Rudolf Steiner in the Waldorf School
The fourth official meeting of the Independent Waldorf School Association: How Teachers Interact with the Home in the Spirit of Waldorf Pedagogy
1 June 1924, Stuttgart
Ladies and gentlemen! From the viewpoints the Waldorf School takes as its points of departure, there is not one path but many that lead away from the unnatural things that have been imposed on humanity, and especially on our public life, toward something natural that is being demanded by human nature in its broadest sense, so to speak. I intend to outline one such path, the path between the teacher and the parents” house, in the remarks I am going to present to you today.
You may say that this path can be taken for granted, and yet, ladies and gentlemen, not only has the path teachers and educators take to the parents” house been found to be very difficult at times, but there are many, many significant views on education that pay no attention to it at all. I need only remind you of something that was experienced as a great event in the course of German cultural development — the appearance of Johann Gottlieb Fichte in all fields. Today, however, we will only mention his appearance in the field of education. During one of the most difficult times in German history, he gave his penetrating “Speeches to the German Nation” in which he pointed out that healing and re-enlivening German life after the humiliation of 1806 would have to happen through education. 1Johann Gottlieb Fichte, 1762-1814, Reden an die deutsche Nation [“Speeches to the German Nation”] given in Berlin during the Napoleonic occupation of 1807-08. We can say that Johann Gottlieb Fichte, one of the noblest of all Germans, found the most beautiful and most significant words to say about education. However, he regarded it as a fundamental prerequisite for carrying out his pedagogical intentions that children be taken from their parents homes and cooped up together in special educational institutions that would be run according to strict principles and only by a unified state. After his time, we also witnessed a great variety of educational experiments in which children from certain circumstances were brought together in special places to be educated appropriately. In the course of humanity’s evolution we have seen numerous examples that necessitated the removal of children from their homes.
Although Waldorf education and its spirit work with at least as much urgency and at least as much out-of-the-depths of the human soul as the educational experiments sketched briefly above, this spirit of Waldorf education took a very different direction from the very beginning. It did not take superficialities as its starting point. It did not say that this or that social provision had to be made for the sake of the children. It did not say that children needed to be removed from their normal situations and placed in different ones. From the very beginning the spirit of Waldorf education was a purely pedagogical and methodological one. The social situation and the circumstances of the children’s lives are accepted for what they are, and everything that is to be accomplished through Waldorf education is striven for on the basis of the inner spiritual foundations of pedagogy itself. We can thus say, in effect, that wherever educational difficulties arise because of a childs social situation or other circumstances, these are accepted as destiny by the spirit of Waldorf education, and methods are put into effect that will allow the difficulties to be overcome out of the spirit and out of teaching practices that are individualized for the child in question to the greatest possible extent. This means, however, that a school like the Waldorf School stands in the midst of actual life. In actual life, if we are dealing with a school that takes children at age six or seven, they are coming from home, and since we have no boarding facility they remain at home and in the care of their parents during the time when they are not in school. Thus the entire thrust of education in the Waldorf School is to work together with the parents. In particular, as we shall see, we must feel, sense, and think together with the parents.
No doubt many of you have often been presented with the idea of the significance of the stages of life for the life of a child.
There are two or three of life’s stages that are of concern to our theory of education. The first begins at birth and ends at the change of teeth, the second begins at the change of teeth and ends at puberty, and the third continues from there until approximately the twenty-first year of life. If we have an unprejudiced sense of how things are, each of these stages in the life of a child shows us the child in a totally different constitution of soul and of body. Let us first consider the child’s soul constitution.
Until the change of teeth, the child is definitely dependent on imitation for learning what is taught. What you demonstrate to the child works like an outer stimulus that calls upon the child’s entire bodily organization — in some places more visibly, in others less visibly — to imitate the impression. To substantiate this, we need only keep in mind the decisive fact that children acquire their native language wholly through imitation, which works deeply into the organization of their bodies and souls. We must take into account that the vibration, the waves of movement, of any spoken sound is experienced much more intensely in childhood than it is later on in life. Even in speaking, when it is a person’s native language that is in question, any adjusting of the larynx, any inner ensouling of the organs, is based on imitation. This is how it is with everything in the child’s life until the change of teeth.
Nowadays, when a misunderstanding, or rather numerous misunderstandings, generate great errors in our otherwise so admirable scientific world-view, we often talk about the hereditary basis of one or the other thing a child acquires in the first stage of life up to the change of teeth. But as far as the child is concerned, the only basis for this talk of heredity is the fact that the people who are talking about it have no real sense of observation. Otherwise they would find out that basically much of what we attribute today to this dark and mysterious heredity must actually be looked for in the child’s clearly comprehensible tendency to imitate.
However, consider how close the child’s soul life, which arises out of this imitative activity, is to the life of the parents simply because the child is a being who imitates. If we really grasp how strong the tendency toward imitation is in the child, we come to have a holy awe and a profound respect for the child/parent relationship. And if we then look at the basis for all this in spiritual cosmic connections, then we are truly able to say that since a human being is a spiritual being prior to embarking on a physical existence, this person — in spite of being a free being — enters earthly existence with a very specific destiny with regard to the forms, if not the routines, of life. If we look on the one hand at how this destiny unrolls with an inner regularity from the smallest experiences of childhood to a ripe old age, and on the other hand at how the child grows close to the parents by being an imitative being, if we really see all this in the context of all the underlying spiritual connections, we begin to have sensations that are religious in character, you might say, about what is given to us as teachers and educators when a child is entrusted to us. And these almost religious sensations make us strongly inclined to want to understand, when a child is entrusted to us on entering school, precisely how this child is connected to his or her parents.
It may be said that theoretical pedagogical considerations or abstract principles are truly not what determine how the spirit of Waldorf education sets out to meet the parents of the children. Rather, it is something living, just as everything else in the Waldorf school is meant to be something living. It is a living thing; it is the Waldorf teacher’s active need to be able not only to approach the child in spirit but also to find a way from the child to the parents through every expression of soul the child presents, through every motivating force, through every type of childish impulsiveness, and even through every gesture and every hand movement. This confirms our understanding of the child, which we Waldorf teachers need above all else if we are to teach by deriving our educational impulses from the very nature of the child in question. First and foremost, we can confirm that we are looking at a child in the right way by turning to the parents standing behind him or her. This is the case even when the parent/child relationship is not absolutely harmonious. In actual life what grows out of children and parents living together can manifest in the greatest possible variety of ways. Of course we have an inner feeling of happiness when we look at the destiny of a child who has the possibility of living in fully harmonious circumstances with exemplary parents. But may we not pose a counterquestion to this? If we observe life, either contemporary or historical life, without bias, do we not find that the greatest spirits, not only intellectual geniuses but also geniuses of virtue and moral action, have often sprung from grave disharmonies between child and parents? Waldorf teachers must acquire the habit of not criticizing the child/parent relationship, but of accepting it objectively, because their acquaintance with the parents can shed light on the child’s idiosyncrasies.
Thus it is not some pedagogical principle that challenges the Waldorf teacher to find a way to get to know the parents, but rather an inner heartfelt need, just as Waldorf education in general is essentially a pedagogy of the heart.
Let us now look at something else, namely the fact that teachers are now obliged to take on part of what used to be provided solely by the parents of children of elementary-school age. On entering elementary school, a child is going through the change of teeth. Nowadays children are sent to school somewhat too early; elementary-school age actually only begins with the change of teeth, but that is not the main point here.
When a child is sent to school and entrusted to a teacher, the teacher must take on a part of education or child-rearing that acquires its specific character from the fact that the child’s entire soul life, the child’s entire constitution of soul and spirit, is also transformed at the change of teeth. After that, the child is no longer an imitative being, although the principle of imitation does persist for several years into the child’s time in elementary school. Fundamentally, however, the child is now no longer an imitative being, but a being who is stimulated by what it meets in the form of images, through our structuring what we present in an appropriate and artistic way, you might say. At this age, children no longer tend to apply themselves imitatively and with their entire constitution to what is presented to them. Instead, they shift to the principle of natural authority. Whereas earlier it was the children’s will that imitatively traced what was demonstrated to them in their entire constitution, now it is their feeling that likes or dislikes what their teacher presents to them in images, including the images of his or her entire personality and actions, of the composition of his or her speech, and so forth. And the authority that prevails in school between the change of teeth and puberty must not be arbitrarily imposed. It must be a matter of course. Without admitting this, it is impossible to look at how human life unfolds as a whole. It is so easy to say that we should always use visual aids in our lessons. I do not mean to say anything against visual aids, but they should not become a means of trivializing instruction. We cannot take it as a principle to reduce everything to the level the children are already on. The point is that only those things that directly nurture the children through visualization need to be cloaked in a visual representation. But take a circumstance from religious or moral life — how are we supposed to use visual aids in this case? Aside from that, however, the inner soul nature of the children is such that something is true because a teacher to whom they feel sympathetic, who is an authority to them as a matter of course, has pronounced it true. They feel something to be beautiful because a natural authority finds it beautiful; they find something good because this authority finds it good. The authority figure incorporates the true, the beautiful and the good. It is bad for a person to have to acquire a feeling for the true, the good, and the beautiful as a matter of principle, on the basis of abstract commandments or all kinds of rational rules, before having acquired it at the right age — the age between the change of teeth and puberty — by having it confront him or her in the person of another human being. We should first learn that something is true because a respected person declares it true, and only later recognize the inner abstract laws of truth, which actually can have an effect on us only after we achieve sexual maturity.
Surely you do not expect someone who wrote 7he Philosophy of Freedom over thirty years ago to go to bat for the principle of authority in a place where it does not belong. However, the authoritative principle that children demand by their very nature absolutely does belong in the elementary school. Teachers themselves, with their rationality, their hearts and feelings, and their whole nature as human beings, are guidelines with regard to the true, the good, and the beautiful as the children are meant to embrace them. The human relationship that comes about reaches right into how the children construe the true, the good, and the beautiful. All this is presented in greater detail in various pedagogical writings on Waldorf education which are available for you to read. 2See Rudolf Steiner’s 7The Renewal of Education, Kolisko Archive Publications for Rudolf Steiner Schools Fellowship Publications, Forest Row, Sussex, England, 1980 [Die Erneuerung der padagogisch-didaktischen Kunst durch Geisteswissenschaft, Dornach, 1977], 14 lectures given in Basel, 1920, GA 301; Education and Modern Spiritual Life, Garber Publications, Blauvelt, NY, 1989 [Gegenwärtiges Geistesleben und Erziehung, Dornach, 1923], 14 lectures given in Ilkley, 1923, GA 307; The Roots of Education, Anthroposophic Press, Hudson, NY, 1996 [Anthroposophische Pädagogik und ihre Voraussetzungen, Dornach, 1972], 5 lectures given in Bern, 1924, GA 309; Human Values in Education, Rudolf Steiner Press, London, 1971 [Der pädagogische Wert der Menschenerkenntnis und der Kulturwert der Pädagogik, Dornach 1965], 10 lectures given in Arnheim, 1924, GA 310; The Kingdom of Childhood, Anthroposophic Press, Hudson, NY, 1995 [Die Kunst des Erziehens aus dem Erfassen der Menschenwesenheit, Dornach, 1979], 7 lectures given in Torquay, 1924, GA 311; The Education of the Child and Early Lectures on Education, Anthroposophic Press, Hudson, NY, 1996 [Die Erziehung des Kindes vom Gesichtspunkte der Geisteswissenschaft, Dornach, 1978].
But let us now consider the position Waldorf teachers are in as a result of acknowledging this principle of natural authority and trying to apply it to its fullest extent. They depend on not having this natural authority undermined in any way. We must keep in mind that at the age when the change of teeth is taking place, even in families in which a lack of harmony prevails between the child and the parents, the child is inwardly close to the parents. This closeness is so strong that it basically outshines anything else that comes under consideration with regard to the being of the child at this age. This means that even if a child confronts his or her parents with antipathy, to use a severe term, a totally unshakable authoritative relationship to the parents is present subconsciously. I can present this only briefly here, but the matter can be verified in all its details. A true psychology, a true study of the soul, teaches us that even when children come into conflict with their parents and home when they are losing their baby teeth or in the years just after that, they are actually totally under the authority of the parents in the subtle, subconscious psychological layers of their being. And who would wish it otherwise? This is simply the relationship nature provides. If I were to depict the course that humanity’s evolution would follow if this were not the case, it would make a horrible picture. This means, however, that in their now completely different field of activity, where teachers are no longer examples to imitate but speakers who use their authority to present what enters the child, teachers must take a more subtle approach in influencing what the child has become in his or her inmost being as a result of parents and home. There is no other way of responding to the individuality of a child with your authority than by being able to link up fully consciously with what the child has become as a result of parents and home. The instinctive result of this in the Waldorf teacher is an inner urge to establish a connection to the parents.
There is a very specific reason why this urge develops. The spirit of Waldorf education is not a one-sided one; it encompasses the spirit, the soul, and the body equally. It would be a total misunderstanding of the spirit of Waldorf Education to believe that the physical aspect, whether in a healthy or an unhealthy state, is in any way underestimated in comparison to the spiritual aspect. The spirit of Waldorf education takes into account the whole human being in a child. But because it takes the whole human being into account without actually having the whole human being — it only has the child during school hours and perhaps for a short time before and after — it must experience an inner need to be in the closest possible contact with the parents, with the home in which the child spends the rest of his or her time.
It really is true with us — and I have often said this, particularly within the Waldorf School itself — that an educator does not need to be afraid of large classes. To set up small classes for pedagogical reasons means to count on a pedagogical weakness. That is not what is going on here. If it were desirable to work toward having smaller classes in the Waldorf school, the reason for it would be so that the teacher would have more possibility of establishing a connection to the parents of all the students in the class. That is what the teacher must do, out of the whole spirit of the Waldorf school.
But let us consider something else, since I am only trying to highlight a few of life’s stages. Those who can observe children in real life find that there is an extremely important point in life between the ages of nine and ten, approximately. You can see this point approaching; a certain inner crisis makes its presence known. It is not that the children start asking especially rational questions, but this crisis becomes evident when otherwise lively children start to hang their heads, when quiet ones become loud, when they give evidence of all sorts of unhealthy conditions, and so on. What is going on here is that in the child’s subconscious — and a great deal in the being of a child is in the subconscious rather than in consciousness — a question appears, a question that is not formulated rationally, but is active only in perception: Is the natural authority that has given me what is true, good, and beautiful up to now, is the natural authority that is the personification of truth, goodness and beauty, actually that? The doubt need not be expressed out loud, but it is there; it infuses the life of the child in the way I have described.
At this stage in a child's life, it is important for the teacher to have a healthy, independent gift of observation in order to find the right word and the right way of acting. Many things are needed — tact, instinct, intuition. Then you will be able to do something at this point in the child’s life that will be of wideranging significance for the entire earthly life that follows. If you find the comments, the actions and the relationship that can confirm for the child in an individually appropriate way that he or she was right in seeing a natural authority in you, then you have done something out of your inmost soul to become a true benefactor of that child.
Lucky the person who after this point around the ninth or tenth year can continue to look up to and respect an authority as a matter of course! No individual can become a free being in the course of his or her life without first learning, before entering puberty, to arrange life in accordance with how a highly respected person acts. To submit out of inner instinctive freedom in this way, to face such a person, recognizing that it is right to do as he or she does — that is what starts to make something out of the potentials for freedom that are concealed in a person.
In short, we as Waldorf teachers must maintain our natural authority in all respects and in the most subtle way. How can we do this? It is possible if our interaction with parents arouses the feeling in them that it is all right for them to influence their children to see the natural authority in the teacher. This may sound trivial, but it is true: Waldorf teachers should never pass up the opportunity to show themselves to the children’s parents in their true colors, so that the parents know who they are dealing with. This can sometimes be done in five minutes. The parent’s tone of voice, the nuance of each sentence they speak about the school, should be directed toward supporting natural authority in school. The connection between school and home cannot be close enough.
Still a third thing: If you have in front of you two, three or four sets of curricula and school regulations, all of them very cleverly thought out, then you know what you have to do. You have the curriculum, you have the regulations; that is what you have to do. But that is not how things are in the Waldorf School. If we are thinking in the spirit of the Waldorf School, it is right to think that some things must be different than they are in public education. Many people today cannot grasp that. And cleverness is so prevalent in our times. I cannot emphasize enough how clever people in our times are in comparison to other times. But it is just this rational cleverness — and I mean this quite seriously.
I am not being ironic — that commits the greatest stupidities. Nevertheless, people are clever, and this is expressed in a great variety of ways. If thirty people sit together and plan a school reform, it can be so clever that it cannot be disputed. And then lay thinkers can say, “That’s brilliant, it would be impossible to create better schools than these people have done with their points 1, 2, 3, and 4.” But just try to take it further, and look at the schools that have been created through those points 1, 2, 3, and 4. The principles are very clever, the statutes and paragraphs are very clever, but you cannot do anything with them in real life. The only way to do anything in real life is to feel life itself pulsing within you and to create out of this pulsing life.
This is where Waldorf teachers stand: They have no statutes and paragraphs, but only advice and suggestions which they must shape according to their own individualities. If you prescribe strictly what teachers have to do in school, then they should all be just alike. Just think of the consequences of that. If the regulations were seriously enforced, if we were to put into effect these very well-meaning abstract pedagogical principles that hold that there is only one way of teaching, then you would no longer be able to tell one teacher from another. You would meet one teacher and think it was some other one, because they would both be teaching according to the same abstract principles. But teachers are human beings. They are individuals. And they can only work if they can put themselves into it with the full independence of their being. Only then can they be really effective. But then they have to know life. You can only work in real live if you allow life to affect you. But what kind of life do you encounter in school? The parents’ life as it continues to work in the children. Our teachers are steered away from paragraphs and principles toward the real, immediate life of the children. This must flow into our methodology, into how we arrange all of our teaching.
So, ladies and gentlemen, if you could be a fly on the wall and listen in on our teachers’ meetings sometimes, you would hear how all the details of home are actually being taken into account and how intimately they are discussed with regard to how they shed light on the children. And if you were that fly on the wall, you would also find out that these teachers’ meetings are an ongoing learning process, that our educational practices are constantly evolving toward higher and more subtle effectiveness. It cannot be different if the school is meant to be a living organism, rather than a dead one. This means that the Waldorf School, because it calls itself an independent school, is an institution whose innermost being points to parents and home with regard to understanding the child as a total being.
Let us say that we get to know a child who is lacking in intellectual ability. That can happen. And there are many ways in which a lack of intellectual ability can be corrected, can be developed into something better. But we need a point of departure. Let us say that we get to know the child’s father and mother, and they are very intelligent. It does sometimes happen that children who are not intellectually gifted have very intelligent parents. It can also be just the opposite, that parents who are not intellectually gifted have highly gifted children. In any case, we will learn a very great deal about alleviating the child’s lack of intellectual ability if we look at the parents whom the child imitated up to the change of teeth. If we do so, we will find not only a theoretical explanation, but also suggestions for implementing what we have to do about it. The emotional life plays a very significant role in children of school age. It even plays into morality in that it receives the good only through sympathy for the good in the teacher. Children’s emotional life becomes transparent when we can see through their feeling into their parents’ particular variety of feeling life. This applies equally to the life of the will.
People whose intelligence tells them that an individual must be like this and such because that is average and proper human nature need not consider the parents. However, if we know that things and beings have origins, if we look to the source rather than to something abstract, then we must consider the child’s parents and home.
Waldorf education leads us along the path toward reality because it tries to live and breathe the spirit of reality, a spirit that is in accordance with nature and in accordance with the soul. And this path toward reality leads away from school and toward the parents’ home. This is the reason behind everything that can awaken the teacher’s interest in the parents and the parents’ interest in the teachers in the school. The parents’ evenings that are organized by the Waldorf School are there in order to create a bond between school and home. What we do in these parents’ evenings is meant to allow the parents to see the attitude and soul-constitution of the faculty.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the practical implementation of what is ultimately present as the highest — I cannot say principle, but the highest view in the spirit of Waldorf education. Out of the depths of their inner soul life and out of this spirit of Waldorf education, Waldorf teachers must realize that the parents are entrusting the school with the most precious thing they have when they send their children to us. These parents have had many experiences in life; perhaps they have been tested by life. This does not mean that they wish their children to remain untested, but they do wish them to be spared some of the difficult experiences that they themselves had to go through. For this and many other reasons, parents attach a great deal of hope to the moment when they entrust their child to a school. Out of the whole spirit of Waldorf education, our teachers know what is being entrusted to them. On the basis of views such as those I have characterized, they would like their effect on the children to be such that when the children are released from school and return to their parents, the parents can say, “We knew it all the time, ever since we first saw the school, that our hopes would be fulfilled.” However, this is not a conclusion they can come to at the last minute when their children graduate. It can mature gradually only through the interaction between school and home.
Thus, we can turn our backs on many different educational experiments, and even on well-intentioned pedagogical ideals, and turn to the spirit of Waldorf education, realizing that there is an extremely healthy instinct at work in children being together with their parents, and that it must therefore also be healthy for the school to grow close to this relationship by finding the right way to approach the parents.
Among the many things that the Waldorf School aspires to, which can all be characterized by saying that this school wants to rise above abstract principles and cleverness to a reality that is full of life, the main thing is that the Waldorf School wants to find a way to the most life-filled reality in the child’s existence. And in the existence of the small child, the child of school age, this reality is the parents.
This school with its spirit wants to be, not a school of theories, abstractions, and inflexible theoretical principles, but one full of life and reality. That is why it tries to find its way into the reality of the parents’ home.