Creating new opportunities through self-organisation in the team

Michael Harslem

All Waldorf schools in South Tyrol and Italy have to work under much stricter conditions than those in Germany. They receive little to no state subsidy. Due to this they can only pay their teachers modest salaries. The schools are struggling with a shortage of trained Waldorf teachers. At the same time, they have to provide state examinations. There are few parents who are really committed to Waldorf education, most of them are looking for an alternative school or choose the Waldorf school when their children have difficulties with certain situations at state schools.

The Brixen Waldorf School currently serves two kindergarten groups with 32 children cared for by four teachers in two different locations. Fifty children and young people are taught in ten classes by ten teachers (seven full-time teachers in total).

Since early 2019, I have been supporting this school in order, in cooperation with the faculty, to develop a sensible and effective way of working for both pupils and teachers in combination classes, given the small number of pupils per year group. In the summer of 2020, the faculty decided – with my support – to reorganise themselves in the form of self-organisation. The main features of this self-organisation are:

  • self-organised work in self-selected teacher teams;
  • new forms of cooperation and decision-making;
  • each teacher should contribute all of their potential and is not limited to their subject;
  • everyone does what they are good at and what they enjoy;
  • the focus is on pupil-oriented and interdisciplinary projects;
  • teaching is geared to the learning opportunities and needs of the pupils;
  • work and learning in self-selected pupil teams.

A team and resource oriented curriculum

Our first step was to work out the capabilities and interests of the individual teachers. Each teacher wrote on a poster what they would like to achieve with the pupils in the next school year. Then they all presented and discussed their posters and subsequently evaluated everything together. This was a positive and enriching experience because it showed how much potential and how many creative impulses were lying dormant in this small group of teachers, something which had not really been apparent before.

For example, the Italian teacher always wanted to teach her favourite subjects art history, history and geography, the English teacher wanted to teach geography, history and physical education, the music teacher also wanted to teach English, drama and physical education, the art teacher wanted to combine art, handwork and German in projects, a class teacher wanted to teach more in and through nature, and the handicrafts teacher wanted to combine handicrafts with art, art history, geography, botany, mineralogy and language, to name but a few examples. Each had interests that looked beyond their own subject. This revealed a broad spectrum of possible teaching content which the faculty was able to cover even without additional specialised experts for individual subjects. In the middle of this process, we received an application from a teacher who could fill a gap that had become apparent. It became clear to everyone that the existing team could continue to run the school completely.

In the next step, we formed four inter-class learning groups (classes 1 to 3, 4 to 6, 7 and 8, 9 and 10). For each learning group, a team of at least two teachers was formed in an open process who wanted to accompany this learning group throughout the year. Even the two kindergarten groups, which were working at different locations, formed a joint, overlapping team. Since many teachers were also working in two learning groups, it was decided to work together more intensively in pairs of learning groups. This organically resulted in the two learning groups of the lower classes and the two learning groups of the upper classes working more closely together.

With the extended range of options, it was possible to work effectively on various projects. We aimed to teach as much as possible in interdisciplinary projects and to offer all subjects as main lessons. As a result, a new timetable was developed collectively with a lot of enthusiasm, which also enabled cross-class projects and gave the autonomous teams a lot of educational freedom. Within the framework of the joint agreements, the individual teams therefore have a great ability to respond flexibly to the needs of the pupils and to design their projects accordingly.

Make decisions! Yes, but how?

A new method for decision-making was adopted: “systemic consensus” and “sociocratic consent”. In the past, as in most Waldorf schools, the consensus principle was applied, where not everyone had to agree, but no one could be in opposition thereafter. In some cases, for major decisions, the unanimity principle could also be applied, where everyone had to agree. As is the case in most Waldorf schools, this was then partly replaced by the majority principle (i.e. the solution approved by a majority is adopted), which always produces winners and losers and in the long run causes increasing disunity and can even divide the teaching staff and school communities. Based on these experiences, two system analysts from Graz, Erich Visotschnig and Siegfried Schrotta, developed the method of systemic consensus. Unlike the other methods, which are based on agreement on a solution, this method measures the resistance to different alternatives or solutions and thus arrives at clear results, as it shows the social viability of a solution.

“Sociocratic consent” has emerged from within the framework of the approaches of self-organisation through sociocracy. Sociocracy is a method of circular organisation consisting of self-organised, autonomous teams and collegial leadership developed in 1926 by Kees Boeke in his reform school in Bilthoven near Utrecht.­ In 1970, his student Gerard Endenburg further developed it into an organisational principle for business and it subsequently became widely imitated. In contrast to decision-making principles based upon consensus or unanimity and to the majority principle, sociocratic consent involves conscious awareness and integration of concerns regarding a decision over seven clearly defined stages. These new forms of decision-making are now also being explored by the faculty in Brixen and have simplified the decision-making process. Consistent work in stable and accountable teams has also fundamentally changed the structure of the teachers’ meeting.

The teachers’ meeting now begins with two parallel 75-minute team meetings, each of which focuses on one learning group, followed by an hour of general meeting, which is sufficient in order to reach consensus on the important broader issues, because the essentials, the educational issues, are discussed within the teams. Then come the second parallel 75-minute team meetings, each of which focuses on the other year group. This new form of teachers’ meeting is currently being trialled over this school year.

From my observation, the increased time spent in the teachers’ meeting has led to very close collaboration between the individual teams, with a strong focus on the pupils and much greater satisfaction among the teachers involved. This has allowed a much more flexible response to changing needs of the pupils and teachers.  At the same time, it can also be taken into account that the contents and methods required in the junior classes are different from those in the senior classes. Especially for project work, the flexible arrangement in the self-organised teams has proven to be beneficial.

Overall, the new approach of increased teamwork has proved successful and has also endured well in view of the restrictions imposed by the Corona measures.

The following section is a current evaluation of the experiences from a participating teacher.

Meeting needs in small groups

Kyra Leimegger Chiusole

Our original situation: weekly teachers’ meetings of three and a half hours, where the amount of time was always insufficient because issues concerning lessons, class situations, and discussions about pupils and the organisation of the school could not be dealt with in such a large group. We tried hard to find a structure, a disciplined way of working and distribution of responsibilities, but we were seldom to never able to manage the workload. As important as it seemed to stay informed about everything and to be able to express opinions and opinions, it was unsatisfactory to then always lag behind and never achieve all the things that we had aspired to. Dissatisfaction increased despite everyone’s efforts and there was a growing sense of helplessness.

There was an increasing desire to work in small core groups for each class in order to meet their educational requirements and to enter into a closer exchange with the colleagues working with their respective class community. The willingness to take on more responsibility in small groups was present from the beginning. Nevertheless, there was no desire to give up the general teachers’ meeting as a social forum for the exchange of information, the allocation of tasks and corresponding responsibilities, and above all, its tangible sense of community, and neither was there a desire to introduce an additional teachers’ meeting on another day. The internal training with Michael Harslem gave us the final impetus to restructure our work in the teachers’ meeting. At the end of the first semester, we wanted to evaluate our experiences so far.

The first question was:

  • What have been our experiences with the teamwork so far and how are we managing it?
  • Everyone agrees that the new structure of Thursday afternoons is very beneficial.
  • The team structure offers the opportunity to be responsible for a learning group in groups of two or sometimes three. This reduces the workload of the class teachers and leads to an increase in efficiency, agility, broadening of perspectives and generation of ideas.
  • Specific class situations and the situations of individual pupils can be discussed in more detail; the pupils are the focus of attention.
  • Issues can be clarified and decisions can be made without having to involve the whole faculty.
  • Time is used productively and not wasted.
    Cooperation does not only extend to Thursdays, but to the whole week.
  • Lesson content can be better shared between the parties involved because the teachers are the same in both teams.
  • On the whole, a greater liveliness in the team meetings and a more efficient way of working in the general teachers’ meeting is perceptible.

What needs to be modified and improved?

  • The new approach and its routine handling are still unfamiliar to some.
  • Some learning groups may be perceived as “under-supported” because there is no continuous core team besides the class teachers.
  • Language teachers are not able to be adequately present everywhere because of the parallel structure of the team meetings.
  • In order to improve the organisation of the transition to the next main lesson, the respective teams could already be working in their new configurations one week beforehand.
  • There is also the suggestion to hold a debriefing within the teams after the completion of a main lesson.
  • In order to be able to be involved with particular issues concerning other learning groups, there should be a brief report on important issues in the general teachers’ meeting.
  • At the conclusion of a main lesson, it would be nice to share a short summary of the content and the progress of the lesson in the general teachers’ meeting.

Some solutions were briefly considered and it was swiftly agreed to make adjustments where necessary. We will be discussing this in more detail in the next general teachers’ meeting. In any case, it remains an exciting process in which we are all actively involved. A further evaluation will take place at the end of the school year.

About the author: Kyra Leimegger Chiusole is a teacher of handwork, art, German and history.