The end of a Waldorf School?

Andreas Maria Schäfer

The conflict escalated within a few years and earlier this year became an existential threat to the school. The catalyst was the unresolved issue of who in the school administration was allowed to decide about the recruitment of teachers. The state education authority failed in its attempt to resolve the problem of areas of responsibility through discussions and correspondence with school council members and the sponsoring association. It threatened to close the school.

The education authority became involved after receiving myriad emails and phone calls from parents, teachers and pupils asking for support because internal communication had completely broken down. The conflict culminated in several teachers and pupils leaving the school. The responsible Regional Waldorf Association and the German Association of Waldorf Schools were sent a long letter which had been signed by a large group of parents and current and former teachers and pupils informing them of the escalation and requesting their help in reaching a settlement.

At the beginning of the year, an arbitration team consisting of four members of both associations was brought in, but this attempt at a reconciliation failed due to the school community not being willing enough to reach a settlement. The education authority again threatened the school with closure and the German Association of Waldorf Schools felt compelled enough to revoke the right of the school to call itself a Waldorf School. The arbitration team then devised an interim arrangement for the school community which would work towards the support and rescue of the school. This arrangement was unanimously accepted. In parallel, the state education authority started to support this process.

At this point, an on-site team with a full-time interim manager took over for six months. External appraisers and mediators supported the continuing work and finding a resolution to the conflict.

They made sure that there was a fresh start to the negotiations and helped to develop proposals for a forward-looking structure. This was done, above all, to provide the new school management with responsibility and decision-making authority in the context of educational self-management. The school directors were to become the contacts for parents. In the future, members of the school community were to work with one another in an honest and transparent manner. It is only through this that a new sense of trust could be established.

All members of the school community were kept informed by a regular newsletter. Regular school assemblies were also held. At these it was repeatedly pointed out that it is a “basic law” of constructive collaboration among people not to talk about but with other people. This cannot happen without a culture of working on one’s own development. Accordingly, the traditional background noise of chatter about others in the corridors and car park should be avoided. In addition to this, the structural proposals considered in all the committees were discussed: clarity of communication and the commitment to adopt responsibility.

The school community gathered requests and ideas for a governing board consisting of teachers, parents and pupils and prepared the next election of the school council. Furthermore, at these meetings “process representatives” were elected to assume responsibility for the medium to long term of ensuring that the decisions made would be implemented. In addition to this, eleven people were chosen to be trained as “developmental wardens” over the next three years. Their job in the committees in which they work as “process wardens” is to intervene with form-giving awareness in the process irrespective of the content. Their training in practical modules spanned several weeks.

The cause of the conflict goes back ten years. It was then that parallel classes were decided upon. The educational and economic requirements for this were also created and tested out. That this would result in significant social change – the doubling of pupil and teacher numbers – was not properly taken into account. There was a lack of effective management structure. This led to external consults being sought with joint work on new bodies. However, the school did not see this through to the end which meant that no transfer of responsibility took place in the school management.

The result of the current intervention was to restructure the two most important and problematic organs: full decision-making powers were to be given to the human resources group and the school management team who would have to be correspondingly accountable. Until that time difficult staff questions were shunted back and forth between both teams until in the end no one wanted to take responsibility for having taken any decisions. This will also be of considerable importance for parents since now for the first time there will be an official “school director” for each age group as a contact to represent the whole of the school community and no longer a nebulous school management team. Parents could not previously identify whom they could contact authoritatively.

A professionally working human resources group will be created for the college of teachers which will now take on a real duty of care with all the consequences arising to an employer for which it will also be given fully decision-making authority by the whole of the college of teachers.

At the end of the process new elections were held for the school management team, the human resources group and the members of the association council. Their task is to ensure that the whole of the school community is included in the developmental processes so that the decisions taken by these bodies are accepted by everyone. Not least, it is important to avoid creating situations in which individual people can become the focal point of power centres as had been revealed during the conflict among parents, council, management and administration.

About the author: Andreas Maria Schäfer was a school manager and advises people and institutions on their developmental paths in his “future workshops”.