Throwing traditions overboard. An experiment in state and Waldorf education in Hamburg

Erziehungskunst | Ms Leiste, a majority in the teaching staff at the Fährstraße primary school voted to embark on a school project with the Association for Intercultural Waldorf Education in Wilhelmsburg. How do state primary school teachers turn into Waldorf teachers?

Christiane Leiste | This school project is not about turning “state school teachers” into Waldorf teachers or vice versa. Rather, it is about acknowledging the educational concepts of the other with reciprocal interest and respect and to understand the different concerns and approaches. I have concerned myself intensively with education in mainstream schools in the last two years and it has become clear to me that there are many interesting things to discover. In modern language teaching at primary level, for example, a lot of methods have been developed which could teach many a foreign language teacher in Waldorf schools a thing or two.

We hope, of course, that the Fährstraße teachers will be willing to look at the things which we consider important in Waldorf education. How much that will happen remains an open question and will show itself in the course of time. To this end we also have to keep putting Waldorf education to the test and throwing those things overboard which are merely handed-down by tradition.

EK | Schools senator Ties Rabe initially responded to your proposal to establish a Waldorf school in the district with scepticism. What changed his mind?

CL | The senator’s scepticism was based on the concern that educationally aware parents in Wilhelmsburg would choose this school to give their children greater educational opportunities. In a certain sense they would separate their children off from the educationally disadvantaged children and abandon the latter to their fate to an even greater extent. In the beginning phase, a person in the schools authority said to us: “If you start a Waldorf school in Wilhelmsburg, you will establish an island on an island but not for the island.” (For those who do not know Hamburg, Wilhelmsburg lies on the largest river island in Europe and therefore enjoys island status within Hamburg.) That made us think. But we were keen to work educationally on the island and particularly also with the educationally disadvantaged children. So the director of the schools department, Norbert Rosenboom, came up with the idea of collaborating with a mainstream school and to work with Waldorf education in that.

We found the offer from the authority interesting and responded to it. For the first six months we worked only with the top level of the authority in order to assess whether such a collaboration was really feasible. Every second Wednesday afternoon we sat in the schools authority and talked about what from our perspective Waldorf education was about and which of those things we wanted to implement. Surprisingly, we found agreement in large parts. Six months later we had reached a consensus. But it was also clear that we would not do a state-financed Waldorf school but that it was fifty-fifty, as it were.

EK | What will distinguish the first state-funded Waldorf school from an ordinary Waldorf school? Will there be a basic concept with fixed Waldorf elements?

CL | Let me say first that the term state-funded Waldorf school is not correct. That is the whole point, it will not be a classic Waldorf school but it is a pilot project with the aim of bringing together the best elements of both educational approaches. We will know better what that will look like after four to six years of practical experience.

A lot will depend on the teachers who will join the school in future and the amount of flexibility and enthusiasm they bring with them. It will be a matter of using what room for manoeuvre there is to build something that will meet the needs of the children of Wilhelmsburg.

The classes are characterised by extreme heterogeneity. Ninety percent of the children have a migration history. Many come from eastern Europe, Turkey and Russia. There are many Roma among them. Others come from Afghanistan, Iran or various African countries. Every child has had a life which is very different to that of our “ordinary Waldorf children”. Some families in Fährstraße come from an Albanian village which was totally destroyed by bandits.

One boy from Syria told me sadly that he could not go home because there was a war going on there. An Iranian boy lives in a children’s home. His father is a drug-user and has disappeared, I have not yet discovered anything about his mother … Many children speak little or no German at all. Their fellow pupils have to help with translation during lessons. That is a colourful, lively, strong mixture and it is demanding to teach here, but it is also great fun.

Many parts of Waldorf education are absolutely spot on for an intercultural approach. The class teacher principle, for example, which gives the children a protected space and continuity which they often do not have at home. Or the rhythmical and musical element which can support language and harmonise the children. We also dream about classes in their language of origin, more thorough German lessons for all children who do not have German as their first language, intercultural subject lessons … The Mannheim Intercultural Waldorf School has already done much in this direction from which we can benefit.

EK | The German Association of Waldorf Schools welcomes the Hamburg plans but fears that the Hamburg schools inspectorate could interfere to much in the content of the work.

CL | Since we are a state school, we are bound by the Hamburg education act and framework plan. But they leave a lot of educational room for manoeuvre. Here too there is a model: the state Albert Schweitzer School which has been working with Waldorf educational principles since 1950 – and it has done so at a high level!

If we do good work it is unlikely that someone from on high will interfere. But it will be carefully watched. By both sides presumably. The collaboration with the Association of Waldorf Schools is of elementary importance for us to strengthen the elements of Waldorf education.

EK | A concept group is currently working regularly on the content. What compromises do you have to accept from the perspective of an experienced Waldorf teacher?

CL | We are still very much at the beginning with the concept group. But we have already agreed on a number of principles. There will be main lessons, for example. We also want to emphasise artistic and craft work.

EK | The school is fully funded by the state, the teachers are state employees, there will be a principal. Where does that leave self-management by the college of teachers – a core element in all Waldorf schools?

CL | Nothing final has yet been decided in this respect either. The current school principal will retire in the summer and it has not yet been determined who will take over the running of the school. Everyone wants someone who is a good team player and can work well with the teaching staff so that the school is not “governed” too much from the top down. Or there might also be a school management team – someone who comes from the Waldorf side and is very competent in that respect and someone else who has more of a background in mainstream schooling and is very innovative.

Our association is represented on the recruitment committee so that we also have a say. We are, by the way, also still urgently looking for Waldorf class teachers and a eurythmy teacher with state teaching qualifications.

Christiane Leiste is a Waldorf teacher and project leader of the “Intercultural Waldorf Education Wilhelmsburg” initiative. She has been working in schools in the socially deprived area of Hamburg Wilhelmsburg since February 2013, and since February 2014 in the Fährstraße all-day school. Mathias Maurer asked the questions.