Who’s the real newcomer? Experiences with a class of lateral entrants

Axel Rose

One of these improvisations of life led my wife and me to an interview for a job at the Magdeburg Free Waldorf School. Three class teacher posts were vacant. The position was relatively clear for my wife, it had to be a class 1. For me, who had until then worked in a school in which the classes had a dedicated class teacher only until sixth grade, teaching mainly in middle school as a main lesson and music teacher, the advertised position as the class teacher for a class 5 appeared more attractive.

It was a class of pupils who were lateral entrants and all kinds of question arose in my mind. What is it like to confront pupils coming from such a different school background with the basic modes of Waldorf education? How would these children react to a school in which the inner picture is asked for and which deliberately refrains from the projected pictures of an electric blackboard? What would it be like for them when their inner scale of values shifts and they see how long and intimately a phenomenon can be observed? What seasoned teacher personality was required to bring about such a major transition in school worlds? Who is being sought for such a task?

In the end I nevertheless decided to apply as a class 1 teacher because I was afraid that taking on a class 5, particularly a class of lateral entrants, required the famous rucksack full of educational life experience.

One day later at the interview – the usual litany of career path had been gone through – my interviewer asked: “You say that you have mainly taught in middle school, wouldn’t the class 5 be an option for you?” Much as I try to remember, I can no longer recall my exact response to that question. But I can still feel the sense of happiness which overcame me at that moment. The question still makes me smile as to who was the real lateral entrant: my pupils in the school or me in the class.

No smiles, no cheerfulness

On the first day of school I called 27 pupils individually to come and join me in the middle of a large circle of people consisting of the whole school community. They lined up next to one another. The school community sang the school song for the new arrivals, then everyone went to their classrooms. So there they sat, my new class. Serious faces, no smiles, no cheefulness to be seen. It took almost a whole week of main lessons before the first pupils began to lower their shoulders a little bit, to relax, until the first faces changed from a pale white to take on a bit of colour. My greatest joy was that all of them, boys and girls, were strong singers.

Taking stock one month later: on the one hand they were wide awake, there was almost no disruption of lessons. All the new things were assimilated and they keenly participated in Waldorf traditions such as the morning verse and lighting the candle at the start of the lesson with a song. They loved every kind of story and accompanied it with “Ahs!” and “Ohs!” like a class 1.

On the other hand there was a brick wall of immense anxiety and insecurity! There were tears immediately if occassionally a wax crayon had been forgotten at home. More tears which had to be dried if a drawing exercise did not succeed at the first attempt. It was difficult for me to bear the inner severity with which some of these children were willing to punish themselves if drawing a straight line did not meet the demands they made of themselves. Instead of asking for help, they attempted to make the sheet of paper disappear into their school bag and hide the “mistake”. The constant comparison with their neighbour sitting next to them was normal in this class.

During home visits I learned about the sources of this anxiety. Anyone who was given a three for a piece of work was loudly shouted at in front of the whole class as being stupid and useless. After days of hard slog – mother and child were both at the end of their tether – the note in the homework book if the homework was fluffed said: “Your mother clearly failed to practise enough with you.” School trips in primary school to France: the children were accommodated in different families, alone and hardly able to speak the language. There were many stories I had to think up to discover a work of art in every pupil’s schoolwork, be it ever so small, and to communicate this to the community.

No one sees the angel

I look back fondly to the first time we viewed a painting with the class in the third month of lessons. The pupils stand around the painting. I ask them to look at the painting in silence. “What do you see?” I ask the group after a while. Almost all the pupils raise their hands. I point to a boy. The answer is brief and to the point: “The sea. There is a boat on the sea with a man in it.”

I was not totally satisfied with this and so continued to ask: “What else do you see?” No one raised their hand! I could see surprise in the faces of my pupils at this question – hadn’t everything been said? But consider, the man in the boat was an angel with a proper halo, the sea was rough because of the storm, not to mention the many different colours of the sea and the sky. It took almost half an hour to get the pupils to the point where they started to make discoveries. They were simply used just to naming things.

It was the middle of the school year: the class continued to be incredibly eager for knowledge and to learn. Be it painting, singing or playing the recorder, everything was done with devotion.

Now it became a tradition to form a group around the teacher before the start of the lesson and to tell him everything possible all at once. Yesterday’s experiences, wishes for tomorrow, the favourite horse at the riding club and the best breed of dog in the world. At the same time something happened in the class which caught me totally unprepared. The first liaisons began to form among the pupils including the most ardent declarations of love.

Once again stories had to be prepared and conversations sought. We found a way. Delicate matters have to be kept in the heart, the children decided, and realised that some feelings tend to ebb away the more they are made public.

When are we going to say the morning vers?

One question had accompanied the children throughout the school year: “At what point do we become proper Waldorf pupils?” They answered that question for themselves at the end of class 5. We had travelled to the Waldorf school olympic games in central Germany. The children had the first night behind them and were standing as a class in front of the sleeping lodges. Suddenly one child asked: “And when do we say the morning verse?” We stood in a circle, held hands and started. Small groups of other pupils walked past us towards the dining room. Quite a few of them couldn’t stop themselves from sniggering in our direction. I had doubts about how my class would react. But they remained unflappable.

When I suggested the next day that we should look for somewhere else to say the verse and mentioned the interuptions from the previous day as a reason, the children protested. “Let them see that the morning verse is important for us. So what.”

The opinion in our college of teachers is unanimous. Our classes of lateral entrants enrich the school. They often join us with a rich fund of learning strategies. This is undoubtedly a positive legacy from their primary school years. But often they have to work hard to learn to connect with content in their soul.

Back to the start of this text: what kind of seasoned teacher personality is required to bring about such a major transition in school worlds? Today I find it easy to answer that question: it is not the teacher who brings something about. It is the children with all their questions, discoveries and ideas. I simply had to listen.

About the author: Axel Rose is a class and music teacher at the Magdeburg Free Waldorf School and father of four children.