The Waldorf school requires a new spiritual impulse

Gilad Goldshmidt

Our strength is our weakness

Waldorf education has spread greatly in recent years. More and more children in more and more countries experience our education. That a system of independent schools can exist and flourish for a hundred years should not be taken for granted. The main reason for this is the spiritual inspiration – the anthroposophical background of Waldorf education and the clear structure, extending into the educational details, which Rudolf Steiner and those who followed him created in many books, lectures and teachers’ meetings.

We, as Waldorf educators, can draw on a tradition, we have practical methods, know “how it’s done”. We have a hundred years of experience and we know that “it works”. That is our strength.

But that precisely is also our weakness. Our forms, our traditions, our methods have their origin in a spiritual source of inspiration, but a source that welled up a hundred years ago. Because our work has a spiritual origin, it works. The education was undoubtedly appropriate for its time, but is it still today?

Much has changed since then: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat are quite different from a hundred years ago, as are the needs of the children, the views of the parents and the motivation and attitude of the teachers.

Knowledge is a double-edged sword: it is powerful, provides security and a foundation; yet it can also constrict and hinder new things. In order to respect our heritage and continue to care for it, yet work appropriately for our time, we have to seek new forms, pay attention to the flow of time – and work hard.

If Steiner were alive today

It is just an exercise, but one that might help: what would Steiner, if he were to appear today, tell us Waldorf teachers? What new truths about the nature of the human being? What methodological suggestions? What new ideas, thoughts and organisational steps?

Would he say anything new at all? My attempt at an answer to this question leads me to three levels.

Esoteric work

We can know what needs to be done if we do it with wholehearted commitment, something that applies particularly with regard to the teaching profession. Our – if limited, difficult and sometimes chaotic – soul life contains the source of wisdom. The question is: how do we access it? The Waldorf impulse first entered the world through Steiner and his pupils, who continued to develop and extend the impulse. We live in a time in which neither Steiner, nor his pupils, nor any preeminent individuals live who could teach us. We are thrown back on ourselves. That can be discouraging. But there is no way past it: we have to build on ourselves. The big questions of our time are not answered by Steiner’s lectures and books. They represent a basis, they can contribute to our inner attitude, serve as signposts, but the answers will only come from ourselves.

For many years I have mentored teachers at Waldorf schools and students of Waldorf education. In recent years I have been able to observe a curious phenomenon. Many young trainees and teachers, also those with a deep connection to anthroposophy, follow paths of spiritual training, be it Buddhism, Yoga, Kabala, Sufism or others. Why do young people come to us, learn about anthroposophy, connect with Waldorf education and then choose other spiritual paths of self-development?

In my view this is due to the difficult and lonely anthroposophical path of training. What exists as a matter of course on all other spiritual paths – individual accompaniment and group support – is absent with us. Many young people find our path of training too lonely, too difficult, and they miss the personal accompaniment. They work in a Waldorf school and find the answer to their esoteric needs elsewhere. These thoughts led some teachers from the Harduf Waldorf School in Israel to develop the anthroposophical path of training for the community.

It starts with group work in which everyone is pupil and teacher at the same time. The group is strong, it is the actual teacher. We decided to take the first steps of the training path together and began by working on the foundations (Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment, the six “subsidiary exercises”). Since then we have met at least once a week, the leader of the group changes and there is a rhythm between small groups with three to four participants and one large one. The main activity is meditating together, exchanging personal experiences from the past week and talking about the next step. After a certain time of practice, we will continue the work with colleges of teachers from various Waldorf schools in Israel and are also introducing this style of working to the Waldorf training courses.

I am convinced that if our students and teachers discover their training path in anthroposophy, if they find support, dialogue, exchange of experiences and of course the deeper perspectives of this path, we will draw near to the spiritual source of Waldorf education.

Exoteric work

The Waldorf impulse is for everyone and is intended to reach as many children as possible. That will not succeed if we simply continue as before. In most countries around the world the Waldorf school is a privilege for rich or educated parents. Although Waldorf education has become a world movement, the feeling remains that we stick to ourselves. We should move inwards and then outwards. The one movement strengthens and vitalises the other. The more the inward-facing esoteric and meditative work deepens, the more we will gain influence towards the outside and vice versa. Today the trend is that we are stuck in the middle. We need more movement! One possibility to produce such a swing of the pendulum is to observe what the Waldorf school has to offer, for example:

  • Fostering human contact in the daily life of the school
  • Strengthening the artistic impulse
  • Strengthening the craft impulse, extension of the main lesson method
  • Greater inclusion of nature and the encounter with nature in accordance with the basic need of children
  • Further development of a written, artistic and individual culture of evaluation
  • Grassroots democratic school management

In my experience in Israel there are many people in all educational circles who have a deep longing for precisely these “Waldorf specialities”. In recent years we had good experiences in state schools and kindergartens seeking Waldorf inspiration. Schools which introduced art lessons every day for every child into the curriculum; schools which organised handwork lessons for all children in the first classes; schools which made vegetable gardens; and schools which each morning played for quarter of an hour with the whole school community on the sports ground.

The question about our Waldorf qualities and for educational support came from the schools (school principals or teachers), from parents in the school community or in some cases also from the local authorities. It is not about transforming a state school into a Waldorf school. My concern is that as many children (and teachers) as possible should do art, work in the garden, respect nature, care for animals, take personal responsibility and, if possible, also gradually start to apply Waldorf methods. What I see ahead of me is a large public educational movement which is inspired by the Waldorf impulse.

Thus two separate movements might start which have a clear relationship with one another: the Waldorf movement and the public movement. The latter should be active in all areas of the school system, in collaboration with the authorities, the school authorities and other educational movements in the country. This is the second step: going outwards, exercising great influence, leaving everyone completely free, but with the certainty: we have something to contribute to the world of education.

Research as everyday practice

The third level consists of research as everyday practice. Traditional forms have the tendency to be coercive. In order to observe the new demands of our time, we have to create an open space and initially forget the established forms. Here the following question can help us further: what has lasting and what temporary value in our educational activity? Which elements should be preserve and which ones should we change so that they have their finger on the pulse of our time? We must have the courage to question many Waldorf elements, content, methods and habits. To say it again: what would Steiner advise us to do if he were alive today – with regard to our daily activity with the children?

Each one of us carries the answers within themselves and proper group work can lead to them – conversational group work based on trust and listening. In the teachers’ meeting we can call all our actions into question. We can observe our children, parents, young staff members, contemporary phenomena, the world in which the children are growing up – that is, the circumstances of the school and life. From this perspective we can investigate our educational traditions: what should remain? What should we change? In what direction? What fits exactly with what our children need? What benefits them? When and where do we have the feeling that their life forces are growing? When and where do we have the feeling that they are drying up, that the children are becoming tired?

In recent years I supported a number of colleges of teachers in the following questions (examples): 1. The breathing motion between lessons and breaks in the various age groups. A school wants to set up a flowing course of the day without lesson breaks and without fixed starting and end times. 2. Meals and their preparation. In one school the children will eat lunch together and prepare it as a whole class community. 3. Shaping the start of the day. The children are to be given various possibilities for movement, work and independent initiative. Proposal are: hiking, working in the fields, social games and free play for the lower classes. 4. Increasing choice from class 6 into upper school. The aim is to awaken the independent initiative of the pupils. Two or three subjects are offered in the same lesson period in parallel. 5. Main lessons in all subjects (foreign languages, handwork, art ...). In upper school even as much as two to three main lessons in parallel. 6. Fostering the social relationships between the children. The proposal was to make one supported period in the day available in which the children organise themselves. 7. Group work starting in class 1. 8. Upper school – seeking partnership with the pupils. Creating forms so that they can be involved in the work of the school and in shaping it. A start can be made with organising festivals and project days but also extend as far as curricular and methodological questions. 9. Waiving one main lesson in favour of a free space in which to ask what the class really needs right now and what the teacher would actually like to teach right now. Where do the personal preferences lie so that in each school year one main lesson is newly organised by themselves.

The key part is that we as a group should seek, investigate and deepen our daily activities in the knowledge that we already carry the answers within us. I am confident: with sufficient effort and perseverance we will be able to continue to develop our educational work in a contemporary way.

About the author: Dr Gilad Goldshmidt was for many years a class teacher in the lower school, then in the upper school of the Harduf Waldorf School. Chair of the Israeli Association of Waldorf Schools for 30 years. Co-director of two state-recognised Waldorf teacher training courses. Mentoring schools and teachers. Author of several Waldorf books in Hebrew. Lives in Harduf, Israel.