Trust in the school organism

Christof Wiechert

Trust in ourselves

Where does it reside? In socialisation, in our character, in the temperament? There is a booklet by Rudolf Steiner, The Threshold of the Spiritual World (GA 17), which starts with the chapter “On the trust one can have in thinking”. Thinking is described as a safe haven in the sea of emotions. Do we have this experience? Where is this haven? It is located in our innermost part, there where we speak with ourselves, where subject and object become one.

In his wonderful booklet Ins Wasser geschrieben, Peter Trawny calls it the place of ultimate intimacy in which there is no longer any pretence, any facade, just thought, reality. Anyone who now and again puts into this haven with their ship of life recalibrates their compass, strengthens the trust and self-confidence in themselves – not the loud but the quiet sort.

Trust in childhood

One of Steiner’s most powerful ideas in the art of education is the seven-year rhythm. In the first septennium, the child obtains – if brought up accordingly – the sense of life that the world is good. In the second septennium lives the basic unconscious experience that the world is beautiful; and in the third that the world is true. We should always remember in such presentations that these three qualities do not arise consecutively but out of one another: out of the feeling that the world is good there develops that of beauty, and from that the feeling of truth. So, the world is good: what is that other than having trust in the world?

I have found repeatedly that children who are brought up at home with heart and reason combined face the world with confidence and without fear. That is already evident in kindergarten: in the natural and secure way they stand in the world, as if protected. Children who were brought up with reason alone tend to have a critical attitude towards the world, they are nervous, fearful, insecure in their bearing. They already see themselves in opposition to the world.

Furthermore, I have taught pupils who were not favoured by fate, whose start in life faced many obstacles. It has always been my experience that such children, if they had at least one reliable reference person – the kindergarten teacher, school teacher, janitor – never complained about life. There was a basic trust. An experience which makes us think of destiny at work.

Teachers between one another

And how do the teachers deal with one another? Is such trust of the quiet, worked at kind reflected in their behaviour? What difference does it make if we trust our interlocutor or not? What hidden back and forth is at play between two people; be it colleagues, teachers and parents, or teachers and governors? The quick vibration, the scan between affinity and rejection, this quick pulsation of sympathy and assertiveness (antipathy). That is the natural process in any encounter, controlled by the sentient soul. But then self-confidence intervenes in this pulsation and forcefully says yes to the situation and its consequences. Trust can arise and also has this aspect: we do what has been agreed. We want to do what has been agreed.

And if for some reason we cannot do so, the breach of trust can be avoided by discussing the matter, saying it doesn’t work, it cannot be done.

But that requires the inner force of trust in ourselves, self-confidence.

How friendly, open, uncomplicated is the behaviour of the teachers towards the pupils? What advance of trust have the parents given the school that the teachers will be friendly and nice (and yet remain teachers)? This advance can be damaged, transformed into bitterness which mostly is difficult to rectify, if it can be done at all.

Parents and teachers

Do parents and teachers need to trust one another? In practice, I encountered three forms of parental collaboration. Parents at a distance: here is my child and my school fees, do something good with both! Great parents, they allow one to breathe, even if sometimes a little more involvement would be nice. These are parents who give trust.

In contrast, there are the highly involved expert parents. They know precisely what is correct and are advocates of the school as long as everything is being done “properly” in their opinion. Their trust has to be regularly affirmed. And then there are the parents of whom one does not see a great deal but who are always there when help is required, when something needs to be done. Their collaboration creates trust through doing.

And then there are all kinds of intermediate stages.

Think of all these parents as forming a group surrounding the class community, united by an active, effective and observable system of education. This group of parents has a mighty social potential which has not yet even been properly described, let alone fully made use of. It has great load-bearing capacity for the school community. Once it exists, no one talks about trust any longer because it is lived. The groups of parents surrounding the class community are the pillars of the school if they are held together by a working, that is active; effective, that is experienceable; and observable, that is clearly understandable, system of education.

If such groups do not come about, then the school weakens as a community.

Every school needs the greatest possible number of such supporting groups surrounding the classes. They give the school stability and identity. Such groups are hindered through an inappropriately rapid turnover of teachers or teaching appointments which turn out not to be sustainable. If a class teacher leaves a class because she is pregnant that has a quite different moral value for the class from a class teacher leaving because they might like it better somewhere else.

If such supporting groups do not arise, trust is immediately called into question. Our view of the situation then fast forwards: for how long is something accepted that does not work?

We thus reach the second level of the school. The first level is the sustainability brought about by the parent-class community. The second level is the school leadership.

The art of leadership

Nothing is nicer than a well-managed school! It attracts trust like a magnet attracts iron. That already works in the outer appearance of the school. It gives such a curious feeling when Steiner asked for “greater dash, greater esprit de corps” in the teachers’ meetings: he called for a coherent appearance, the school as a unit. Coherence creates trust: here we have a group of people who know what they want and in this spirit they are working together. That makes a school interesting, seen from outside.

The school management – how it is structured is not something to be discussed here – always has to be at pains to take measures which strengthen the inner and outer quality of the school. That makes its profile and identity visible, which attracts trust.

The cornerstones are the colleagues who have made the esprit de corps their own, not for themselves but for the school. Hence we have to say: human resources – that is, those who are responsible for recruiting and also dismissing staff – always has to take priority. It requires an inventiveness which goes further than an advert in Erziehungskunst!

The school movement is sensitive. Many colleagues come to a school and first have to familiarise themselves with its identity, its methods, with the attitude prevalent in dealing with pupils and parents, colleagues and the school’s bodies. Anyone who steers their own course and does not seek the spirit of the school will encounter a hardened body of habits and there will be one crisis after the other. Young colleagues wanting to join the Waldorf school today experience the name as an obstacle because of such social vulnerability.

Many years ago, the then chair of the Anthroposophical Society in the Netherlands, Bernard Lievegoed, described in a lecture the gold triangle of school relationships (pupils – parents – teachers) and noted that if one side of this triangle is broken, the whole is broken. We can add to that and form a golden triangle of relationships within the school itself: teachers – school management (bodies) – governors. If one side is broken here, the whole organism is called into question. But what are the sides of the two triangles made of? The will to work together.

The areas of trust

It is helpful to differentiate between three areas of trust. The first area is the trust which arises through fulfilling our duties, through keeping to agreements.

The second area of trust is at the soul level: it can arise through the relationship with the other and enriches our own work and thus life.

The third area is spiritual. It is independent of the other. It is found in the place mentioned at the beginning. We can call it trust in God.

All these things are not that difficult to achieve! What is required is a joint will, this builds trust.

About the author: Christof Wiechert was for many years the head of the Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum. Most recently his book Lust aufs Lehrersein was published by Verlag am Goetheanum.