awareness and attentiveness towards one another. The “awakening to the soul and spirit of the other”, which Rudolf Steiner urged his co-workers to do in 1923, has become increasingly difficult in teachers’ meetings. It has been shown time and again that working in teams, for example on school trips, or in projects, or joint teaching, has opened up entirely new possibilities for cooperation.

Personal Guidance

I have met teams that didn’t understand this assignment as a task of simple division of work, but very consciously looked at the group they were guiding with regard to its different challenges and then arrived at a – I would call it human – individual division of tasks, in which, for example, the class supervisor assumed responsibility for 15 children, the sports teacher for ten and the school social worker, who was supporting the team, for eight other pupils. Each young person in this class was personally contacted at least once a week to discuss their specific challenges – daily organisation, study tasks and the lack of social interaction.

It became apparent that it made sense to create learning and work­ diaries from which the young people can then read passages in order to reflect on their learning experiences. It is important that within each team there is an exchange of information on how the individuals in the class are doing – especially for the class supervisor. For class and subject teachers, it was a very special experience to have such deep and moving exchanges with the children and young people on the one hand, and on the other hand, to experience how beneficial it is to reduce their focus to a manageable number of people.

Organisation of Course Material

In times of crisis, the scope of the work and learning material cannot be as extensive as when school is in regular session. But doesn’t this present a huge opportunity in this exceptional situation to reflect on what is actually important for the class, and for each individual pupil? By working together and establishing a connection with their group, the small teams can adapt the work tasks and learning challenges to their group and perhaps even individualise them. If a class teacher has to make these kinds of decisions alone and cannot consult with the whole staff for whatever reason, they may easily feel overwhelmed. Consultation with colleagues can, on the one hand, more easily support accountability for this reduction and, on the other hand, provides transparency for the parents.

Moreover, it is easier for the team to work towards age-appropriate but self-directed work for the children and young people, because the three responsible teachers can form a more committed relationship to the pupils by consulting with each other as a team of three, but only directly supervising 8 to 15 young people. It seems useful to formulate the learning and work activities for the pupils as projects that engage the “head, heart, and hand” as comprehensively as possible. The reduction in subjects must not limit the spectrum of Waldorf education – i.e. this must focus on the technical, artistic and cognitive consciousness-forming elements of the subjects in and of themselves and not on the individual subjects.

Nor is it a question of abolishing a subject-specific enquiry altogether, but rather of reducing the pupils’ confrontation with up to twelve subjects per week and often six subjects per day, in favour of a solution that, for example, allows the children in a class to work on one project per day and week, so that all aspects of the cognitive, emotional and volitional challenge are covered. If this is not successful, three topics per day could also be scheduled instead of six. 

Cooperation with colleagues and parents

If the focus is solely on working in teams, which seems necessary in a time of crisis, the result would be that the school would lose its unity over time. Therefore, it is important that the teams communicate with each other at regular intervals and that their work is transparent to each other. Such cooperation among the teams, in which the guiding principles of the school or organisation are intensified, is something that has been planned in the teachers’ meetings from the very beginning. Through the practice of teamwork, this cooperation is, in the best case, raised to a new level, because it is clear that a whole new area of interest can arise as to how the individual teams solve their challenges.

Furthermore, it is important to keep parents up to date, especially with regard to the curriculum. Especially recently, there have been growing fears, not only at state schools, that pupils are simply not learning enough and that these gaps will become a problem in the future. The aim is to relieve the parents of the burden of teaching the material themselves through the close and direct relationships between the teachers and their group of pupils and by encouraging the pupils to take responsibility for their own work. Teachers who directly experience the children’s learning progress can more easily provide a sense of security. The work and study habits that are lost by many pupils due to lack of guidance are, in my view, much more serious than the lack of subject matter.

When forming the teams, the ideal arrangement would be to cover as wide a range of skills and subjects as possible. While in lower school the teams should remain constant over longer periods of time, in middle school and at the latest in upper school the teams can rotate regularly so that the range of subjects can be accounted for. I have been told of a school which, during the period of restricted regular operation (May-June 2020), provided its class of 39 pupils with three subjects in three groups lead by a team of three colleagues for the morning in three units of 70 minutes each (in the meantime, 90 minutes are planned). This always included the main lesson, a language and an art or craft subject. This is how the lessons for classes 1 to 8 were structured. This eased the daily school routine (in restricted regular operation there was teaching in small groups without mixing), because there were far fewer subjects and interpersonal contacts per week.

The individual learning and work assignments could be more deeply explored and could be completed in a shorter time. After three to four weeks, the team changed, only the class teacher remained constant. It is my opinion that this model can also be continued in times when no lessons can physically take place in the school building, as the three team members can find ways to create a meaningful daily and weekly routine for their group of pupils, adapted to the needs of learning from home.­

At a time when it is becoming more and more difficult to productively work together in large teaching groups, educationally motivated team building offers a unique opportunity for experience and learning. By working together, teaching staff get to know and appreciate each other and can more easily perceive where colleagues need support – a benefit for cooperation within a large teaching staff, even when the school returns to normal operation. And the pupils benefit in several ways: they receive committed support from people who work together responsibly as well as witnessing role models for their own and, in particular, for their future professional work in teams.

About the author: Christian Boettger is head of the Educational Research Centre and chief executive of the German Association of Waldorf Schools.

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