By Dean Smith
Every morning in our high school, teachers lead students in a verse, then circulate around the room, recognizing each student as they say “Good morning.” At day’s end, students gather for closing circle, with classmates and their grade’s faculty sponsors. They check in, sharing announcements and upcoming events: it’s a moment when everybody stands together, an opportunity to be seen and heard.
There are so many reasons that students choose to attend our high school, but perhaps one of the most important is the meaningful relationships students build here with teachers and peers. Scientific research reveals that there is a strong connection between relationships and learning. Cognitive scientists have shown us that emotion is not the opposite of reason; it is essential to it. The human relationships formed between Waldorf teachers and their students are at the heart of our approach to education, and current research recognizes that these relationships make a difference in the quality of students’ learning.
In a Waldorf school, relationships are built with the very youngest students up through high school. It’s simple: students who have good relationships with teachers learn better. And teachers who are passionate about their subjects ignite passion for learning in their students. That happens here every day.
As an example, when Coach Dean Stark came to our school in the 1980s, he brought his passion for sports. At the time, we didn’t have a basketball program, and students approached the administration, asking for one. So the school hired Dean.
An athlete who had been on the professional sports track, he brought intensity, drive, and passion, and while Waldorf schools are not known to promote competition, in a high school environment, we do push people individually to achieve. What we did in the classroom, Coach Stark brought to the court.
When students arrived at the gym for practice, they’d find Coach Stark already working out. He modeled the level of hard work he wanted to see in his students. That built respect for him and a drive in the students that led our school to achieve unparalleled success in sports, despite never cutting any player from a team. Coach Stark is considered the winningest coach in the region because his encouragement and drive lead students to do things they didn’t think they could, to beat teams we might have no business beating otherwise.
That same dynamic lives in our school, where students are excited and inspired by teachers who are deeply engaged in their subjects. Add to that the strong, respectful relationship between teacher and student, and you have an environment where students like to learn, where they build confidence, connection, and a sense of community.
Our school shows students that the world is beautiful, that it’s a good place, that people support them and that it is important to support others. This enables students to trust themselves, to know they are worthy and valuable. Research indicates that being seen and feeling needed protect teens from so many of the potential dangers of adolescence, from alcohol and drugs to depression and anxiety. Waldorf education creates an environment that ultimately breeds success because we are nurturing souls that are fulfilled, who know that they have a place in the world, that the world needs them.
One specific way we give students the springboard to become leaders is through connection with community. Whether it’s the Homeless Period Project, the Harvard Making Caring Common Project, the Climate Strike, or Girl Up, our students are passionate about helping others and working together to improve the world around them. Studies show that students who work in groups build a sense of gratitude, that their ability to help others benefits them, too.
A key benefit of a Waldorf high school education is our proven ability to graduate young adults with a strong sense of self who are dedicated to improving the world around them.
What do you want for your children? Is it to be comfortable in their own skin, to go out into the world once they turn 18 and know that they can do whatever they set their mind and will to do?
If so, then Sacramento Waldorf School is the place for them.
Dean Smith is Sacramento Waldorf High School Administrator