Untapped freedoms. School experiences from the perspective of teachers and parents

Stefan Langhammer

First as a guest teacher, then as the subject teacher I was initially to take over the subject lessons from my colleague and relieve him of some work. Unfortunately the class saw it quite differently because they really liked my colleague and the newcomer less so. The attempt to infect the pupils with my enthusiasm for Schiller’s Don Carlos was an abject failure – the agreement among the pupils not to respond and ignore the teacher worked perfectly, something which at least indicated that the social cohesion in the class was very strong. This time led to considerable self-doubt in me.

And yet, at 32, I wasn’t that inexperienced: after studying biology and German and having sat the first state examination, I had already worked for two years as a small-class teacher in a therapeutic community for child and adolescent psychiatry. During this time I learned the value of joint child reviews. The content and methodology at the time was guided solely by what acted positively on the development of and in a stabilising way on the pupils – in the early 1990s, a piece of Waldorf educational heaven.

My probationary year had not yet come to an end when I was asked to take care of the future class 9. The lessons spent sitting in on the class in the previous year had been thoroughly motivating: that pupils climb tables and benches had until then been a metaphor about the vitality in a class for me – here it turned into reality. The noise level with which the happening in the lesson was framed was phenomenal. The class made a vigorous, very vital impression on me and I was happy to agree to the five-year experiment.

Infinite abundance …

The first three years as a teacher allowed me to discover all kinds of wonderful, but also surprising things. The most wonderful one came right at the beginning: in the eurythmy teacher I became acquainted with my future wife who in the beginning phase of looking after the class gave me unswerving support. An infinite number of fields of activity quickly opened up from taking on non-specialist lessons to administrative tasks and other areas of responsibility – one only had to say yes.

A special tier of experience were the Thursday meetings which on many an occasion unpleasantly curtailed an early night. The long and the short of many things was discussed in great detail in order then to sound out the ups and downs of the matter. If, a few weeks later, a decision was arrived at, I was surprised as the newcomer that the same circumstance had already been decided on and minuted a year earlier. In the process an exchange of views about the content of educational questions all too often fell by the wayside.

What I truly enjoyed was the freedom with which I was able to take my cue for the lessons from the pupils and could also shape the work with parents. School and life should come together in upper school – where that became possible, presence, interest and lively participation in the class could be directly experienced. Such as in the biology main lesson in class 10 for which a doctor was invited who brought his heart transplant patient along to tell us about his experiences after the operation. Or a midwife who came to the embryology main lesson shortly before the birth of our second child and who very vividly illustrated the antenatal preparations and the birth process for the pupils. Or the chemistry main lesson organised together with a parent – a chemist by profession – with rather remarkable experiments. Not to forget the two pupils who in class 12 organised an international pupil conference with 300 participants alongside the class play, exams and the class trip. People with a wealth of practical, real-life experience and the initiative of young people turned the school walls transparent, at least from time to time.

Pupils want authentic teachers

Shortly before I began to teach at the school, a friend who was a very experienced teacher told me that I should not live in the illusion that a class 9 pupil was interested in what I wanted to communicate in a lesson – it was primarily the teacher as a person who was of interest. Are they authentic, “real”? And indeed: if what happened in the lesson was to be important for the pupils and enter their souls, there had to be an authentic relationship between the class and me, supported by honesty, mutual respect – and, above all, humour!

Such authenticity was also important for the work with parents. It quickly became clear that parents, no more than pupils, want to hear endless presentations from the teacher. Parents were fundamentally interested to learn, I realised, how the class was currently doing, what was taught and with what intention – preferably with practical exercises – and, above all, in the exchange of views between us. The longer I was a teacher, the more I came to appreciate the work with parents since such knowing about one another between parents and teachers, such joint focus on the children or young people in an age-appropriate way, made the productive support of their development possible in the first place.

Freedom can also lead to laziness

The time arrived when our daughter started going to school and a year later our son. Unexpectedly I saw myself in the dual role of teacher and parent. A new perspective opened up: suddenly we heard not just what the teachers reported in the meetings about lessons and pupils – lunchtimes were now spiced with stories about what the class teacher or another teacher had said, done, or how they had reacted. At the parents’ evenings we suddenly sat on the “other side” and experienced how we were involved or lectured at, how questions were answered honestly or avoided. My wife and I experienced the profound gratitude of parents who knew that their child was in good hands with a caring class teacher, but also many a time were forced to shake our head with a frown when main lesson books were returned without a comment from the teacher and the effort or, indeed, lack of it of a child received no response.

Something that I had already suspected as a colleague now revealed itself more clearly to me in my role as a parent: that freedom can also lead to a comfortable minimalism – both among teachers and pupils. The Waldorf school as an educational institution in which everything is a bit more relaxed and can be handled more casually? On the contrary: alongside the conventional intellectual access to the world there is access to so many other things which, if done seriously, makes considerable demands both of teachers and pupils – in the artistic, movement-centred and practical crafts spheres as well as with regard to an access to nature which is based on immediate sensory experience. If that is truly  embraced, thus my experience, then the state school leaving exams at the end of school which everyone wants do not represent any great obstacle.

Unfortunately these exams were often turned into the most important thing and in upper school determined the lesson content of many a colleague so that central content of Waldorf education fell by the wayside. Being able really to experience and think of the earth as an organism, learning about a concept of evolution which does not exclude the spiritual dimension of the human being, discussing the idea of social threefolding and visiting establishments which are managed and thought about innovatively – where can that happen if not at a Waldorf school? While it was evident that cramming for the school leaving exams often obscured the pupils’ vision of their own life impulses, the encounter with such forward-looking ideas showed themselves to be awakening and inspiring for the youthful souls. That this freedom, which is possible at Waldorf schools, was made so little use of in the higher classes was difficult for me to bear at times.

The power of community

I had applied for a sabbatical after I had finished my second stint as a class teacher. Fate steered me towards a different work context during that year so that in the following thirteen years I saw “my” school purely from the parental perspective. Being part of the faculty, the involvement in shaping and experiencing the intentions with which the life of the school was organised were always at the back of my mind for as long as I was a teacher so that it was always clear to me why this or that matter was represented externally in this or that way. That now ceased.

Suddenly new questions arose: why were only the positive aspects of school life reported at the members’ meeting of the school association and not those things with which the faculty had to struggle painfully? Why was the parent-teacher-pupil group attended by quite a few parents but mostly by only one teacher? Why were so many lessons cancelled? Why was the will addressed so little precisely in those areas where the education of the will represented the crux of educational action?

This was countered by the experience of what the school gave our children and young people to take away with them on their journey through life despite the dissatisfaction in particular points. And yet – this became clear to us in the course of the years – it was mostly the initiative, the commitment, the struggle of the individual which opened up valuable fields of experience for the pupils – be it in outstanding work of the orchestra, a wealth of artistic activity or the support for pupils sustained by honest human interest. Individual monthly celebrations, class plays or annual festivals gave us an experience of the great potential of the Waldorf school – a potential which always unfolded when people worked together, when they together looked at where they wanted to go and what they wanted to build.

I increasingly see this as the central task facing a school community today: to act as a community in which the individual is able to unfold their strengths knowing they are supported by the interest of the others and in turn accompanying the activity of the others with interest. Such an attitude is “healthy” according to Steiner – and a guarantee that the pleasure in being a teacher, in working together with everyone else in the school community does not ebb away.

About the author: Stefan Langhammer studied German, biology and Waldorf education. He was a special needs teacher in a therapeutic facility for anthroposophical child and adolescent psychiatry and an upper school teacher at the Schopfheim Free Waldorf School. Today he coordinates the international medical further training (IPMT) and is responsible for the finances and a team leader in the Medical Section at the Goetheanum.