Do we have to change the system or ourselves? A Dornach conference

Sven Saar

I am sitting in my classroom at break time with thirteen-year-old Leonora. I asked her to come because she has hardly been paying attention in lessons recently and instead turns the heads of the boys sitting near her and giggles and whispers with the girls. “This has to stop,” I tell her. “Why?” she responds cockily. “I like talking with my neighbours. That’s just how I am!” It takes me a moment to understand what has just happened. Is that how one talks to a teacher whom one respects? But I suspect this is not about disrupting lessons. The words she wants me to hear are “That’s just how I am!”

“Yes, I can understand that,” is respond. “But that’s just how you are at this moment. Wouldn’t it be a pity if you stopped developing? And you have to take care not to stop the development of your neighbours!” Leonora initially does not appear particularly impressed by my words and for a few days continues to complain to her friends and at home that I want to stop her developing. But gradually her behaviour changes and we enter calmer waters again.

Children repeatedly encounter resistance in their development and a clear step forward can be experienced after it has been overcome. Examples of this are the “terrible twos”, school entry or the first impact of the rising forces of conscience which confront the young person shortly before puberty. Are parents, early-years teachers and teachers attentive enough with regard to the transitions between these developmental phases? Are the structures of our establishments suited to responding to subtle but biographically important changes so that the child feels supported and accompanied? Do crèches, kindergartens and schools work together attentively enough to give parents a reassuring feeling of continuity?

Vibrant Dornach

These questions gave rise to the impulse for the international conference “Transitions in Childhood” at the Goetheanum in Dornach which took place in the week before Easter. Five-hundred-and-twenty people from 52 countries arrived and it was easy to sense an invisible cloud of children around each of the suitcase-carrying and rucksack-laden adults which they had brought with them from their field of work. The presence of the children could always be felt in lectures, working groups and at table. The atmosphere was infused with a diversity which could seldom be experienced in daily life: interpreters translated the lectures simultaneously into English, French, Hungarian, Russian, Spanish and Chinese.

International English was the unofficial language when people were talking to one another. This impressively demonstrated the new character of the Goetheanum: if previously it was seen as a kind of headquarters, a source from which the impulses flowed out into the world, it has meanwhile become a place of encounter. People from Asia and America, Africa and Australia meet here and learn from one another. Europe takes a step back and becomes the middle, the meeting point of cultures. It is no coincidence that the language of forms of the Goetheanum is modelled on the human ear: here people can listen to one another!

Diversity was also evident in the composition of the working groups: rarely does it happen in everyday school life that Waldorf teachers from crèche to upper school meet to work together on educational subjects without any preconceived ideas. Space for that was created here. The leaders of the Pedagogical Section, Florian Osswald and Claus-Peter Röh, consider such inclusivity to be their mission: “We are a single movement,” said Osswald, “and our school goes from 0 to 19. All of those who work here have the same desire!” Clara Aerts from the international kindergarten association IASWECE added: “Previously the kindergartens did not have a proper voice in the Waldorf world. That is changing. All of us are working to defend the freedom of human beings.” Her colleague, Susan Howard, commented: “If we withdraw into our own areas we run the risk of remaining stuck in handed down traditions. We can only continue to develop and meet the needs of today’s children through working together, through regular exchange.”

Why do people attend conferences like this?

The gesture of bowing down, which is familiar to all parents of small children, tells us something: it is not only the child that grows in our care but we too learn to grow upright through them, both inwardly and outwardly. On this Maundy Thursday in Dornach Clara Aerts recalled Jesus washing the feet of the disciples and reminded us of Rudolf Steiner’s demand to feel reverence for the being of the child. The way I enter the world and unite with it in the first three years points the way for the rest of my life. In the bottleneck which the child experiences in the birth canal, in the frequent falling over and getting up again before they begin to walk unaided they experience boundaries and can strengthen and train their soul forces.

A planned, because practical caesarean or actively practicing walking together by holding the child’s hand only makes it superficially easier. In reality we deprive children of the opportunity to overcome the resistance of the world through their own action. Michaela Glöckler emphasised in her conference contribution: the child is not born – it gives birth to itself! This principle also applies to all subsequent transitional and developmental processes: teething, the development of the thinking, learning to write and do arithmetic. The gradual emancipation from the parental home also only occurs in a healthy way when the time is right. We cannot force something like that.

From “do as I do” to “do as I say”

Of particular interest during the conference was the question as to the readiness to start school of the six or seven-year-old child and how the transition from kindergarten to school can be managed.

Polina Rasmussen has for six years been responsible for the “kindergarten class” of the Copenhagen Waldorf school. One of her tasks is to let the children coalesce into a group. The day starts with a singing circle and a story before the children disperse in free play. They come together again for joint craft and artistic activity, then there is play, tidying up and cooking until lunch brings everyone to the same table.

After the meal everyone goes outside for free movement before at about two in the afternoon a further singing circles forms the conclusion. In this way the approximately 25 children learn the rhythmical breathing in and breathing out of everyday life at school. A little authority also begins to make itself felt. If the kindergarten teacher still works purely through setting an example, Polina Rasmussen gets the children used to the idea that when she asks for something to be done it should be done. That was summed up nicely in the language of the conference as: from “do as I do” to “do as I say”.

After the Easter holidays the teacher of the future first class joins the group and lives and works with it until the summer holidays, thus playing an important role in the way that the children will start their school career in the autumn. In September the children have grown into a firm group and have become familiar with and learnt to love their teacher who will accompany them over the next eight years. They are ready to accept authority and can “let go” of kindergarten.  

Boundary river and voice of conscience

The seven years between second dentition and sexual maturity are marked by developmental crises and phases. The first of these moments, generally at age 10, is known in the Waldorf literature as the “Rubicon”. Once this metaphorical boundary river has been crossed, the person has lost some of their innocence and pictorial nature. A painful loss, but one that is necessary for the human I so that it can feel increasingly established and comfortable on earth. We have to be able to differentiate between the I and the world in order to play a meaningful and active role in our environment.

Another crisis which occurs as a rule shortly before the twelfth birthday is of equal importance, after which the growing person becomes significantly more aware of their conscience. They now learn to listen to their inner voice and observe their fellow human beings in a comparative way. The closest friendships are formed at this time – each one of us needs someone who accepts and “understands” us unconditionally. Our own role in the world, our abilities and weaknesses are also questioned. This phase is marked by great insecurity and insensitive behaviour by adults often leads to bitter conflicts. These are not yet the teens! After a brief faltering, the ground stabilises again under their feet and those who have found what their talent is can shine in the next two years – as athletes or acrobats, musicians, painters or with mechanical skills.

In various conversation at the Goetheanum it became clear why each of these transitions demands a new approach: the children develop and rightly demand that they are not met with outdated methods. The question therefore arises whether different people should be available for each of these phases with the specialist knowledge about each particular age. Various approaches have been set out in previous issues of Erziehungskunst according to which a class teacher only takes their class to class 6 or middle school is extended to age 16 and upper school teachers teach in it. The consensus that was felt to exist in Dornach was, however, that ideally the teachers should not be replace but transform themselves and grow with the pupils: I might know everything there is to know about thirteen-year-olds in general but that cannot replace the understanding of the individual child which has grown over seven years.

That is why Waldorf teachers go to conferences: the living, creative exchange of views inspires us to work on a more effective and sustained basis on the development of the children entrusted to our care and thus our own development.

About the author: Sven Saar is a class teacher at the Wahlwies Free Waldorf School in Stockach.