In this comprehensive look at child-raising, we draw on the Waldorf philosophy of education and examine its ramifications in the home and classroom.
I would like to begin by making a confession. Although I am willing to write about this topic, I would have been far more comfortable if our theme had been something like, “Metamorphosis as a Pedagogical Method in the Teaching of History, Grades Five Through Twelve,” or, “Algorithms, Logarithms and the Development of Mathematical Consciousness in Adolescence.” Such subjects would have been far easier than the one I am asked to address in this essay.
I feel reasonably able to represent the Waldorf method of teaching history, or mathematics, or any one of a dozen other subjects. When it comes to the “Waldorf approach to discipline,” however, I know all too well how often I fall short, both as representative and above all as practitioner.
I say this in part because I am not only a Waldorf teacher, but, like many of you reading this, I am the parent of Waldorf students as well. And, as a liberal, egalitarian all-American parent, I often fail miserably at disciplining my own children. As a parent, I am with my children early in the morning and late in the evening, when they and I are least awake or most fatigued. I am with them when they are hungry, or thirsty, or assailed by the thousands of temptations that constitute modern culture. When they catch me at the wrong moment, I say things I wish I hadn’t said. I sometimes make threats that I can’t possibly carry out, and occasionally make promises that I can’t possibly keep. Far too often, I forget the ideals I hold most dear and the principles I know to be most beneficial and act merely out of expediency.
If I were writing only as a parent, the preceding confession would pretty much constitute this lecture. Writing as a teacher, I have more to say–but I hope that nothing I have revealed so far inspires anything but commiseration among you. It is certainly not my intention to inspire guilt! Every parent has a formidable task facing him or her, a task which doesn’t really grow any easier with the passing of time or the accumulation of experience.
To the parent is given the task of helping the child meet his destiny under all of the most stressful and demanding circumstances in life, while the teacher is generally asked to work with the child only when conditions are optimum. For example, when a child is ill and develops a fever, he does not go to school, but remains home in the parent’s care. Teachers usually meet the children in the controlled and aesthetic environment of their own classroom; it is the parents who must deal with the youngsters in the trying and ugly settings of shopping malls, interstate highways and fast-food restaurants.
So let this preamble be understood as a tribute to parents, the child’s first educators and the unsung advocates of harmony and order in an increasingly uncivilized world. I will now be writingg primarily as a Waldorf teacher. Much of what I will say is first and foremost addressed to teachers, and neither can nor should pass over into a home situation. However, I hope that some of what is described below can give parents the insight or inspiration which they can creatively apply in their own way.
I often like to recall a remark that the British writer Carlyle once made about the difference between youth and old age. He said that when we are young, our life unfolds like a beautiful tapestry. When we grow old, we are permitted to step behind the tapestry. It is no longer so beautiful, but at last we can see all of the threads, and follow their connections!
Many of those present tonight have beheld the tapestry of the life of a Waldorf school as it manifests itself in class plays, in assemblies, in concerts and in the social experiences generated by parent evenings and class outings. Tonight, like Carlyle’s old man, we will step behind the impressive tapestry to view the threads. By no means are they all neatly tied together, but at least we will glean something of the grand design that underlies our work, and view some of the strands that remain to be woven into this “work in progress.”
One thread that will wind its way through this article is the statement made by Rudolf Steiner that, just as imitation of the world around “educates” the child before the change of teeth, so between grades one and eight, authority is the primary educative power. What did he mean by this?
Rather than answer directly, I would like to share with you the following dramatic re-enactment. It is a composite of scenes that I have witnessed again and again in Waldorf classrooms throughout America:
(We are in a second grade classroom at “circle time,” when the children sing, recite poetry or play rhythmic games. The teacher stands before his class, about to lead them in a new poem.)
Teacher: All right, could everyone please stand up? We’ll try to recite our verse!
Please–could we all get out of our seats and stand? Could we also quiet down a little?
All right, we’re almost all quiet, so I guess we’ll go ahead…Now, could we all try to clap our hands?
Prescott, why aren’t you standing? Why aren’t you doing as I asked? What do you mean, you don’t want to stand up? Please, Prescott, try to do as I’ve asked…
Second graders, could you all be quiet while I talk to Prescott?
Now, let’s begin, shall we?
Sativa, why are you sitting down? You’re terribly fatigued? But, it’s the beginning of the day! Couldn’t you just try standing up along with the others?
You think that you have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome? Now, Sativa, I never heard of anyone your age suffering from such an…Clay, how do you know that I’m wrong?
Second graders, please be quiet while Clay and Sativa and I are talking!
Now, listen, Clay, just because you saw that on PBS doesn’t make it absolutely true! Has anyone else here ever heard of a second grader with CFS?–
Ezekiel, will you please leave the room? Yes, I mean it! I won’t have you pulling Natasha’s hair while I–
Second graders, please be quiet!
All right, all right, could everybody please sit down; we’ll say the verse from our desks. Yes, that’s it, could you all return to your seats? Good. Now for our verse–
Prescott, why are you still standing?...
And so it goes, on and on, day after day, in classrooms from coast to coast!
What is the nature of the problem here? First of all, this “composite teacher’s” misguided approach is to be a friend to his second graders, rather than an authority. I think that I can speak for my whole generation–those of us who were born in the post World War II years–when I say that, as the children of adults who rejected the authoritarian ways of their elders, we grew up experiencing little of parental authority, and therefore are ill-equipped to act as authorities to anyone else.
Notice that I am distinguishing between being authoritarian and acting out of authority; very often, in America, the two are confused, and so we have that phrase held over from the 1960’s: “Question Authority!” Whether or not we, as individualized adults, enjoy questioning or challenging authority, it is incumbent upon us as Waldorf teachers to serve as authorities for our children. Between seven and fourteen the child craves authority for the sake of his soul development and needs authority so that he may have an outer form in which to incarnate.
Our harried second grade teacher throws another obstacle in his own path when he makes threats but does not act upon them. How much better not to make the threat at all, but to simply perform the action! Think of how much aggravation teachers would be spared in the course of a day if they made their motto, “Deeds, not words!” If we take seriously the thought that young children live most intensely in their feeling and will organizations, the “language of gesture” can eloquently communicate our intentions and concerns.
A threat is pedagogically problematic because it implies a cause-and-effect relationship which will transpire over the course of time. Yet as Waldorf teachers we should recognize that the child’s relationship to the course of time is still quite dreamlike, and his comprehension of causal relationships is virtually nonexistent. Voicing threats to children in third grade or below is a denial of those same childlike qualities that Waldorf teachers are meant to be cultivating.
Even with older children, threats have a way of piling up, like MX missiles in their silos, and once we’ve unleashed our weapons, well, what remains in the arsenal? Either you continue to escalate, finally threatening to use the Ultimate Weapon of suspension, or expulsion or something similar–or you go back on your threat, recognizing that matters have gotten out of hand. In so doing weaken your credibility, and once the children’s confidence in your word is gone, you have lost most of the battle for their hearts.
It might be good to recall here the anecdote about Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher. To an admirer who told her, “You worked miracles with Helen because you got her to love you,” Annie Sullivan replied, “No; first Helen had to learn to obey me. Obedience came first, then came love.”
And last, but not least, in this litany of errors is this teacher’s habitual use of the interrogative sentence instead of the declarative statement. “All right, could everyone please stand up? Please–could we all get out of our seats and stand? Could we also quiet down a little? Now, let’s begin, shall we?“ How much clearer and more to the point it would be to say, “Please stand up, class,” or “Please quiet down,” or “We are about to begin!” When a question is asked of a child, he assumes that you expect an answer, and I have heard many children answer questions like the above with witty or even downright rude answers!
If you want the class to stand up, then tell it (politely) to stand up. If you want the class to be seated, then tell it so. If you are not sure whether you want the class to stand or to sit, then what in the world are doing up there in front of them? Dear teachers–and, I might add, dear parents, for this is one lesson learned in the classroom that you can take home with you–Children do not need choices; they need guidance.
We know that so much that is basic in Waldorf education rests on the understanding that whatever in our childhood acts upon us from without will in adulthood be transformed into forces that work from within. A child who lacks the living example of a self-assured and guiding adult will have to struggle, in later life, to attain inner assurance and inner guidance. A youngster who is not exposed to the kind but clear precepts of outer discipline will find it difficult to attain true inner discipline as an adult. If we cannot steel ourselves so that we meet the children with certainty in our will and clarity in our intentions, we are depriving them of one of childhood’s most valuable experiences.
In the United States, which, after all, is a nation founded on the Divine right of freedom of choice, it is a mighty task indeed to overcome this dogged tendency to ask children questions! Our whole culture summons forth the interrogative voice:
“Time to wake up! Do you want to wear your Jordache shorts or your Guess jeans? Would you like the Chanel sweater or the Polo shirt? Ready for breakfast? What will it be: Cheerios, Corn Flakes, Wheaties, Granola…How about strawberries? No? Blueberries? Bananas? Do you want to sweeten it with honey? You want sugar? White or brown?…”
May I repeat that I am not trying to give you pangs of guilt, for this monologue could just as easily have come from my home as from yours! Such domestic scenes are part of the dilemma of raising children in a country that rightfully calls itself “The Land of the Free,” but has lost the capacity to distinguish between the independent, “free” adult and the highly dependent and “unfree” child. You may ask then, “But isn’t Waldorf Education an ‘education towards freedom’?” The operational word here is towards. True freedom is a capacity which can unfold only in adults, and even then only in rare moments, for life is filled with necessities that impinge upon our freedom.
When we ask a child to make a choice, several things occur. First of all, we ask the child to draw upon capacities for judgment that he does not yet have. On what basis will a seven year-old make a choice? Invariably, on the basis of sympathy and antipathy. And whence does he get this sympathy and antipathy? From his astral body, that is, from a member of his being that should not be activated until adolescence. The youngster who is always choosing one thing and rejecting another is drawing on “soul capital” that should be kept in the spiritual bank to gather interest for several more years. When such a child needs those astral forces in their fullness at age fourteen or fifteen, they may be depleted.
In that moment of choice, the adult who gives the choice relinquishes the majesty and power that should be hers by dint of experience and acquired wisdom. For that moment, child and adult are equal; over the course of many such moments of choice, this equality becomes habitual, and the sweetest children gradually turn into little tyrants who wield the power to determine the restaurants in which the family will eat, the movies that they will see, the malls in which they will shop. We don’t have to watch situation comedies on TV to experience the ubiquity of such children in modern life! “Mommy and Daddy’s Little Life coach, a New York Times article dated April 5, 2007 describes this phenomenon well:
When Helen Barahal was deciding whether to sell an East Harlem apartment she was renting to tenants, she asked her son, Marcus, for advice.
“I knew that the neighborhood wasn’t that good at the time, but it was going to change,” Marcus said. “I told her to hold on to it because I knew we would make more from the rent instead of selling it.”
Ms. Barahal heeded his advice and has kept the apartment (worth about $100,000 when she bought it in 2000), which is now being bought for four times as much.
It was a “Marcus-approved sale,” Ms. Barahal said.
Marcus is 11.
But age, as they say, is just a number. Ms. Barahal’s broker, Jeffrey Gardere of the Corcoran Group (who happens to have a doctorate in psychology), said that Ms. Barahal, like many parents nowadays, does not simply listen to her child. “She relies on what he has to say,” Mr. Gardere said.
Parents have long depended on their children to be in-house experts on fashion, technology and pop culture, to introduce them to fresh music, purge their closets of ghastly apparel (“mom jeans”) and troubleshoot household electronics. And generations of parents have encouraged their children to weigh in on family decisions like choosing a winter vacation spot or a replacement for the belly-up goldfish.
But the nature and pervasiveness of child-to-parent advice has reached new proportions for a variety of reasons. Many parents — who have shed their status as old fogy untouchables and become pals with their progeny — are treating their offspring as worldly equals. They think of their computer-savvy, plugged-in children as confidants, and so they look to them for advice on life decisions, as well as major purchases: cars, computers, vacation packages, real estate, home décor.
An article in the Journal of Business Research for April says today’s children “encounter decision-making at an earlier age,” are “taking on greater roles and responsibilities in family purchases” and are influencing their parents’ buying decisions far beyond areas where children are the “primary product users.”
We should realize that a child who is given too many choices will become an adult who has difficulty making decisions. While choice, according to definition, “implies broadly the freedom of choosing from a set of persons or things,” decision is defined as “the act of reaching a conclusion or making up one’s mind,” and also, interestingly, as “firmness of character or action; determination.” I don’t mean to overwhelm you with scholarship, but I do want to point out the difference between these two acts. The power to decide, I would claim, is built upon the ability to accept the decisions of adults in one’s youth. (This assumes, of course, that one encounters adults who are themselves capable of making decisions.) Childish choosing draws on those very forces of soul and spirit that are meant to mature and become adult decisiveness.
If you are uncomfortable with such a characterization, I would suggest that you look at the current state of our generation, the postwar “baby boomers” who were allowed to become “a generation of choosers.” How many contemporaries do you know who are truly decisive people? Well, don’t all raise your hands at once! Now, how many of your friends have difficulty deciding even the smallest matters, not to speak of making such major life decisions as, whom should I marry (or unmarry)? what should my vocation be? what am I going to do with the rest of my life?
Your smiles tell me that I’m describing individuals well-known to you — -individuals, we must remember, who very likely had doting, progressive parents who wanted them to be happy and gave them as many choices as possible! The effect of such indecisiveness can be amusing, but it has its serious consequences as well. With disturbing frequency, one guru or Master after another passes through our country and charismatically draws a host of followers to his community or ashram. Some of those drawn are simple, easily-influenced souls who can barely manage their own lives. However, a surprising number of these disciples are intelligent, highly-educated “professionals,” who willingly relinquish their right to make any decisions about the rest of their lives, believing that their teacher is far better able to do so.
Isn’t that interesting? Members of the creme de la creme of the Generation of Choosers, having arrived at mature adulthood, now search for the decisive teacher that they lacked in their childhood!
The simplicity of life in earlier days was accompanied by a lack of choices–which we would today find boring–but this in turn led to a consistency of life which we might find healing. This is no turning back from the “freedom of choice” that we as adults expect, but we must recognize that a pre-determined and expectable course of events strengthens the etheric body of the child, and it is this which provides a sturdy foundation for the making of important decisions in later life.
We can encompass the child with our own certainty by creating a form into which the child enters every day. Even on the first day of first grade, it makes a great difference whether the children haphazardly deposit jackets and lunch bags all over the classroom, or find that their teacher has labeled coat hooks and cubbies with their initials or their particular symbol. The assigning of desks ahead of time, the labeling of crayon boxes and recorder cases: all of this tells the children (without words) that a space has been made for them, a form has been created, and they are warmly welcomed to fill it. Asking the children themselves to choose coat hooks, cubbies, desks etc. will lead to conflict and irresolution–before you have even begun to teach a thing!
The fostering of healthy rhythms is another means by which we protect the child from having to choose. The Waldorf classroom is permeated by rhythmical activities. The lighting of the candle and recitation of the daily verse, the singing of songs at a prescribed time each day, followed by the telling of story, followed by drawing and so on; as the weeks go by, the child’s etheric body forms itself in the image of these rhythms, and we find that we have created rituals.
In the midst of life’s uncertainties and indecisiveness, from which not even children are spared today, such rituals give clear contours to an otherwise amorphous existence. In such a rhythmic setting a child does not have to ask, “What are we doing today?” or, worse yet, be asked by an adult, “What do you want to do today?” If it is the beginning of Main Lesson, we light the candle. If it is Tuesday, we model with beeswax. If it is lunchtime, we eat lunch, and neither sooner nor later.
For this to unfold harmoniously, of course, the teacher will have to think out many things in advance and carefully plan the school year, the week, the day. He must decide what his intentions are, decide how he will carry them out, and plan out in advance how to best help individual children find their way to the form. The teacher must choose, to spare the children the burden of choice.
When in this way the teacher serves as the “Guardian of Form” in he life of the classroom, he creates the preconditions for the healthy social life of the class. “Discipline” comes from the word “discipleship,” and the disciple is by definition one who follows religiously and devotedly the decisions made by his master. It will follow, as does the day the night, that a classroom permeated by a healthy sense of order, a vital feeling for form, will be a space in which more disciplined behavior will be seen.
To prevent any misunderstanding, I must stress that I am here speaking about the first three grades. Once the child has gone through the “nine year-old change” we should begin to present him with some choices–not too many, mind you!–but enough to stimulate the slumbering inner life that should now begin to awaken. As with all aspects of Waldorf education, our stress on one quality or another, one method or another, holds for a certain age range and then must be developed or transformed.
Human history points to this as well. In the earliest stage of the history of every major culture we find theocracy, the rulership of the priests. Acting as the representatives of the gods, the priests make all decisions and dictate virtually every detail of life. In this respect, the Waldorf kindergarten is theocratic in nature, and the very important people who teach there are the High Priests of the school–although they may have to relinquish this privilege at faculty meetings!
A second stage is that of the monarchy, the rule of kings. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the transition from Samuel to Saul gives us a clear picture of the tremendous importance that the transition from theocracy to monarchy held for the Hebrew people. The king rules no longer as God’s deputy, but rather as one who embodies all that is highest in mankind itself. To his people he is at once ruler and servant, judge and general. He is decisive, yet he must also be just. Here we find the “archetype” of the Class Teacher. I might add that anyone who has attended a Lower School meeting in which something controversial was being discussed would have no question that he was hearing eight kings (and queens), each quite accustomed to ruling his own domain!
The third historical stage should take us to the peaceful transition from monarchy to democracy–but how rare are the instances in which this transition is made peacefully! In most cases, this step is made through protest and revolution, and we will be safe to assume that the same would hold true in a Waldorf school. This stage occurs somewhere between seventh grade and ninth grade, as the child becomes an adolescent and the revolution he experiences in his own body and soul cries out for external expression. Now (he believes) he need no longer follow decisions made from “on high,” but must be left free to choose for himself. Modern neurology acknowledges that the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is regarded as “the seat of judgment,” does not fully develop until we are in our twenties – the time in life in which Rudolf Steiner said the ego begins to fully incorporate.
The wise teacher will begin presenting options and creating situations in which choice is possible. Never, however, should the teacher abdicate his final responsibility for making–and standing behind–the most essential decisions in the classroom, for young teenagers still crave guidance. Relinquish your role as an adult and, as in the French Revolution, a Reign of Teenage Terror will follow!
* * * * * *
Up until now, we have been looking at the teacher’s relationship to his class very much in terms of the life of willing. I would like us to now look at this same relationship from the vantage point of the life of feeling. In regard to her life of feeling, the grade school child is very much affected by an environment filled with beauty, which in turn stimulates feelings of gratitude and love.
This may all sound rather vague and sentimental, but in Rudolf Steiner’s ideas concerning child psychology even the most ineffable feelings can be approached with clarity. The notion of beauty that we generally have today has to do with matters of personal taste, fashion and relativism: it is the diametric opposite of functionalism. Yet to Steiner beauty was so functional that he once stated that, if our cities were architecturally beautiful places in which to live, crime would disappear! This is, indeed, an astonishing proposition, but in America we are testing its converse and are finding it, tragically, to be true.
So to develop healthy social feelings among the children, we try to create a beautiful environment in our classrooms and in our schools. We should remember, of course, that beauty doesn’t lie only in hand-dyed silken cloths, gleaming crystals and sculptured wooden frames around our blackboards, aesthetically pleasing though these may be. It resides also in the order that lives in the classroom space, in its neatness and in its cleanliness.
It is interesting to observe what a difficult time we Waldorf teachers have keeping our house in order! Though we may be painfully aware of the effect of inharmonious colors and synthetic fabrics on our children and our selves, we can be oblivious to the equally powerful effect of an undusted desk, an unwatered plant, or school supplies thrown haphazardly into a closet. (Although the door is shut, the mess is there anyway!) Rudolf Steiner has gone into great detail concerning the various types of elemental beings who inhabit different kinds of environments, and has mentioned the particularly aggressive elementals who “fight in the dust.” Might this mean that a dusty and disorderly classroom, by virtue of its elementality, could actually encourage unrest and even fighting? We see how “beauty” is not so vague a notion after all, but is in its way as indispensable as a properly functioning thermostat.
I have always felt that Class Teachers have a lot to learn about beauty and order from our colleagues in the Kindergarten. The “nourishment of the senses,” which is actually the nutritional stream that builds up the substance of the child’s body, is an art and a science among the Kindergarten teachers, and I am obliged to them for many helpful hints about my classroom environment. And, of course, we should not leave ourselves out of the child’s environment. For a good part of every main lesson, our children are focussing on us, and we should make every effort to “dress up” for school, with an eye to color, form and (at least in the upper grades) even fashion!
A beautiful drawing on the blackboard, appropriate works of art on the walls, crystals, shells, a finely-wrought candle snuffer next to a handmade candle-holder and other treasures on the teacher’s desk; a cared-for “nature table” reflecting the seasons, chalk and crayons in order, class materials in wicker baskets, or wooden trays, or cloth bags: each of us has his own picture of that aesthetically complete classroom in which the Ideal of Beauty can fully incarnate. Cultivate that ideal and strive to realize it! Not only will it be a feast for your children’s senses, but it will become yet another cornerstone for the social foundation of the class.
Through cultivating beauty in the children’s surroundings, we begin to awaken gratitude in their souls, but, as with all other soul qualities, “only that which is nourished will grow.” To nourish and encourage gratitude among our students, we must show that we also possess it. It is more than coincidence that the words “gratitude” and “greeting” are similar, although they are not etymologically connected. For the way in which we greet the children in the morning (as well as the way in which we dismiss them at the day’s end) can be an expression of the gratitude we feel for their presence in our class.
We must acknowledge the sorry fact that too many children have little in the way of conversation with their parents or sibling first thing in the morning. Given the hectic pace of the average household and the pervasiveness of the media, the morning voice of a favorite disc jockey or newscaster may be more familiar–or comforting–than the morning voice of a very busy parent. The teacher’s morning greeting must then be all the more filled with warmth and thankfulness. As you shake a child’s hand, let the tone of your voice, your smile or a personal remark tell her that you are glad that she has chosen to awaken once again, that you are glad that she is alive, or, if she is choleric, that she is bursting with life–we must be filled, every day, with gratitude for the incarnation process itself!
That we can bring such gratitude daily to our classroom is possible only because we attempt to perceive that proverbial “hook” that Rudolf Steiner told us stood outside of our room. Upon that hook we hang, like a heavy old coat, all that is merely personal and self-involved in our being, so that we can stand before our children filled with thanks; thanks for the world, for our task in the world, and for the children who make it all so necessary.
If we can radiate our feeling of gratitude towards the children, it will reflected back manyfold. In the first three grades, of course, every child lives in something of a dream; he is hardly aware of the physical or soul differences between himself and the others, and social life is governed completely from the outside by parents and teachers. Like so many seeds, the feelings of adults are planted within the dreamer’s soul to sprout and grow in the middle grades and flower in the High School years. If you convey an evenhanded, objective and grateful attitude towards every child in the class, you will have gone far in opening the way for social understanding among the youngsters when they reach adolescence.
There is little in a classroom that causes more harm than the involuntary change in the tone of the teacher’s voice when he is addressing a “difficult” student. A voice with an edge to it, a tone of sarcasm, a tinge of irritation–which of us hasn’t spoken too often out of a spirit of pettiness and negativity? If we accept Steiner’s notion that the teacher’s voice is one of the greatest formative powers in the life of the child, I needn’t say much more about the importance of controlling not only our tongues but also our tones when we speak to our children. Our students will never speak to one another with any more kindness than they have learned from us, whereas even a hint of malice on our part has the nefarious quality of being amplified beyond all measure.
Another way of helping the children to awaken to the very best in one another is to encourage children to listen to each other. Here we see how wise it is to absolutely insist that no one speak without raising his hand and waiting his turn. (This is a rule in every classroom I’ve ever visited, but, as Hamlet said, it is honored mostly in the breach.) When one child speaks, then insist that everyone else listen. As the children grow older, have them come up to the front of the room and speak to the entire class, and demand that everyone give the individual child the kind of full attention that they would give to you. It’s all so terribly prosaic, and it’s not as though these are even “Waldorf” ideas! I would contend, however, that a teacher who adheres to these simple rules and procedures will go a long way in facing the terrible “communication problems” that underlie so many social conflicts in our time. In learning to listen to one another, our youngsters learn to respect one another and to develop tolerance for the most diverse points of view.
Developing such habits in the classroom will require patience and it will above all take time. The “review” part of a third grade main lesson may take much longer if we ask a shy child to come up to the front and if we must wait for her classmates to grow quiet and so forth. We may have to work with greater discipline and economy to teach all of the content that we have prepared. Yet what content could be of greater import for the future of our students–and, by inference, the future of the world–than developing a “social sense”?
Another part of the classroom’s “social fabric” that is often threadbare–if not downright ragged–has to do with the children’s eating habits. Most of us preside over two mealtimes in the course of the day: snacktime, which follows main lesson, and lunchtime. First, the children open their lunchboxes or wicker baskets and see and smell their food, which stimulates the nerve/sense organization. Each meal is preceded by a grace (another word which echoes “gratitude” and “greeting”) which is spoken or sung–so it is connected with our breath or rhythmic organization. The grace is followed by eating, which is itself followed by digesting, which is connected with the metabolic/limb organization. I point to these obvious facts only because it is the obvious which is sometimes so mysterious in the life of the child.
So every meal contains an interesting progression. First the child awakens in his head, and we hope that he perceives food that is beautiful to look upon, and that exudes a pleasing aroma. Next, out of the reverence of his soul, the child expresses thanks. Last, a part of his being in which he is completely asleep goes to work so that the food can be assimilated. From the head, to the heart, to the lower organs. From thinking, to feeling, to willing.
If we exclude the phlegmatics, for whom snack and lunch are almost rapturous experiences, we will find that many children eat a little and then begin to talk. No sooner does the talk begin, but that it grows mirthful, then silly, and then, much to our surprise, a certain meanness creeps in. Before too long we may find that many of the children are engaged in loud, uproarious shouting, while one or two are in tears, the victims of unpleasant remarks made by classmates. The social fabric of the class, woven so laboriously over the two hour-long main lesson, is rapidly rent asunder.
How does this happen? I would suggest that the difficulties arise as the chewed foodstuff leaves the more “wakeful” zone of the mouth and rhythmic system and enters the zone of “sleep,” the digestive organs proper. Rudolf Steiner tells us in his cycle The Influence of Spiritual Beings Upon Man (1908) that, as food is transformed into chyle, elemental beings connected to Venus are active. Depending on the type of food and the quality of food that a child eats, the active beings will either be of the amiable, gentle Venus type, or the “evil” Venus beings, “who present a wild and furious vitality, and whose principal occupation consists in mutual fighting and plunder.”
A frightening picture, yet one that describes all too vividly the unbridled behavior that we witness at a classroom mealtime! It is not the children who are fighting; it is the elemental world in conflict, the forces of food in battle. In recent weeks a new kind of “action figure toy” has been released to join the host of plastic demons inhabiting children’s nurseries and bedrooms. Called the “Food Fighters,” they are cleverly molded replicas of hamburgers, french fries etc. with horrific, malevolent faces and limbs designed to strike an aggressive stance.
Given the degree of industrial processing our foodstuffs go through on the farm and in the factory, we can safely assume that our children are carrying their fair share of “Food Fighters.” We abdicate our responsibility for them when we adopt a laissez-faire attitude towards snack and lunchtimes. It is essential for us to consciously draw the good, “gentle and amiable” Venus forces around the children, to counteract the influence of the malicious elementals.
What does Venus rule? In ancient times, Venus was the planet whose inhabiting goddess ruled Love. We have seen how the meal begins with gratitude, as we lead the children in a grace. We must now lead the children towards love, the second great pillar of the grade school years.
To help the children overcome the negative Venus forces, we can consider taking the following steps: Rather than let the children remain at their desks while they eat, create small social groupings that change every week or two, so that new friendships can be made. Try to created temperamentally “balanced” groups, so that phlegmatics can help the choleric eaters slow down, and melancholics can make sure that the sanguines finish their sandwiches! Eat with your children, and converse with them! The art of conversation, which in Goethe’s tale of The Green Snake was accounted “more precious than gold,” is becoming a lost art. Come as prepared to lead lovely mealtime conversations as you are to lead main lesson: “Last night I saw a raccoon in my back yard!” “Did anyone have frost on his window this morning?” “I’m going away this weekend!” And, last but not least, throughout the meal adhere to rules of decent etiquette (another lost art!) Remind the children that their classroom is not a fast-food hangout and that eating is a civilized activity.
This “mealtime therapy” is another one of those healings required in our time because so much in our culture runs counter to health. The fast-food restaurants mentioned above–which certainly take the “rest” out of the “restaurant”–and the pervasive habit families have of eating while watching TV, snacking individually etc.; all of this makes eating an anti-social activity. Think of the importance of the feast in old stories, where people strove to be at their best and most noble. Or, more significantly, think of the “Last Supper” that archetype of earthly social life, where Love is at once the “host” and the “guest” and the substance of the meal. Improving the tenor of the snacktimes and lunchtimes will slowly form yet another cornerstone of our social foundation.
At this point someone might object, “This talk about beauty, gratitude and love is well and good, but what about the child who is insensitive to the classroom environment, who mocks the mealtime grace and who rejects the efforts of other children to be friendly?”
We are describing here the child I would term the “class outsider.” This outsider can take on various forms, some of which are related to the four temperaments. There is the Sanguine Outsider, who is often something of a “prima donna” type. She is always late, but instead of quietly entering the room she brazenly makes sure that her presence is announced and registered! She flaunts her possessions, her snack foods, her daddy’s car and her mommy’s jewels, seemingly oblivious to the negative response she elicits from her classmates.
The Phlegmatic Outsider, on the other hand, is quiet to the point of inertness. He is usually big, perhaps fat, and this physical substantiality by itself makes him stand out in the class. His size and attendant slowness make him the butt of jokes, which, while gentle at first, escalate alarmingly in their cruelty. Unable to respond quickly, he gradually falls into a sleep in relation to his classmates, and eventually his teacher; he grows uninvolved in life and learning.
We meet the Choleric Outsider the very first day of school; indeed, usually in the very first minute. He craves our attention, and will scream, hit, cry or wreak havoc in a hundred other ways until he has gotten it. He is unaware of the rapid movement of his limbs, so he rams into classmates, or pummels them, or pinches them in it seems) complete innocence. He disrupts every story, he mocks every prayer and, in counterpoint to the “beautiful speech” cultivated by the teacher, he recites a litany of bad, bad words.
The Melancholic Outsider challenges us with a “double whammy.” By their very nature melancholics, like the color blue, prefer the edges and corners of life, observing rather than joining. The Melancholic Outsider can become the classroom pariah, exuding darkness so deep that no one wants to go near her. She shuns her classmates’ company, preferring her “invisible friends,” who often have a bizarre quality about them. She may be the class pack rat, eagerly collecting the crayon shavings and bottle caps that the other children throw away and hoarding them like a dragon’s treasure.
If these four types–whom, I believe, you can all recognize–have any one quality in common, it is this: they all appear to be completely uninvolved in the life of the class. In a regular classroom, this would not necessarily become an impediment, but in a Waldorf school classroom, involvement is everything. And just as I noted a common strand uniting the words “gratitude” and “greeting,” I would like to connect the words involved and loved.
These children are outsiders because they feel themselves to be unloved; whether they are unloved in reality is not important, because the child’s feelings are all that is real to him. As children who do not believe that they are receiving love, they are in turn incapable of giving love to others. This “unloved child”, dear parents and teachers, is the most handicapped kind of child that we will ever meet! I don’t care how high an IQ she has, how wealthy his parents are, or how articulate she is–a child who does not receive and cannot give love is deeply disabled.
It is one of the telling points of our difficult age that the ranks of these “outsiders” are growing. Every one of you has–or has had–such a child, or several such children in your class. Each teacher must find his own way to relate to the sometimes heartrending difficulties the outsider presents. When thinking about the teacher’s relationship to these children, I find myself paraphrasing what the Clown in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night says about “greatness”: “Some teachers are born to take on such problems, some teachers become able to take on such problems–and some teachers have such problems thrust upon them.” I suspect that most of us belong in the third category!
It is essential, I believe, that no one feel guilty if he or she is not able to work with such a child and decides that the class as a whole would be better off if the outsider left. Indeed, were we able to look deeply, we might at times discover that the karma of that outsider did not really “mesh” with the karma of his classmates. On the other hand, we would be wrong to simply assume that “Waldorf schools aren’t meant to handle difficult children,” and hold up the archetypical blonde, blue-eyed child who draws well, is good in music, obeys the teacher etc. as the only kind of child we are meant to accept! The children we can help, the children we can’t–it is all so bound up with our destiny, and we must make such careful and considered judgments!
If, however, you do choose to work with such an outsider, which means that you have chosen to follow a path of Love, there are several things to consider. For one, you will probably be assailed by parents and other teachers who are convinced that such a difficult child is undermining the rest of the class. You will hear that, if she were to leave, there would be a rapid improvement in: a) class discipline, b) the class’s achievement level, c) the children’s language and d) the happiness and well-being of all the other children.
That’s a pretty tall order! Would you ever have believed that one little eight or nine year-old could be responsible for so much misery? You may laugh about it now, but just wait until those parents and colleagues start calling you up or ambushing you on the parking lot, telling you that, if that troublesome child doesn’t leave the class, their child will! And you’ll have to admit that, yes, they’re correct in many ways, they’re awake to the seriousness of the problem, but, on the other hand…doesn’t everyone need a scapegoat?
For, after all, what really does happen when a very difficult child leaves a class? Every situation is different, but, in general, the teacher finds he can breathe again. The children seem relieved, the parents and colleagues are grateful, all goes as smoothly as they had predicted and then…Wonder of wonders–another child starts to behave just like the “outsider” who left! Within a few weeks or months, you have a former “insider” transformed into an “outsider,” and a new set of parents demanding his immediate expulsion. The class dynamic, it seems, has a will of its own!
Once again, let me state the obvious: the outer life of the class is a reflection of the inner life of the teacher. The entire Waldorf method is predicated on this perhaps disquieting fact. This places that “outsider” in a very different light, does it not? Perhaps it is she who, most attuned to your innermost being, has taken on those dark spaces that would not otherwise surface. The “outsider,” in this respect, may be the ultimate insider, the child most intimately connected with her teacher, “warts and all.”
I have no intention of giving you generalized solutions to the problem of such difficult children, because, by their very nature, every “outsider” is truly unique. And if what I imply above is correct, at least part of the solution to that problem child “out there” will lie in confronting the problem child “in here”–in your own heart and soul. Such children are like guides, sent from on high, to lead us to what older cultures called the “secret of the Shadow,” or to what Rudolf Steiner called the Mystery of the Double.
The child giving you the most trouble is probably your best guide! Look at it this way: Shakespeare has given us a great tragedy, Macbeth. Within that drama stands Lady Macbeth. She is vengeful and ambitious, she is a murderess, and she eventually succumbs to what we would term paranoid delusions and commits suicide. She is not much of a role model, but what would the tragedy of Macbeth be without her? How could the action move forward with such sustained dramatic pitch were it not for this most unpleasant, difficult and evil character?
Great dramas can serve as object lessons for class teachers, for in a great drama every character has his part to play and every part is essential. We admire a Shakespeare or a Moliere not because they shower us with sunny sentiments of universal sweetness, but because of their ability to delineate the full range of human character. Can we say something similar about ourselves?
Can we say that even though we can’t create many shades of human disposition, at least we are able to teach a full range of personalities? We need to get in the habit of experiencing our classroom as a stage upon which many actors are playing their roles. Why each has chosen his or her particular part is, to begin with, no more our concern than it is when we watch a theatre performance; we begin by accepting that each actor is as well cast as possible. Unlike the theatre, however, we are present not merely as a member of the audience, but also as stage manager, director, coach and prompter. On occasion we may even be asked to play a minor role.
If now and then we view our classroom in this way, the role of the outsider, of the exceptionally difficult child becomes that much more comprehensible. The impact of this grand drama–this “slice of life”–would be weakened through the absence of any of the players, but somehow it is the ornery characters who provide the greatest momentum. And as I mentioned above, your role is anything but passive! It is up to you to provide the greatest number of interactions between the players, to help each actor take a thorough hold of his role, and also to help each actor live into everyone else’s role with understanding and sympathy. The greatest actors know that their parts exist in between them and their fellow actors, in between them and their audience. It is this interplay, this dynamic that makes the classroom come to life.
Emerson said, in his Spiritual Laws, “Every man has this call of the power to do somewhat unique, and no man has any other call.” Please consider this when the moment of truth arrives and you must consider whether or not a child “belongs” in your class. Certainly, there are times when a child cannot be carried any more by a teacher–but this is true far less frequently than we would think!
Indeed, if we can be certain of anything in this mad and unpredictable world, it is that difficult and needy children will be coming our way in ever greater numbers. We will turn some away, but the numbers will be such that we will be compelled to accept many. Like understanding teachers, these difficult children will help to liberate us from our narrow notions of what is “normal” and “acceptable.” They will open us up to the experience of the Threshold.
As I said at the beginning of this lecture, we Waldorf teachers tend to see children at their best, under the optimum conditions. Unlike public school teachers, we also have the freedom to accept or reject children according to our lofty standards. To put it another way, we are spoiled! No wonder the thought of having a few really tough cases makes us tremble! If the idea of working with ever more difficult children causes you some trepidation, let me make a final suggestion.
Avail yourself of any opportunity to visit and/or work with two groups of people who live very close to the Threshold of the spiritual world: the severely handicapped, e.g. the retarded and emotionally disturbed and also the aged and the dying. My own life experience has included long connections with individuals from both of these groups, and I could never express fully how grateful I am for this. To work with the handicapped and the aged is to put one’s own classroom experiences in a context, to relate them to the fullness and complexity of “real life.”
Such work will also help us to recognize that the “worst” child in a Waldorf classroom would hardly stand out in many a public school resource room, and that the strain and stress we feel in working with a particular child’s needs would pale when compared to the superhuman effort it takes to truly care for a dying person. We will all need some “context” and a lot of perspective if we wish to be ready to face the classrooms of the nineteen-nineties.
Let us strive to broaden our scope as “playwrights,” to bring ever greater diversity and range into our classroom. Or let us see ourselves as weavers, working on the warp of Gratitude and the woof of Love, weaving cloths of multitextured and varicolored Beauty.
There is no event so unforeseen, no child so intractable, no destiny so unredeemable that it cannot in some way be woven into this remarkable fabric, this social life of the Waldorf classroom.