How many parents does it take? Parents speak

Deliberately different

The German state of Saxony has just adopted a new law on independent schools. The intensive collaboration between the independent schools beforehand illustrated the special nature of the way that parents and teachers operate Waldorf schools.

Are we actually aware of this?

Making school a place in which children learn and live, with joint responsibility of all those involved, is a big and in my view exhilarating challenge. Doing things together – be it maintenance work, serving on the various committees, the preparation of festivals and, of course, also celebrating them – builds trust. And trust forms the basis for the successful educational partnership we endeavour to achieve in the Waldorf school.

Birgit Thiemann, co-chief executive of the Karl Schubert School, Leipzig

Groups or community?

Is the operation of a school by parents and teachers an chimera? Yes! Because it reduces the sponsors of the school to merely two groups and, furthermore, to those groups with the greatest potential for conflict. Such a reduction in itself throws up barriers which do not exist when there is personal contact, at least not in such a deep and hardened way. Is the idea of parents and teachers operating a school together thus wrong or, indeed, has it failed? No!

Because even in the biggest conflicts there are always participants who work together at a direct level and can recognise deep-seated conflicts in an open discussion and name them without hurting one another. As soon as these qualities gain the upper hand constructive solutions can be found. Equally, the negative effects when groups form can be anticipated, that is, they can be recognised and addressed through agreements to which everyone keeps or through successful discussion techniques.

The basic idea that people come together to create a space for pupils in which the latter are the focus and are educated to become free decision-makers in accordance with their needs is simply the right thing to do.

Thorsten Ziebell, Kaltenkirchen Free Waldorf School

Sore points

The collaboration between teachers and parents can be a great success – and sometimes not. Why is that so?

The greater the number of people involved in the discussion and decisions, the more difficult it becomes. As parents, we generally work in a different environment. There are hierarchies with bosses and people to take the decisions; if we have questions we are given answers. There are specific people to talk to about specific things – that is what we are familiar with and changing our thinking to incorporate a different kind of process is difficult.  

In most cases we have to wait for the teachers’ meeting on Thursdays to get an answer to our questions as parents. But can we be sure that the matter was considered in the way we intended? Is a teacher the right advocate for a concern we have? This is where the celebrated trust comes into play. But to what extent does trust play a part in the hierarchies familiar to us in the free market economy? Here everyone cares only about number one. The processes in self-managed structures run more slowly – not something with which we parents are familiar. Impatience tends to spread.

But is it not precisely the familiar structures which we parents want to jettison, do we not want a free school for our children developing on its own terms, perhaps precisely because we have already had to accommodate ourselves? Most parents, however, do not know how things might be done differently, how self-management functions, how a solution can be found without decision-makers.

The better we know one another, the more specific and transparent the agreements are which we reach, the fewer sore points there are. It is in fact the case that here people encounter one another who want the same thing – namely an educational partnership for their children – but who define processes and partnerships in completely different ways.

What do we want, who takes the final decision and when? If that were fixed in advance of all the work which jointly concerns the parents and college of teachers, everyone involved would feel secure and security is a good basis for trust and open collaboration.

Clarity in collaboration is one aspect. A much more important factor is getting to know one another, doing things together, the interchange between one another. “Parent schools” are an incredible asset in this respect for the people in the school community.

At the last national parent council meeting in Gütersloh, one forum collected more than 60 successful examples in small groups of how the “school community as it is lived” can be supported. There was a positive energy in the room as the participants from all over Germany reported about their work days, the meals together of parent-teacher committees, drama and musical projects and even joint educational weekends. The list which was sent to all participants is more than four pages long. Filled by parents, teachers, staff and pupils.

Julia Chiandone, Hamburg-Bergstedt Rudolf Steiner School

More than baking, arts and crafts, maintenance and paying up

“Ok! Done!” With these words I put the wheelbarrow back in the tool shed and look across to my husband who is just tidying away the spades, rakes and other work utensils. He gives me a nod and together we walk through the grounds which a short time before had been a bustling scene of people at work. Satisfied, our eyes wander across the future adventure and exercise areas for the children of the lower school.

Yes, this action day at our school had once again been a success. On each occasion such days show how important a well functioning group of parents is for our school community! But we want to and can do more than service the cliché that parents are there to bake, do arts and crafts, help with maintenance and pay up. For example …

• being involved in decision-making processes

• entering into a dialogue with teachers without anxiety and as equals

• practising a true educational community with the teachers for the benefit of our children

• being networked with all Waldorf educational institutions in our region and promoting both nationwide interaction and our own training at parent council meetings and conferences

• taking a load off the teaching staff, particularly as regards tasks in self-management

• having our skills recognised and used by the school management

• also participating in educational concerns, while respecting the autonomy of the teachers.

True, the changes in society are also reflected in the body of parents at Waldorf schools. There are increasing numbers of single parents, “patchwork families”, or homes in which both parents go out to work. In such circumstances the ideals of a Waldorf school can no longer be easily and consistently realised – and that applies, I admit with a heavy heart, to “my” school as well. Yet I hold fast to my vision and in doing so learn to be happy also about small achievements.

Gerdi Horn, Mittelrhein Free Waldorf School, Neuwied

What do parents actually want?

This question, posed in a working group on parent-teacher-pupil collaboration at an annual general meeting, was intended to be as provocative as it sounds.

Where is there true involvement of parents in responsibility and in organisation beyond “baking, maintenance and shelling out”? Do parents want that at all any longer? Or is involvement merely restricted to grumbling when something isn’t quite as it should be in their own child’s class? A charge which is not infrequently levelled at parents in Waldorf schools.

So, what do parents want? As a parent representative in my own school, the region and on the national parent council, this is a question which I keep having to ask myself.

There are many ways in which parents can be involved. Unfortunately, parents with “low level” involvement, who for example turn up to every maintenance Saturday and untiringly clean windows, but are unable to commit themselves to committee work for reasons of time, are often overlooked or their work is taken for granted.

Then there are those who attempt to identify the moods and subjects which are likely to arise in the school and the classes, bundle them and work on them constructively and with continuity in school committees. Here it does not matter if their number is barely greater than ten as long as they keep an awareness of the others.

Unfortunately experience also shows that parents still have a lot of convincing to do as far as the trusting collaboration with the teachers is concerned. The advance of trust which class teachers in particular like to demand of parents is rarely given in return. There are many different reasons for this, some of which may be justified. To counter this, some regional parent councils are meanwhile trying to dismantle such reservations and overcome inhibition thresholds through establishing contact and discussions at an early stage with soon-to-be Waldorf teachers at the teacher training seminars.

If we remove the terms “parents” and “teachers” and “pre-school teachers” and simply see ourselves as people who with the skills they possess and with a loving eye want to support the children on their path, we will very quickly recognise that we all want the same thing – and in the best case scenario by working together. Which gives us the answer.

Ellen Niemann, Annie Heuser School, Berlin Wilmersdorf Free Waldorf School

Be curious and have trust

Collaboration between parents and teachers at Waldorf schools – how does that work? The answers to this question are as varied as the people in a school. The two things which are required for a collaboration which works are trust and curiosity. Curiosity is important to get to know the other person with their knowledge and skills; on that basis the trust in their abilities (also the educational ones) can grow. This is not about interference or knowing better, but together we have our eye on the child’s welfare. The decisions and meetings in this regard must be based on the educational foundations with which everyone is familiar and which have been discussed.

It is no doubt a difficult art to respect our collaborative partner and engage with them, but with trust it is possible. For parents, their own children are the most important thing. That is why educational decisions as well as school decisions have to be communicated in a clear and transparent way. If teachers fail to do that in the everyday life of the school then a lack of clarity arises among parents and that leads to mistrust. That can be enormously damaging for the school community because negative feelings are discussed particularly quickly with others. In order to counter this, our school council offers the opportunity to discuss problems and ambiguities.

The most important thing is not to abandon people with their concerns but to show them that their problems are taken seriously. Because these people have already lost their trust in a part of the school establishment. And now it is a matter of rectifying that loss of trust.

There are still other committees and groups in our school in which teachers and parents work together in organising and managing the school. So far I only have positive things to report about this, although there have also been times when there have been “explosions”.

But such outbursts also have a clarifying and cleansing element and were actually always helpful for the further collaboration if they were properly reviewed. There is one body in which there is no parent involvement, and that is the education meeting. That does, indeed, appear sensible to me.

Claudia Günther, Bremen-Osterholz Free Waldorf School

No committees without parents

Parents form the mantle of the Waldorf school. For school and mantle to become a thriving educational community requires the constant encounter in joint work. Parents represent the greatest number of people at the school, there are about twenty parents for each teacher. Parents can relieve teachers of many tasks which do not of necessity need to be performed by teachers, particularly in self-management. This means that teachers can concentrate on their core business, namely teaching.

Teacher training does not include the tasks of school management and human resources work. Here there are often parents with good training, long professional experience and a high level of competence.

But there are also limits to the work that parents can do: since parents as a rule do not have a Waldorf teacher training they must not want to intervene in educational competences. On the other hand parents often possess the greater competence in questions of self-management through their professional experience, for example in human resources or administrative matters.

There is no conflict about goals – teachers want Waldorf education, an education for freedom, while parents want their children to leave school with school leaving exams and do not want to obstruct their future opportunities: parents, too, can learn in their school. They can learn to have confidence in their children. The children’s pleasure in learning which is fostered and supported and the education to freedom, namely to take our own decisions, lead to good results in the school leaving exams. The pupils  will fulfil their own wishes. Parents have to fulfil their wishes themselves.

Committees without parents do not make sense. Teachers often spend their whole professional life at the same school and further training is mostly concerned with the subject methodology. Vitality in the way that the school develops and seeing the new children and new parents in each new first class in a way that is in keeping with the time can prevent many conflicts.

But alongside this the college of teachers should also have meetings where there are no parents present, such as internal further training or the meeting together at the start of school. Parents should also be involved in the school and subject profile. This is the only way rapidly to implement change in line with the times. This could be one of the great strengths of Waldorf schools; precisely in contrast to the very slow developments in mainstream schools.

Parents often want participation. But this is not about participation but community. If parents are involved in the work of the school management committees or the Thursday meeting, a feeling of us is created in the school not only among the parents participating in them but among many interested parents.

It is to be wished that the joint trustful activity of parents and teachers, as takes place in the school community, is in future also reflected in the board and management of the Association of Waldorf Schools.

Andreas Krauth, Nordheide Rudolf Steiner School, Kakenstorf

Waldorf reloaded

Waldorf schools, too, are only people: they have a destiny and their own will, have to breathe in and out, possess a head, heart, stomach and hands which fulfil their tasks sometimes more, sometimes less well, are sometimes argumentative and sometimes euphoric and enjoy the best of health or have to get over an illness.

If we take the metaphor of the living school organism literally, it becomes clear initially that the things which concern a school are also dependent on its age, and a freshly hatched Waldorf school still looking for a permanent building is unmistakeably different from one which has already reached pensionable age. While building is the dominant activity in the former which occupies the thoughts of everyone, schools which have “arrived” frequently have a tendency to become a bit sclerotic and rigidified in the structures that have evolved. Then it becomes difficult for later generations of parents to connect with them and perhaps introduce long overdue changes and course corrections.

But how can such structures be filled with new life? How, beyond that, can a joint sponsorship worthy of the name be established in which all sides work trustfully together; indeed, stop being sides at all and truly experience themselves as an “us” with the common goal of the welfare of the children in their care? Clearly through working together on specific topics, but above all through the inner willingness to look at the whole and overcome the limits of their own perception in that all the actors truly open themselves up to overcome their own fears and dislikes.

Such a process, which goes further than mere empathy, can lead to a comprehensive transformation within a school community which is accompanied by a fundamental change in the culture of communication. This becomes possible through making encounter possible – a place for real discussion in which all those involved can articulate their concerns, wishes and ideas in an open atmosphere without anxiety and without excluding their interlocutor or having to suppress important thoughts for fear of the direct or indirect consequences.

If these two steps succeed, then the climate within the school concerned should no longer be a cause for concern. And here the knowledge might be of help that newly developed structures emerge almost exclusively from crisis situations, showing that when we talk about a crisis representing an opportunity this is more than empty words.

Sven Andresen, Emil Molt School, Berlin-Zehlendorf