Supporting one of a kind

Claus-Peter Röh

The more we succeed in addressing the child or young person in such a way that their interest and independent activity is awoken, the more intense the learning process becomes and the deeper the young person connects with what they are learning. Observing how a pupil suddenly pays attention, applies themselves and then takes hold of the question, the words or activity in their very own way is one of the most beautiful but also mysterious moments of being a teacher. How is such an impulse formed which breaks through the everyday layers of the personality? And what effect does such an experience have on their further developmental path – for the child, for the pre-school teacher or teacher?

The end of main lesson: after the written work, the class gathers into a circle for the story. There is some unrest, a boy stays in “his place”. The teacher says some calming words to him and starts to sing a tune. The class joins in and then looks expectantly at the teacher. When she asks who can remember the fairy tale from yesterday, there is the kind of quiet in the room which reigns when we try to remember something. It is as if every child is submersing themselves in their unknown depths to call up the experience again. A boy begins tentatively: “There was a girl who was poor…”. Other children stir as if they were about to say something. At this moment the teacher notices that a girl, visibly moved, bends forward and softly asks: “May I?”. In response to the encouraging “Yes” she begins to speak with a clear voice:

“Once upon a time there was a little girl whose father and mother had died, and she was so poor that she no longer had a room to live in, nor a bed to sleep in, and finally she had nothing but the clothes she stood up in and a little piece of bread in her hand that some charitable soul had given her …”. Word for word she tells the whole fairy tale of the Star Talers and ends with the words “… then she gathered the money into it and was rich for the rest of her days.” Amazed silence in the room. As much as about the fairy tale, the amazement is about the girl who, in telling it, has just made it her own with such decisiveness and power. Never before had this child been experienced like this in the way she spoke. The teacher, who herself practices a lot for the daily free rendition of a story, later said that this experience turned the girl into a profound riddle for her. Whereas remembering everyday things and work was not easy for the girl, her whole being had clearly united with the content and language of the “Star Talers” fairy tale to such an extent that it was completely present in her and she was at the same time immersed in the fairy tale.

Egohood means connecting

The gesture just described of combining with something brings a quality of the human I to expression which Rudolf Steiner describes in a few words in Theosophy: “The I obtains its essence and meaning from that with which it connects itself.” In this connectedness the I clearly does not impose its content but selflessly allows itself to be determined by the “essence and meaning” of that with which it is connected. The example described shows clearly that such a process cannot be directly planned and determined from outside. On the contrary, the task of education and teaching is to create motivation and the space for encounter which can then form the foundation for such an inner connection from out of the individuality. Good habits in this sense would be the ability to listen as well as attentiveness and interest.

A little encouragement helps

Let us look at later periods in life: at the age of nine or ten the children are in transition. They separate from the supporting “gold ground” of childhood to develop a new, individual relationship between their I and the world. The experiences can become correspondingly more dynamic and challenging. Visits by craftsmen are not just an authentic deepening of learning but above all an offer to our inner being to take hold of something.

Joyous expectation in class 3, the glass blower has agreed to come! One day strange bits of equipment are carried into the classroom in the morning, the excitement grows. Then the moment has finally arrived: the children listen to his words in fascination and are startled as the blue gas flame lights up. Every hand movement is profoundly absorbed. A girl who has initially kept a safe distance is so stirred by what is happening that she unobtrusively moves closer and closer with her chair.

The glass blower, who has noticed this with a quiet chuckle, at first continues to magic a swan from the glass. Then he says: “Now I need a strong assistant” and looks at the girl who is so startled that she turns to her friends for support. “You can do it,” he adds looking at her calmly. And she does indeed overcome her fear, gets up and goes and stands next to the master glass blower. “When the glass is properly hot, you have to blow with all your might.” She nods determinedly and a moment later blows a beautiful glass ball. Without his encouragement she would never have dared to do it.

When he freed her from her inhibition arising from excitement and fear, she was able to rise to the challenge. For Steiner, such trust in the power of the individuality belongs to the foundations of Waldorf education: “We are … called upon to clear away these developmental inhibitions lying in the physical body and body and soul and let the individually develop freely.”

The next day the girl wrote: “Oh, we were very excited! Most of us had never seen a glass blower. When I was close to the fire, it was very hot. I had to blow into the little glass tube as hard as I could! So I was actually allowed to make a glass ball. Then the time was already up. We still sang a song for him and said goodbye.”

An I says “no”

Five years later, class 8: we are heading towards a drama performance; once again that creates opportunities for a commitment based in the I. However, the inner being of the 14-year-old pupils has now already “buried” itself much more deeply in the soul layers of their personality. The basic attitude of sympathy prevalent in lower school has given way to the alternation of sympathy and antipathy. That is why it is important now in particular to create space at various teaching levels for the young person to be able to grasp things individually.

Moment of truth: today everybody is being told what part they are playing. Tense expectation, also in the teacher. How will the pupils react? Each part is assigned and gradually an impression of grateful relief spreads that everything is going so well. Finally the last pupil is named for one of the main parts in the play. And without warning the pupil says: “No, there is no way I will play that part.” Deathly silence. The resolve in his words is irrevocable and as a result the whole house of cards of the planning threatens to collapse. Disconcertedly the pupils look at their teacher. She has almost decided to call everything off when she stops thoughtfully, looks at another pupil and says: “James, can you take this part?” Everyone hangs on his words, knows that he is not an orator, sees how he struggles with himself, and then he speaks a clear “Yes” into the silence and asks: “So Mark will take my part?” The latter hesitates: “Yes, but I want a day to consider.” A girl at the back says drily: “Well that’s a good start then.” Relieved laughter.

Through this experience the teacher and pupils discover traits in the two boys which they have not perceived in this way before. The ability of the I to connect with others is clearly accompanied by the willingness also to set oneself apart. It was only the decisive “No” of the one that enabled the decisive “Yes” of the other. This expression of the I initiated processes of transformation at various levels: on the one hand there was a new respect for the two boys. On the other hand the two determinedly took up their new parts. Their determination affected the subsequent rehearsals and in turn encouraged their fellow pupils. This interchange between the individuals and the community created a feeling of responsibility for the success of the whole which was bigger than the individual parts.

The I takes on responsibility

If we look at the three age groups described, we can arrive at a trust in the developmental power inherent in each individuality. The surrounding enabling educational gesture and attentiveness are always of fundamental importance. At the same time the decisive inner seizure must come from the respective I itself. These reciprocal gestures of the I pervade the whole of the time spent at the Waldorf school: joyful encounter, attentiveness, stimulating diversity, challenging changes of perspective in learning, and the artistic creative element in each lesson serve the goal of discovering and supporting what is distinctive and unique in each growing pupil.

About the author: Claus-Peter Röh was a class, music and religious studies teacher at the Flensburg Free Waldorf School for 28 years; today he leads the Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum in Dornach together with Florian Osswald.