As we celebrate 100 years of Waldorf Education, we explore the idea and reality of what is Waldorf education. We must consider what is essential to it, and what non-essential ideas and practices might inhibit its healthy growth and innovation. This letter by Marianne Gray is the first of many conversations over the next year that seek to answer the question, “What is Waldorf?”
What is Waldorf?
By Marianne Gray
When I first heard about Waldorf Education as a teenager, I felt impassioned that Waldorf Education emphasizes hands-on learning and the use of the arts to expand and deepen learning in all subjects.
As an adolescent, I longed to meet the world on many levels – through my intellect, yes, but through feelings and creative activities, too.
Waldorf curriculum seeks to develop the child’s imagination and intelligence, while establishing healthy relationships and creative skills. Children learn best when their hands, heart and head are actively engaged at the same time. They need to be taught by striving teachers who not only have skill but also enthusiasm and warmth of heart.
In my early 20s, when training to become a Waldorf teacher, I learned that Waldorf education is based on a developmental picture of the child – not just from a physical point of view, but from the perspectives of soul and spirit as well.
When one walks into a healthy first grade classroom, the children are curious, lively, open, and loving. As they progress through the grades, the qualities children exhibit in the classroom change, grow and evolve. It is such a wonderful experience!
Rene’ Querido, my teacher, taught that the word educare means to draw forth the essence already dwelling in the human being. In Waldorf education, we aim to help draw forth the best in each child, rather than to fill the child’s head with information as if it were an empty vessel.
When I began at SWS as a third grade teacher 30 years ago, I had never taught children before. I had much to learn, and the children were my teachers – they gradually shaped my teaching style through our mutual experiences inside and outside the classroom. It did not happen overnight.
I am forever grateful to my colleagues and to the parents of that class for their bravery, vision and trust in me. They gave me time, space and support to develop my capacities as a teacher.
As a colleague working in a Waldorf school, I appreciate that Waldorf education endorses variation – there is not just “one right way” to present the curriculum.
Our task as teachers is to meet the specific needs of the students before us, and to teach with enthusiasm. I have been inspired time and again by the varying ways my colleagues have approached our rich curriculum.
The goal of Waldorf education is not to provide a narrow, fixed set of learning outcomes; it is to encourage in the children a love for learning.
As a parent in a Waldorf school, I learned to be open and awake to the gifts each Waldorf teacher brings, and to appreciate how the whole faculty together lovingly held my children through the learning process. Each teacher supported my child’s development in ways I had not anticipated.
As a member of the College of Teachers, I carry in my heart and meditative life many difficult situations in which hard decisions have to be made. I have come to recognize that Waldorf education is embedded in the complexity of life and is therefore not free from hardship.
During our yearly Maypole dance, there often comes a moment when the ribbons become tangled; the seventh grade musicians beautifully play on, supporting the eighth graders as they work to untangle the knot.
I love these moments because life isn’t perfect. Life often presents us with many knotty moments. It takes time and perspective to untangle knots, and it works best when we strive to support one another.
We may disagree on certain issues, but we can always find new opportunities to laugh and work together.
As a member of the Board of Trustees, I deeply appreciate that Waldorf education is supported when differing points of view are respectfully debated and considered.
Truth is not limited to a single point of view – it is a greater living reality that can only be grasped by listening and seeking to understand the situation from many points of view.
No one ‘owns’ the truth – we seek to ‘stand under’ truth, to be together in our ‘under-standing’.
We can act as strong individuals, but we build community by appreciating the gifts each person brings.
As a Waldorf class teacher in her third cycle of teaching, I am enlivened and inspired that Waldorf education is meant to evolve and change to meet the times in which we live!
We must all ponder: “How best can we serve humanity at this time? What does this group of children need to best be able to contribute?”
Children look to us to model what is to come, and we must examine our words, actions, stances and interactions, striving to be worthy models for blossoming human beings.
It is a great joy to be a teacher in a Waldorf school; I am grateful for the rich experiences of working with children, parents, colleagues and greater community.
Marianne Gray is 5th grade class teacher at Sacramento Waldorf School. She began her teaching career here in 1987 with a third grade class that she took through 8th grade graduation. She has worked with very young children, as middle school support teacher, and as a grades teacher, first through eighth, several times.