Taking the long view. I and community at school

Sven Saar

A Monday morning in class 1: the teacher lifts his hands and the children do the same. The morning verse is spoken: “I look into the world, Wherein there shines the sun...” The visitor’s eye wanders through the classroom, along the walls. The paintings from the last painting class are hanging there. All of them have a central, golden-yellow spot framed by deep blue. 

The teacher introduces a poem. The pupils listen attentively, repeat every line. Later they open their main lesson books, all large and red. A picture is drawn. “Mr Saar, what is the colour of the robber chief’s hat?” If the teacher says green, everyone draws it green. The unprepared observer will not see the subtle differentiation. Questions arise: everyone is doing the same thing here – what has happened to individuality? Is this supposed to be “educating for freedom”? What is the nature of individuality? Adults can quickly come up with an answer with many examples from their own biography. We define ourselves by the things and activities which suit us or are important to us, our own talents, achievements or wishes. Individuality is what characterises me now and will remain valid also in future.

How is that with the child? So much is still in development that as a teacher we have to cultivate an indirect perception because directly nothing of an individual nature is reliably revealed. What is to come does not like to reveal itself. Many things which strike us about the child still belong to the past, have been brought along or have been watched off someone else.

Which of these things will the growing human being take up as impulses for the future and carry into life? He or she is like a musician who gradually begins to recognise his or her talent. He or she first has to learn the basics, build a foundation on which he or she can then increasingly realise themselves. The task of the teacher is to accompany this development. That is why to begin with all the pictures are drawn with the same colours: before I can use art to express my own soul mood I have to discover how they interact with one another. Each child is unique and distinctive and yet laws do apply in his or her development which must not be ignored. Yet even more important than this “set of rules” is the wakeful study of the being of the child anew each day. Where is it authentic and original, where is it simply responding?

Is talent individual or one-sided?

Helena can play the violin wonderfully. Her mother is a violinist and makes her work at the instrument to the point of both their exhaustion. The girl plays in competitions and wins prizes. She is deemed to be a prodigy. Does her individuality reveal itself here? It does not escape the attentive teacher that at about the age of nine the shoulders of child – as a true choleric striding bent slightly forwards towards the future – start to become rounded. She seems to carry a burden on her shoulders. Is it the expectations of her mother who was unable to realise her own ambitions as a soloist? When Helena – indisputably virtuosic – plays the violin, the effect in class 4 is like Sieg­fried’s battle with the dragon, powerful, triumphal, but never easy, never in such a way as if the instrument was a part of her.

What is the role of the teacher in such a situation? Should he continue to allow the “individuality” of the child to shine or warn against damaging one-sidedness? Rash action, even with good intentions, can easily destroy where it seeks to create harmony. Is it maybe even the destiny of the child to be one-sided? Am I destroying genius when I attempt to create all-round wholeness? Rudolf Steiner exhorted the teachers at the Waldorf school on many occasions to study the being of the child inwardly in such an intensive way and observe their every move with such attention that helpful intuitions would come at the right moment; then an initially only vague inkling of the essential nature of the child could turn into a secure basis on which to make a decision. In Helena’ case this moment came when her mother wanted to insist that she be permanently excused from sports lessons because of the risk of hurting her fingers and forbade her from going on the class camping trip because it would mean a week without practicing. The teacher realised: now the social interests of the child had to take precedence and he had to make his views known to the mother.

The I in us – the we in the I

In class 2, the eight-year-old children are playing cat and mouse. The mouse knows that the cat will come from out of the circle of class mates in which the hunt also takes place. The horizon of the child is limited, framed by familiar faces. In class 4, the child’s mates form doors with their arms which can open and close. Cat and mouse whizz in and out. They can both be inside or one can be caught inside, the other safe outside. The framework of the game changes constantly without the children losing their orientation.

Before the age of ten, before the so-called “Rubicon” is crossed, the child experiences itself primarily as a part of the surrounding world. Group processes are participated in as a matter of course and motivating soul and physical movements copied. In the course of class 3, the child experiences “a significant strengthening, we might say intensification, of the feeling of self” (Steiner).

Ernst Bloch describes it like this: “I felt myself as the one doing the feeling” Here we have the clear impact of that which will manifest itself as the individuality but which at that time is still dull and unconscious in nature and tends to be experienced by the child as a kind of soul crisis with many questions about his or her origins (“am I really the child of my parents?”). The question about where the child is going comes later in a similar crisis phase at the age of twelve. What can the teacher do to nurture the delicate plant of the I while taking care of the class community? The verses for each child play a major role here, particularly when they were composed specifically for the inner life of child. Here the child communicates itself to its friends in pictorial form for a whole year: “This is how I am, this is what I want to become, and my teacher supports me in that!” The assignment of parts in class plays and certain special tasks (“Can you come fifteen minutes earlier tomorrow before the others so that we can practice the juggling”) are important elements in the individual attention beyond the teaching.

But such individual attention also has boundaries which Steiner outlined in the words that the individual should live as much in the community as the community does in the individual. In the course of the years it is therefore repeatedly made clear to the children: you might not always like one another, but you must always love one another! Regular discussion groups practice balancing one’s own need to communicate oneself with an interest in the other person. The child cannot yet handle the soul forces of sympathy and antipathy freely before puberty. In that period his or her emotional world is still strongly bound to physical wellbeing and human beings can only slowly become more inward precisely in “emancipating themselves in soul and spirit from the physical body” (Steiner). Steiner wanted the child to be able to have a model in the teacher. The teacher should set an example to the children of being able to control his or her soul forces, not be ruled by bias for or against someone, not lose sight of the overarching goal despite all the everyday things that need attending to. The teacher’s self-education, his or her concentrated work on his or her own soul life, creates a feeling of confidence in the child. It becomes a habit for the child that he or she can rely on the loving interest of the teacher.

“What will you be like in 30 years?”

The teacher, above all, takes the long view. His interest in the child extends a lot further than just the first eight years of school. How will the young person continue to progress through upper school, how and where will he or she stand in life? If I experience a crisis with a child, it is helpful to place his or her being before my soul not here and now but in thirty years’ time. What will you be like when you are forty? What will be of significance in your life? What makes you happy? If we were to meet, what would you tell me, what would you remember from our time together? All experienced teachers know that children today are more demanding, have a greater presence of self than even just twenty years ago. That might make our self education more difficult, but it makes the work incomparably more interesting. From class 3 onwards, the pupils enjoy the annual ritual on the first day of school of writing on the first page of their main lesson book what they want to learn in the coming year. At the end of the school year they think back: what have I achieved? The teacher gradually gives the pupils more opportunity to express themselves in their work. They no longer just copy the content of subjects like history and geography but formulate it in their own words. Steiner pointed out that the soul potential of the child might be clearly superior to that of the educator. Hence we should never restrict the pupils with our own horizon.

“I never felt so much my own person before!”

The incarnating I has to find the space to practice in daily social interaction as well: if we prescribe the seating order until class 8 we might be preventing important maturation processes. Class trips provide the opportunity through testing experiences of getting to know our own individuality: I was once in a remote bay in south Wales with a class 7. I woke the children at midnight and we went to the beach which at low tide was more than a kilometre wide. We walked together in a certain direction for half an hour and then each child was allowed to go back alone (voluntarily) at intervals of three minutes. It was not quite dark, there was no sound apart from the quiet lapping of the waves, and the walkers were surrounded by what seemed like boundless empty space. All the pupils looked both exhausted an relieved when they reached the other end and were enthusiastically received and praised. Afterwards one girl said: “I never felt so much my own person before!”

When the teacher is chased from the farm

The class 8 curriculum gives the teacher many opportunities to make it easier for the pupils to cut the umbilical cord. History lessons alone, with their many revolutions, should ensure that it becomes impossible for the teacher to lump all the pupils, who might surpass him in several respects, together. I once saw Orwell’s Animal Farm performed as a class play in which the (courageous) teacher took the part of Farmer Jones and was chased by his pupils with great enthusiasm from the farm.

At the end of the class teacher period the authority of the teacher no longer applies automatically. We are only any longer entitled to say anything if we really have something to say. The soul of the pupil can oscillate freely. In class 9 and 10 it bumps into everything in doing so, and in that way develops in quite a difficult and painful way its socially compatible form free of the body.

The pupils conclude their actual Waldorf schooldays in class 12 – a period throughout which the teachers and fellow pupils have “moulded away” at them over many years. Now they have to stand on their own two feet, released from the community. The instrument of their I has been tuned, they are in command of the basic skills and a number of performance pieces. Now they have to obtain happiness as soloists or on their own responsibility find the orchestra which suits them.