A Plea to Waldorf Teachers
Dear Waldorf Teachers,
I am writing to you as a colleague and friend, a former Waldorf student, teacher and parent, and present Waldorf educator mainly focused on homeschoolers. I write because I am shocked and dismayed by the phenomena of Waldorf teachers ‘teaching’ via zoom or other computer platforms.
I could spend endless pages outlining the harm that computers do to children… but I think you already know all of that. I could talk about the therapeutic basis of Waldorf education that is being lost, of the harm done to the twelve senses and the feeding of addictive tendencies in children…at the end of this article I give links to two videos I have recorded speaking about all of this.
I should quickly say that here I am speaking about the situation where either by state-dictate or by school choice, the children are at home. I cannot even comprehend how children–in any school–can be subjected to masks, temperature-taking, asocial distancing, desk screens and a culture of fear. If things are that bad, then the children should be at home–and if they are home, then teachers feel obliged to assist parents in working with them. This is the great opportunity which I wish to address
My main objective here is to see if I can be of help in assisting Waldorf teachers to figure out ways to work with their children that do not involve computers. Having worked out of anthroposophy in the classroom as well as on city and rural farms with children, with homeschoolers of every variety, and with my own children, I think I am in a good position to do this!
Part of the motivation behind what I write is the pain I am witnessing from parents at Waldorf schools who feel betrayed by their schools’ embracing of zoom and similar computer-based instruction. These folks have made huge sacrifices to be media-free in their homes as per Waldorf pedagogical indications and did not expect to have to argue with teachers and administrators and Board members regarding this abrupt about-face. And they certainly did not expect, as has happened in several situations that I know of, to be ridiculed, to be made to feel they were causing problems by not embracing so-called ‘modern Waldorf’ practices.
Let me quickly also acknowledge the pain and confusion teachers, parents and administrators are feeling as they survey the possibility of their beloved schools closing—as is the case all over the globe and in every walk of life, our world is rocked and our futures uncertain. This can of course make people more conservative and fear-ridden, wanting to hold on to what was instead of trying something new. Creativity and flexibility, two hallmarks of Waldorf teachers, are needed now more than ever!
When it became obvious that schools were going to close a few months ago, my first thought was ‘wow—Waldorf teachers will have an amazing opportunity to work with the parents, to help them understand and experience something of the riches of Waldorf and to have a precious glimpse into each family’s dynamics.’ I am sure that this is happening in some Waldorf schools but far too many I know of have quickly adopted computers as the means of working with students.
I would like to now offer a few thoughts and practical suggestions for Waldorf teachers which, I am sure, can spark and inspire further innovative ways for them to work with children without computers. I of course need to acknowledge the myriad of different situations that families will find themselves in–as with homeschooling (real, chosen, willing homeschooling!) whether a parent can work from home, whether s/he is a single parent, the family’s economic position–there are too many differences to make any hard and fast rules. Yet with flexibility and with a ‘home is not school’ perspective, families can, with support and with courage, navigate this most challenging of paths. My plea is that Waldorf teachers empower parents by offering them their wisdom and experience, founded in the knowledge of anthroposophical child development and the healing power of Waldorf pedagogy.
My first suggestion is that teachers completely abandon the computers for the grades. My own work with teens leads me to say that computers can be very problematic for young teens especially. As their tender ‘I’s emerge in the cauldron of peer pressure and self doubt, the internet and so-called social media is the last thing they need…but perhaps that is the subject of another article! For now I would only plead that computer use is minimal in the high school years. During these years teens can learn about computer and cell phone use, considering not only convenience and benefits, but issues such as the deadly effect of cell phone signals on bees, on the ramifications of 5G, and of the true cost of technology dependent upon substances mined and dumped as waste upon developing countries and the poor.
I am sure that Waldorf teachers can tap into their creativity and imagine out of the classroom situation, away from the typical teacher/student relationship. A question can be asked: What do children really need during this time of upheaval, fear and uncertainty? The healing balm of the Waldorf story curriculum is key, as are, of course, the arts and handwork. But can teachers let go of their classroom expectations of what work and learning look like and support a somewhat‘free-ranging’ style of learning which is far more compatible with this time of at-home education? One key shift which will be critical for many parents is to realize that learning does not have to happen only between 8 and 3, Monday–Friday. Successful homeschoolers (including those who use my curriculum) know that the priority is to make it work. Thus ‘school’ happens on the weekends, when the other parent comes home and so on. Grandparents, neighbors, friends, can work together to make this happen.
It seems that the most important thing during this time is the reassuring presence of parents—for the children to experience their parents as resourceful, flexible and creative people. And Waldorf teachers, out of their knowledge of the healing depths of anthroposophical child development, are uniquely placed to cultivate and enable parents to work in new and wonderful ways with them. And the teachers too, if they can let go of some of their ‘teacherness’, can find new ways to cultivate the qualities that this generation of children need: resourcefulness, flexibility, strength of ‘I’, love and compassion.
Here are some practical suggestions:
*Parents with very young children can be supported in making their homelives as healthy and nurturing, calm and peaceful, as possible. Waldorf kindergartens are, after all, based on a picture of the healthy homelife—this is now an opportunity for teachers to help parents make that a reality. From my work I know how parents crave help in establishing healthy home rhythms—Waldorf early years and kindergarten teachers can be invaluable in enabling parents to embrace a healing homelife.
*For children in perhaps third grade and up, the teachers could write letters to them. One letter to the whole class could be photocopied and perhaps some individual notes handwritten on each. These are sent and contain assignments based on reading AND, most importantly, on the experiences the children are presently having. For younger children the letter goes to the parent who reads it to the child and writes collaboratively with him for the teacher. This goes back and forth, with letters coming and being sent every week. Drawings, notes, pressed flowers, small crafts can all be sent to the teacher.
* The teacher does ‘driveway visits’ (I heard about this from a Waldorf parent on my Facebook group). S/he visits each child, maybe once or twice a week whilst remaining in her car. They visit a bit and older children (maybe 4th gr and up) recount a story or similar from reading s/he has done. For young ones the parent and child revisit/recount together for the teacher. Of course this is not practical in many situations, but where it could work, it could help the teacher and his students maintain a real connection not mediated by a screen.
* Children are asked to create a scrapbook based on something they are interested in—the teacher might have to help them narrow down the topics (which in itself carries many lessons), but should not worry if topic choices stray far from the curriculum. The point here is to work with what underlies the curriculum and what his or her development calls for—the Waldorf curriculum as it is, is only one expression of this. By taking this approach, scrapbooks about monsters, trains, horses and ballet can be just fine. The teacher makes clear expectations (given to the parents and/or directly to older children) of how much writing, drawing and scrapbooking is required. Ensure once school starts again that each child has an opportunity to present his or her project and tell the class about it. This of course can be expanded for older children—geography lessons can include cooking and mural-map making in addition to the scrapbook for instance.
* As said above, parents can be helped to expand beyond school mode into homeschool mode so they can find at least some semblance of balance between their working lives and schooling lives. As the unschoolers know and say, children learn all the time. As Waldorf educators, our job is to be mindful of the therapeutic/healing potential of that learning and to guide it so that true growth can take place. Waldorf teachers can help parents understand this.
* Following on from the above, parents can be encouraged to share their (appropriate!!) passions with their child. They can: read them poetry; teach them carpentry; redecorate a bedroom; bake fancy cakes; explore cuisines from many parts of the world (add in folkstories and a bit of looking at and copying maps and bingo—there you go—fine geography lessons!!); learn a craft or handwork project (batiking, Ukrainian egg painting, weaving, mosaics etc) and then teach their child; a musical parent can sing and play music with their child; play endless board games and teach a child of 12 and up chess; start an aquarium; grow vegetables; clean up a beach or wood; raise chickens; do naked eye star gazing and tell a few Native American (or other) star stories; watch a sunrise and sunset and paint them in silence; make a weather station and track weather data lightly for 3rd gr or more deeply for 6th; explore their locale as far as is possible.
Waldorf teachers can help parents expand out of classroom thinking into homebased thinking. Circle time becomes chore time accompanied by songs and verses; the same walk every morning becomes a nature exploration; cooking for the family carries lessons in math, writing (the child makes his own cookbook) and cultural exploration as various cuisines are tackled. And reading, for older children, no longer happens in short chunks due to the constraints of school schedules—a child can be allowed to lose himself in books, dreaming in her bedroom or up a tree.
The point here is that school at home should not, cannot, look like school-school: this is the philosophy behind Christopherus Homeschool Resources, my 17 year old company through which I have worked with thousands of families across the globe of diverse races, nationalities and religions. Only by tapping into their individual situations can parents breathe into homeschooling and make it work—and while it might not look like what one thinks Waldorf looks like, because it flows from an anthroposophical understanding of child development, of the needs of children, it can be faithful to the spirit of Waldorf education. And while we all wait to see what comes next, those parents who want and/or need their children to be in school can turn what is a difficult situation into a joyful one.
My dear friends, the message here is do not be afraid of children ‘falling behind’ or ‘missing academic opportunities’. As Rudolf Steiner often said (see Kingdom of Childhood and other sources) it is the cultivation of inner qualities that is most important, not acquisition of information. Skills are a way toward a goal, not an end in themselves. We want to help children become resourceful and to think clear thoughts and become, eventually, self-directed autonomous adults. Allowing children to witness how adults embrace and transform the great challenges of life is one step toward this goal.
As the economic devastation of our present times becomes ever more clear, we within the Waldorf movement will need to be as open as possible to new and challenging ways to bring the healthy impulse of anthroposophical pedagogy to families: however things pan out in the next months and years, it is obvious that the financial reality of the global economy will necessitate fresh eyes and ideas including a revisiting of Steiner’s thoughts on threefolding. Right now, you wonderful Waldorf teachers, with bravery and inspiration, can lead the way to new possibilities for the next generation.
I cannot state strongly enough how deeply I feel that what we do out of anthroposophy—out of the wisdom of the human being—must always keep the highest picture of what is truly human to the fore. While computers are an amazing and essential part of our world, they do not support the spiritual foundations of human development and thus cannot be a substitute for the precious human relationships needed by every child.
May you find strength and inner clarity as you navigate the weeks, months and years ahead. To finish, a quote from An Evident Need of Our Time, a collection of loosely-edited essays by Karl Ege, co-founder of the farm school in Harlemville NY, for city children like me, raised amongst the sky-scrapers of New York City:
Our schools seek to foster what is human as such, as it reveals itself in each individual child. Consequently, we, for our part, should be clear that we seek to deal with these problems not merely because the modern social dilemma forces a new type of schooling upon us, but because it lies in the nature of Rudolf Steiner’s art of education itself, through development and expansion of its curriculum, to meet and answer such life tasks realistically and creatively.
Here on my Christopherus youtube station you can watch two videos about the problems of computers and children: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCMbSFKR8Smf6_f92D5Q1o-w