Back to the roots

Guido Peuckert

As long as 15 years ago, when I started to teach, experienced class teachers told me that each time they took on a new class things were becoming more difficult. Children were no longer receptive for communal activities, their powers of imitation were growing less, just like their concentration and performance ability, and early intellectualisation was making itself felt. These views coincide with my experience. I notice these changes in the behaviour and nature of the children most strongly in play gymnastics, as I can observe new class 1 pupils in that setting each year. The number of children who openly or tacitly pose the question: “What do I gain from joining the circle” has clearly grown. In my perception the demands made of teachers have grown. And continue to grow. 

As Waldorf educators we react to that. Some large classes are reduced in size and, in any case, divided in half or even into thirds for subject lessons. Team teaching, assistant teachers, the movable classroom, reduced class teacher periods, streaming by test results as early as middle school, comprehensive support, and so on – efforts are made, money and teaching hours are invested. Many of these measures are undoubtedly sensible. But the problems remain and are even becoming worse.

Should teachers just be mentors?

One opinion which is currently put forward a lot is that the solution to the problem lies simply in the dialogue between pupil and teacher. The teacher should “only” take the role of moderator, the pupils determine the schedule – then lessons work. Without wishing to lessen the exchange between pupils and teacher, I consider such an approach to be problematical. It is still the “beloved authority” which enters the dialogue with intentional aims (in plain words: preparation) and a certain attitude. When I mentor students and teachers just starting out in the profession, the most frequent questions which arise are how to manage the class so that it settles down and how to deal with the so-called special-needs children. The answer to that cannot, of course be given in an article, a book or conversation. I also consider it presumptuous to assume that someone has a blanket answer to that question.

But I do want to argue in support of consciously looking at the foundations of Waldorf education and particularly to take the personality of the teacher seriously. Working on the methodology of teaching and the external conditions is relatively easy for us, in which context I do not want to downplay the effects of the above measures on the core of Waldorf education either. We frequently react to external pressures, such as for example the school starting age and the all-powerful Abitur school leaving exam in upper school.

It helps to develop the ideal image of a teacher in ourselves

When we see many of today’s children with their strong individuality before us and become aware of their question: “Do you see me?”, the teacher can quickly become overloaded. At such moments I try to connect with my inner “true image” of the teacher. This true image is an archetype, just as there is an archetypal table of which all other tables are an interpretation. This idea of a teacher is something with regard to which the children are very open. They come to us with an ideal image of school, have already played through everything and now want to experience it. I sometimes tell inexperienced teachers who ask about the “how”: “You have to develop the ‘teacher organ’ in yourself and it must be present during lessons like the second part in a piece of music.” In my experience we develop the guiding image in ourselves and practice to realise it. The “teacher organ” we have referred to is then unconsciously strengthened and educates the educator.

“Education is the will for self-education”

Pupils are aware when teachers place themselves in “the spiritual stream”. The teacher enters the room, silence falls, the pupils are full of expectation and, we hope, will not be disappointed. Steiner describes such an assured attitude in the fourth lecture of Practical Advice to Teachers. Here he describes the famous first lesson in school and demands of teachers that they should make clear to the children why they have come to school. “So that one day you too can do what the adults can do – that is why you are here. One day you will be able to do what you cannot yet do.” From the beginning, the children should develop an awareness of the importance of future learning content and Steiner demands that “education should be filled with what is truly full of life.” The aim is consciously to develop respect for adults. Adults possess the ability to give things their name: “This is a straight line, this is a curved line.”

The sovereignty which emanates from such a stance cannot, of course, only come from the ego; it is based on a certainty which is rooted in the spiritual world. Such an attitude has something very reassuring for children. In my view we should not allow ourselves to be diverted from the power of this stance while taking full account of the individuality. The children in the first years of school are given clear, affectionate instructions and do not have to decide, for example, which yellow they should take or on which page they should write. They should have the experience that it is truly worthwhile to join in, to answer, to be part of the circle, to listen to the teacher and fellow pupils and to enjoy the community. It is indeed becoming increasingly difficult to lead all children to such enjoyment but the ideal can nevertheless remain a guiding star. The teacher should teach with the next highest component of the human being which the child will reach in his or her next developmental step in mind. This has already become individualised in the teacher and the children recognise this in the authentic encounter between their egos.

Dreamy imitation recedes

Children require security and trust to be able to become independent – not constant choices and decision-making. We have so many opportunities available to us to create exciting and interesting lessons – this is by far the best “disciplinary measure”.

Most of the elements in main lessons have been handed down by tradition. Many teachers believe that there always has to be the same sequence of conversation, welcome, morning verse, rhythmical part, repetition, homework check, work part and story part. How terrible that must for the fundamentally sanguine nature of the child. Boring!

This is avoided if we play with these elements, take account of the weekdays, seasons and moods. We must be aware of the effect which the different elements of the lesson have and make use of them accordingly. When is the right mood for the morning verse so that it does not turn into a “dirge”? Is lesson content dealt with only because it is required? Can it not be done in a “lively” way? I tend to call these issues somewhat heretically “Waldorf mannerism”. That includes blackboard drawings with which the children can no longer connect. Today’s children are very sensitive to not being carried along and react with passivity or open rejection. The teacher has to be open in these points and allow himself or herself to be educated by the children.

When the pupils demand a change of method, we can see, smell, indeed sense it in their whole body. It is mostly non-verbal dialogue, in which the little ones can quite subversively demand a “looking glass world” (everything is done the other way round). Adolescents mostly do it more subtly and yet it is easy to recognise for the observer externally through inattention, lack of cooperation or talking, even if the teacher’s senses do not yet tell him or her what is happening. Here it is again a case of looking at oneself from outside and perceiving what is “going on” in the lesson.

But the willingness to engage in dialogue does not mean arbitrariness and the joy of being creative does not mean giving up essential parts of our education. We constantly have to ask ourselves: “Why are you doing that?” Because that is the question which is ever-present in the children. Frequently they simply no longer come to school with a “sleeping cerebral spirit” and “awake limbs”. Dreamy imitation is receding. What a surprise for me in my first class when I scratched my head and the whole class did the same thing. Now such a leadership role has to be worked for.

As the pupils grow older and puberty makes dialogue become painful, it is a matter of: “Show your wound and be authentic!” (Joseph Beuys). That is my motto in middle school education. “Where do both of us draw our limits? How far can I go with you? Are you a human being of our time?”

Mistakes are made in every encounter and we have to be able to forgive ourselves. Humour and understanding help. In the fourteenth lecture in Study of Man, Rudolf Steiner called for imagination in authority with regard to the education of the third septennium and warned against pedantry. Today this kind of educational action is often necessary at an earlier stage, with some children as early as kindergarten. At the end of Study of Man, he develops the motto which summarises our education and it is with this that I wish to conclude my thoughts:

“Imbue yourself with imaginative ability,
Have the courage for truth,
Sharpen your feeling for soul responsibility.”

About the author: Guido Peuckert is a class and crafts teacher at the Rudolf Steiner school in Lüneburg and lecturer at the Waldorf Seminar in Hamburg.