Lifelong love for learning … at the heart of Waldorf

Seetha Anand

“Essentially, there is no education other than self-education, whatever the level may be. […] Every education is self-education, and as teachers we can only provide the environment for children’s self-education. We have to provide the most favourable conditions, where through our agency, children can educate themselves according to their own destinies.” – Rudolf Steiner, The Child’s Changing Consciousness

Steiner schools, also known as Waldorf schools, are based on the teachings and pedagogical philosophy espoused by Rudolf Steiner, in response to a request by industrialist Emily Molt in 1919. Emily Molt wished to start a school for the children of the employees of his Waldorf – cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany. He wanted Steiner, who had worked with a special child and gained fame because of that child’s progress, to help heal the children who were deeply affected by the First World War. Thus in 1919, a school was opened in Stuttgart, Germany. Other schools, which followed on similar lines, eventually became known as ‘Waldorf Schools’, although Steiner himself never gave them this name.

Today, 100 years since its inception, there are more than 1200 Steiner/Waldorf schools and over 2000 Steiner/Waldorf kindergartens around the world. In addition, there are many Steiner/Waldorf inspired schools and kindergartens. There are an approximately, another 500 institutions that help children with special needs, many of them under the umbrella of the ‘Camphill Movement’, which draw on this approach. Spread over 75 countries, this makes Steiner/Waldorf perhaps the largest independent school movement in the world.

I discovered Steiner education during my quest to find a school for my own children. An education that would understand their individual needs, preserve their creativity and sensitivity. I would dream of my children being shaped into strong individuals, yet able to live harmoniously with society, contributing to it with sensitivity.

When I first heard of a ‘Waldorf school’, I assumed it to be influenced by a foreign culture, but later realized that nothing could be more compatible with Indian culture, both locally and nationally relevant, in every way. This journey which began with my aspiration to be a parent in a Steiner school, led me to become a teacher and later a remedial therapist and teacher trainer.

Coincidentally, before my children could gain admission into a Steiner/Waldorf school, I undertook training as a kindergarten teacher and became the first teacher in a Steiner/Waldorf school in Secunderabad (Telangana). My years as a Waldorf teacher and parent have been most enriching for my personal growth. I truly learnt what it is to experience the journey and not worry about the destination. I experienced in actuality a holistic perspective of life.

Being a teacher in a Steiner school helped me express my creativity. I was required to create my own songs, verses and movement plays that were appropriate for local seasons and festivals. I had to arrange the class in a manner that was child friendly, functional yet aesthetic. The choice of colours, the positioning and size of furniture, materials used – nothing was left to chance. Each aspect had to be well thought of before bringing it into class. The Waldorf kindergarten resembled a fairytale home that was pleasant and welcoming. Everything had to pass the unspoken checklist of truth, beauty and goodness.

I was trained in child observation, which is called ‘child study’ in Steiner schools. This study was so comprehensive that my bond with each of my students grew deep and strong. To bring in objectivity while observing and writing reports requires holding back personal, subjective opinions and jumping to conclusions. It became a habit to set aside a few minutes of contemplation on each child daily which was almost meditative. It helped me gain insights on how to approach each child appropriately.

I was also required as a teacher to conduct orientation classes for parents. This brought me closer to the parents and gave me the confidence which only comes with deep conviction about what one practices. I also attended conferences, seminars and training programmes. Learning is a continuous process and there is always scope for improvement. This made me come up with new ideas and activities in the class. Since my trainers and mentors were from different parts of the world, it gave me an opportunity to add my own understanding to what was taught to me and make it relevant to local contexts and needs. The true beauty of teacher trainings in Steiner schools is that nothing is ever taken as it is, it is always left to the discretion of the individual teacher to bring the subject to the class in the manner she/he deems fit for that specific class. Most importantly these training programmes made me humble since there is so much that one does not know and there are always miles to go.

As a teacher I was amazed to understand the immense significance of the stages of physiological development. I was humbled by the amount of trust a child and his/her parents place with a teacher. I was jolted into becoming conscious of the power and influence that a teacher holds in a child’s life. In the beginning, it was frightening; later I felt empowered with this sacred responsibility. In the Waldorf kindergarten everything was done in a holistic manner. This helped me develop such a perspective towards life too.

I came face to face with my own deficiencies and pursued opportunities to work on them. The curriculum required me to have a variety of skills including doing basic handwork, craft, singing and finger gestures. In the beginning I would question the need to work on something as basic as handwork, but later realized how important it is to bring a balance between our “head, heart and hands” in order for us to become balanced individuals in the true sense of the term. Since children in the kindergarten learn mainly through imitation, I had to work on myself in order to work on the children. This was a golden opportunity to improve and enhance my own skills. This was surely not easy, but once I focused on self-improvement, the results were rewarding. In the course of my work in Steiner education, I met many inspiring mentors, colleagues and students, all of whom enabled me to understand the precious lessons of non-judgmental thinking, objectivity, unconditional love and much more.

As a parent I felt so relaxed, trusting that my child was in a safe space with not merely a teacher but ‘another parent’ in another home. My son’s teachers knew not just about his academic capabilities, but deeply understood every aspect of his life. It was sheer joy to read hand-written, elaborate, personal term report cards. The report cards also come with a verse written specifically for each child by the teacher. Such seemingly small gestures are actually major indicators of how each child is truly special for the teacher. Teachers discuss not only academic performances of the children but also present observations of their emotional, mental and physical development. I looked forward to parent-teacher meetings and was not nervous about them. The teachers and we, became ‘family’. The school was my community. There were occasions that required corrections but there was scope for exchange of views and guidance for going forward in an amicable manner. Parents are considered to be one of the pillars of the school community (the other two being the teachers and the management). Parents are encouraged to play an active role in the school. Be it helping with traditional stories, age-old recipes or lending a hand during annual school bazaars or fundraising. It is not rare for parents to join as teachers in Steiner schools.

As a parent of 25 and 23 year olds today, would I recommend other parents to choose a Steiner-Waldorf education for their children?

Well, the consequence of such an education is undoubtedly the rise of a confident, creative and free thinking individual. These students will not hesitate to question every norm and dig at vagaries, until they are satisfied with plausible, concrete answers. So if you are prepared to face these absolutely fearless, self-thinking young people, who in all probability shake the very foundations of your well-established principles and ways of life, go ahead! You will rejoice in the power of clarity! And to those of you who are considering a career as a Steiner/Waldorf teacher, I can assure you that, even if it upsets your comfort zones, it will be the most enriching path of self-discovery and growth.

Even today, after many years since my children and I have completed our time in Steiner/Waldorf schools, this feeling of oneness with the Steiner/Waldorf community remains. It inspired me to move beyond education and start an organization to work towards holistic and healthy learning and living. It has touched and inspired every sphere of my life. My gratitude to Anthroposophy, the source of Steiner’s inspiration, in evolving and developing his educational philosophy and methodology, is eternal.

The author works through Ananda Foundation for Holistic and Healthy Learning and Living. To know more about the foundation and its work visit the website www.anandafoundationindia.org. The author can be reached at [email protected].

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