A fellow learner. What it means to be a class teacher

Annette Neal

It is the first morning after the holidays and I stand in my classroom. I have drawn an interwoven shape on the blackboard, fresh flowers give off a delicate scent, next to the vase lies an iron chain. Each child has forged one link so each one is a little bit different and yet they are all closely linked. I look at the room and listen to the silence full of promise. Then I hear loud clattering and shouts in the corridor – and no sooner do I hear it than the first child knocks on the door. I am filled with great anticipation and open it.

I give the first child my hand and welcome him. It is Anton who stands before me with red cheeks and cannot wait to come in: “At last,” he adds after the greeting. I smile and wonder where he gets his happy energy from each day. Behind him, Ina is waiting. She meets me with a clear gaze and tries to fathom what might await her today. Paul stretches up to look over her head and inspects the situation, then calls backwards, “It’s form drawing today”. An enthusiastic “Great” and disappointed “Oh no” can be heard. A delicate small hand reaches for mine; in a subdued voice and with tears in her eyes, Marie tells me that her rabbit died yesterday. A number of girls gather round and comfort her. Full of enthusiasm and across the heads of four children, Colin reports about his holidays. A new year is starting.

A good three years ago, the school hall was festively decorated with a large arch of sunflowers in the middle. The summer holidays had just finished and a new school year was about to start with the new entrants. The whole school came to this beginning because everyone wanted to see the 32 little creatures with wide eyes walk through the arch. Because at that moment the children become part of a large community in which they want to be well looked after in the coming year. In meeting the children as they pass through the sun arch, I see whole worlds in their eyes. As their class teacher, I am always seized by profound reverence and feel that every human soul bears an unfathomable mystery.

What is the class teacher and what is so special about that?

It is a feature of the Waldorf school that a class teacher accompanies the children from class 1 to class 8. They mainly teach the first two hours of school in the morning, the so-called main lesson. Rudolf Steiner refers to the “authority” of the class teacher. That does not mean that they dictate what is to happen. It is about the class teacher representing an authority which leads and which the pupils can use as a guide. Authority is not given here in the first instance through subject knowledge and most certainly not through hierarchical enforcement but through trust. This interpretation of authority as intended by Steiner is often misunderstood and equated with “authoritarian”.

The Waldorf curriculum is guided by the individual development of the child not by standardised, testable performance. That allows for room for manoeuvre in lessons. The teacher should be an artist in the way they deal with the subject matter and children, that is flexible, playfully serious, creative and individually differentiating.

Understanding the being of the child

According to Steiner, understanding the being of the child is the most important basis for becoming an artist in education. That may sound a bit strange at first if we consider that school should be about teaching cultural techniques and knowledge to children. But the one does not exclude the other. Rudolf Steiner said the following in this respect in his educational writings: teachers are teachers, but with great responsibility. They should study The Foundations of Human Experience and thus develop an attentive observation of each child. In this book he describes in fourteen lectures the spiritual, soul and physical dimensions of the human being and their interaction. This was the only way to discover in each pupil – however arduous or difficult that might be – a star which always shines.

Opportunities and challenges

Such an individual view of each pupil opens up opportunities both for the children and the class teacher. Each pupil can and should find their own way through the content; the teacher should read what is required to achieve that from his engagement with each pupil and structure his teaching in accordance with the needs of the child. It is a different way of teaching which makes the teacher a part of a dynamic development. Since the pupils and teacher accompany one another for eight years, the teacher can profoundly support the development of the individual pupils.

If a relationship of this nature does not come about, it is the task of the teacher to change. Large classes with more than 30 pupils are a challenge. As a class teacher, we can accepted this if we trust ourselves to develop a sense of and knowledge about each pupil as the result of the daily lessons. The class community is equally influential, the children educate each other.

Main lesson requires the teacher to prepare a wide range of subjects. Not every teacher is a specialist in all main lesson subjects. The important thing is that the teacher should familiarise themselves with the subject matter for each main lesson, what content to focus on in a period of three to four weeks. Because in doing so, the teacher embarks on a learning process which they go through together with the pupils. That represents an opportunity because it avoids a separated authority that is only based on subject knowledge; but it can also be an obstacle when pupils demand subject teachers for specific subjects at an earlier stage (Lieberwein / Barz / Randoll 2012).

A further challenge, which everyone knows who teaches pupils in class 7 or 8, lies in the age-related situation of the young people. The need for a pause between being a child and becoming an adult leads to the search for protected spaces. The growing young people can never be sure whether in their social environment they are already seen as “mature” or still as “children”. They have to balance this ambivalence each day. That is why they need places removed from adults where they can seek to deal with this in a group of the same age or by themselves. There is a mixture of longing to grasp the future and the wistful departure from protected spaces. World content as the subject of lessons which the pupils can use as a guidance is no longer sufficient. The young people are looking for self-experience and are no longer satisfied with an explanation offering finality from the class teacher. If this emotional situation fails to find an resonance in the school, frustration and resignation easily occur. The corresponding need to continue to develop teaching methods and methodology in all subjects – for example through new concepts for middle school – represents a challenge which has only become more acute through changes in society. The latter include media networks and changed family constellations.

Parents are an indispensable partner for every class teacher. It is a central task of the teacher to report about lessons and the development of the children. Parents who feel included and inspired, help to support what is seen and promoted in the children in school. Parents hand over to the class teacher the most precious thing they have. That is why a relationship of trust between teachers and parents is essential.

At the end of class 8, the class teacher passes on their pupils to upper school; they release them into a new chapter of their life and a new group of people. That creates a certain distance in the relationship – the encounter of the pupils with the world expands. From this stage onwards they are taught exclusively by subject teachers.

The daily encounter with the children allows for a relationship over a long period of time which does not exist in this form in any other type of school. It changes continuously and is dependent on the willingness of everyone to work on such togetherness. It will lose something of its intensity at the end of the eight years together but the respect for one another will remain.

Had I not experienced it precisely in this way, I would think this was too melodramatic way of putting it. But these experiences are among the greatest gifts I have ever received.

Embracing change

The task of a class teacher at a Waldorf school often exceeds that of the other teachers in its diverse and demanding requirements.

Social developments mean that circumstances are changing continuously and as an artist in education we have to go along with them. The courage to respond to these changes is the idea which underlies a modern, contemporary education. Naturally the concept of the class teacher also has to be looked at critically and the voice of the pupils must be heard. Several schools are experimenting with various concepts: the class teacher to class 6, more team teaching or a transition stage in class 7 and 8.

What is it that remains constant in transformation? Trusting in a curriculum which is not fixated on performance and expectations but on development and individuality. Waldorf schools should educate children to be creative and open in their thinking, feeling and actions from the moment that they enter the community through the sun gate. The class teacher has a particular task in this respect. In doing so, “accepting the child in reverence, educating them with love, and letting them go in freedom” (Steiner) is the crucial thing for me.

About the author: Annette Neal is a class teacher at the Widar School in Bochum. She is currently doing a part-time Masters in educational action research at Alanus University and is a member of the research group on “Autonomous learning in Waldorf schools” at her school.