1. How did Steiner schools start?
In the terrible conditions of post World War 1 Germany, a businessman, Emil Molt of the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart believed that for European consciousness and moral life to evolve out of social chaos it was necessary to go back to the beginning, to the children.
He wished, therefore, to provide an education for the children of the factory employees which had a spiritual basis; a set of values suited to a humanity of the future. He contacted Rudolf Steiner who initiated a school in 1919 called the Waldorf School.
Steiner employed the best traditions of Dominican academic disciplines, of Franciscan compassion for man and veneration for the natural world, and Cistercian devotion to artistic principles and imbued each of the three education streams with direct spiritual knowledge. His insights into the development of the child have been found to be endlessly fruitful over 70 years of Steiner education.
The schools are today mushrooming rapidly in all countries and still attract support from the entrepreneurial community due to their contribution to the welfare and maintenance of human freedom and enterprise. Rudolf Steiner dedicated his life to the enhancement of the knowledge of Man. In his life he brought about a regeneration of our thinking which to this day is still having widespread effects in the realms of Agriculture, Medicine, Performing Arts, Philosophy, Natural Science and particularly, Education. Rudolf Steiner Education has its roots in this man’s penetrating insight and wisdom, its branches world-wide in over 600 independent schools and its fruit in the people who enter the world striving to improve their environment.
2. What are the long term aims for the child?
The stresses which face young people leaving school seem to be increasing towards the end of the century. One of these is a lack of conviction that they will find a secure and useful place in society due to the uncertainties of unemployment. Another is the reassessment of traditional values which places stress on emotional wellbeing. There are four qualities which we see as essential; strength, happiness, creativity and intelligence – these are four of the most important aspirations for children’s education in Steiner schools, alongside many others.
This can be taken in its widest possible context, however, physical strength by virtue of good health is cultivated in the school through a wide variety of activities like athletics, team games, Eurythmy, Gymnastics, dancing, bush walking, rock climbing, water sports, first aid and nutrition.
The person who is happy within himself can cope with the oppositions which he will encounter throughout life. The children in Steiner schools are taught to care about the welfare of others. They learn to succeed in their tasks by creating a rhythmic, harmonious, orderly environment in which to learn. Steiner schools are conducive to learning. To ensure that children care, contribute and succeed in their school life, gives them greatly increased chances of continuing these practices into adulthood.
In Europe, job applicants who have a Steiner education have an advantage at interviews over others because it is well known to employers that they have a more creative and original way of finding solutions to problems. They have a high commitment to quality and are not afraid to take responsibility. A technologically dominant society tends to suppress the individual or to confine him in a ready-made box through specialisation. Steiner schools encourage the students to excel in every subject to the extent of their ability. They attempt to make children citizens of the world through a comprehensive 12 year curriculum in which all students participate in all subjects.
Versatility in intelligence is an important goal in Steiner schools. The children learn ultimately to come to grips with concepts on both a materialistic and spiritual level, they are educated to exercise imaginative and mobile thought. They are then enabled to search for the significance in life and to realise true ethical and moral values – to their immense benefit and that of the world. Survival in an often difficult world is not enough. Intelligence is a cardinal factor for the maturing individual to survive, prevail and prosper.
3. What happens if the child does not like their teacher?
The teacher in a Steiner School must initially regard it as his own shortcoming – not the child’s – if there is a personality conflict. He, after all, is the professional educator: he must solve the problem.
The fact is, the children in Steiner Schools have the greatest respect for, and trust in, their teachers. One reason for this is that the Class Teacher takes one group of children from Class 1 to Class 7 in which time he becomes a personal friend of each child. Another is that the children and teachers refer to each other by their first names. This confirms the friendship relationship which exists between them. It in no way weakens the teacher’s inherent authority, in fact is has been found that it strengthens it.
The Class Teacher is responsible for the main formal education and represents a pillar of support and guidance to each individual child in the class. It has been found that security and happiness are the best possible platforms in childhood on which to build confidence and mental stability in adulthood. Children in a Steiner school are both secure and happy – it is the Class Teacher’s job to see that they are.
4. What about discipline?
An authoritarian discipline imposed upon children cannot be maintained when the wielder of this discipline is absent. A self discipline that comes from within the child does not break out in vandalism and other antisocial behaviour.
Steiner schools are not ‘progressive schools’ – the children do not do as they like. Self-discipline takes time to learn, just like any other faculty. Some children have it when they first come to school, most others learn it in a short time.
The key to a good school’s discipline is work. Children love work! That is, as long as they feel that they are achieving and not failing – as long as there is encouragement and not coercion – as long as it stimulates their imagination and does not tire them through dry repetition. In effect work can be, and should be, fun. A class that is deeply interested in a task will not tolerate a miscreant – they will even apply their own social pressures to curb him if he is disturbing the work atmosphere in the class.
Good discipline is maintained when each child has the deep conviction that he is special because of his unique contribution.
Every child can do something well, if the teacher finds this talent and convinces the child that it is important, then the child will want to behave because he will begin to have confidence in his abilities. Self esteem and positive behaviour go hand in hand.
An education that appeals to the individuality of the child, is one where good discipline is maintained – not through fear but through the child’s respect for himself, his work, his teacher and his school. A self-disciplined class is a happy and orderly class – one where a child’s full potential can ben expressed.
5. What about competition in the school?
Children naturally compete with each other, but usually only in a healthy way. When the competitive spirit begins to threaten the harmony of their game, competition is replaced by sympathy and co-operation. Co-operation is one of the shining facets of a good character.
The trouble with competition in a school is that there are always the inevitable failures, the child’s morale is crushed when he is convinced that he is a failure. This is actually anti-education. The other evil of competition is the aspect of the inflated egotism that can contribute to the character of a child who is perpetually a winner and seen to be so against a competitive background.
The Steiner teacher regularly tests the children but there are no formal exams. Each child is encouraged to strive for fulfilment of self. The children are not graded in the class (first, last or whatever). They do experience however, that their presence in the class is valuable – that is their real place. Respect for achievement is cultivated in the less gifted child and sympathetic co-operation in the gifted. In fact, the gifted children’s striving for excellence is actually enhanced by a non-competitive spirit, because they are doing it for the right reasons – achievement for achievement’s sake – this transforms in adult life to dedication to task.
People who have been educated in Steiner schools develop a pattern of personal values that has inherent in it a commitment to the community. Competition only enhances self-interest. Most games have a competitive element which adds spice, but it is unhealthy if the skill and fun of the game is clouded by the desire only to win. The great moment (or action replays) are more important than the final score. The attitude encouraged in the children by the teacher both in the classroom and outside, is that the greater virtue is that of helping one another to excel.
6. Does the school teach religion?
The Steiner schools have been born out of a Western Christian tradition and as such adhere to the ethical fabric and spiritual truths expressed in the gospels. The schools, however, are non-denominational. For children to find their place within the complex tapestry of world spiritual life they must learn about the various religions, both past and present. The school teaches, as well as Christianity, the history of Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and many others – elements of which will certainly touch their lives as they grow into a world both fantastically varied, yet often fanatically strife-torn by the different religious view-points. The central aim of the school is to prevent bigotry and intolerance by the children toward people who look, think, or believe differently from themselves. Religion today needs action – children who love and protect nature and have a deep sense of moral and social responsibility are truly religious. Steiner schools teach an uncompromising veneration for life and a deep respect for human dignity. It is engendered by the teacher’s gratitude to the world and encouraged in the child.