Another Firsthand Account
Here are excerpts from an amazing blog written by a former Waldorf school teacher. The author’s story is, in some ways, unique. But it is also, in some ways, quite representative of the experiences undergone by many Waldorf teachers. As one respondent wrote: “In all my 34 years as an Anthroposophist as well as gigs teaching in 3 American Waldorf schools (HS math, physics, German), I have never read a more realistic and dead-on description of the joys and travails of a new American Waldorf teacher.” [http://lanivcox.blogspot.com/2010/04/i-saw-black.html]
So batten down the hatches and hang on. (And, please, go to the blog and read it in its entirety. You will find the the first installment at http://lanivcox.blogspot.com/2009/08/introduction.html Be forewarned: The blog is fearless, distressing, and hard to take. But it seems to be the truth.)
— Roger Rawlings
To set the stage: The writer was hired to teach first grade at a Waldorf school that she refers to as “Trembling Trees” (to disguise its real identity). To protect the privacy of the individuals she mentions, she gives her former colleagues pseudonyms such as “Mr. Bear” and “Mrs. Squirrel.” She gives her former students pseudonyms such as “acorn #3” and “acorn #18.”
From the blog:
Trembling Trees was located in an old brick building situated next to a public park which the school used as a playground ... There were four grades (1st to 4th) that inhabited the first and second floors, and a total of four kindergarten and preschool classes that held their classes in the basement.
...[O]ne of the reasons why parents are attracted to Waldorf schools is because of the schools’ focus on beauty. It makes sense that an art-based program would be in an artistic space and a work of art.
Walking into a Waldorf classroom is a unique experience. It will embrace you in all the ways that makes childhood so wonderful. The rooms feel warm, safe and pleasant. The walls are painted in what is known as a lazure style. Lazuring is not a solid splash of paint, it’s a technique that involves dabbing or applying the paint with a seafoam sponge and then swirling it with a dry paint brush. The effect is soft, fluid, transparent color that breathes.
In Waldorf kindergarten class, there is no chalkboard, no ‘formal’ learning. It appears unstructured. There is an emphasis on natural materials like wood, silk and wool. Plastic is like the Antichrist of materials. There are handmade dolls, dollhouses, naturally dyed silks or fabrics (that can be used as tent building), small handcrafted playthings, various blocks of wood; objects to stimulate the child’s imagination because kindergarten is held in a comfortable dreamlike state of play. The class cooks meals together, cleans, plays, sings, paints, draws and of course, listens to stories.
...I inherited a former kindergarten classroom so my walls were lazured a rosy pink. I was also given wooden desks and chairs and a chalkboard from Mrs. Bear, the 3rd grade teacher. The parents participated by gathering or making particular items that I requested for the classroom such as beanbags, crayon pouches, baskets, silk cloths for the nature table [a table on which pine cones, acorns, and other natural objects are displayed], a candlestick and candles, shelves, painting aprons, etc. It was the parents that sewed the aprons, made the beanbags and pouches, found baskets for both their children to bring their lunches in and for the classroom’s assorted items. Waldorf classrooms have an old-fashioned, one schoolhouse feel to them. Not a computer, TV, DVD player to be seen in sight. I even had a hand held bell that I used to indicate when recess was over.
In the beginning I had 20 children. My little acorns originated mostly from Mr. Worm’s kindergarten. And a few of them came and went rather quickly causing controversy and tongue-wagging excitement among the parents and faculty.
My first child to leave was acorn #20.
“I don’t understand it [I said]. I can’t understand it. He won’t sit in his chair. He spends the entire morning under the desk.”
Mrs. Mouse who was Mr. Worm’s assistant seemed hesitant to speak but she did anyway, “Well, I’m not surprised. He did the same thing in kindergarten. I mean when we did sit down as a class, #20 wouldn’t participate.”
“Did he have any friends?”
“Yeah, there was this one boy that he played with. But that was during recess.”
“Did you ever try to coax him out from under the tables?”
“Oh, yes of course but we didn’t have much success. Part of the problem was he wasn’t in school very often. He only came to school three times a week.”
“Three times a week!” I shouted, “#20 came to school only three times a week? And now he’s expected to attend five days a week? Why wasn’t I told this?”
“I don’t know.”
“You know, everybody was real vague about #20 and the problems he has. I mean it’s kind of obvious something’s wrong with him. He doesn’t look like the other children.”
“Well you know about his situation. They believe his birth mother did drugs and drank during the pregnancy but no one knows for sure.”
My head was spinning, “Yeah, I know, I know. But I didn’t know this. Why didn’t Mr. Worm say anything?”
Mrs. Mouse wrinkled her nose, “Well. . .”
“Well, Mr. Worm wasn’t around much last year. His wife was pregnant with their second child and she was having a difficult time. He’s got back problems too. I was mostly leading the class.”
Needless to say, #20 didn’t last long in my class. But he lasted enough to create a lasting impression of distraction among my class parents. I had a talk with #20’s adoptive parents, two older women, who were understanding yet saddened that their little boy hadn’t worked out.
There is a common misconception that first graders enter school with the knowledge of how to hold a pencil correctly, or how to line up in a line, or how to tuck in their chairs, or how to copy work from the chalkboard into their workbooks. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Everything that the child does in class needs to be taught by the teacher(s). Most if not all young teachers are amazed by this discovery. It will blow their minds. It blew mine.
...[F]aculty meetings were a disaster ... It didn’t take me long to realize there were too many Indians and not enough chiefs in the room. I think because there was no recognized leader and because the school was small everyone seemed to believe that we could hold an informal conversation every Thursday after school and organically figure it out.
We gathered in the Eurythmy room and pulled folding chairs from the rack, forming a loose circle. When Mr. Turtle was still with us as he was during my first year teaching we started the meeting with a Eurythmy exercise (what some people might equate to mediation or yoga).
Mr. Turtle was a kind man who took on teaching a class because someone asked him too. His real love was Eurythmy, that was his training and where he excelled. His wife was also a Eurythmy teacher and she took over teaching the children Eurythmy after he stepped down. But she worked primarily with adults and when she started to teach it was apparent that she resented working with the younger ones. She was snappy. Finally it became such an obvious problem especially when she admitted to us that she didn’t like children. She left too.
Mrs. Squirrel was one of the founding members [of the school] along with Mr. Worm and Mr. Turtle. She worked with the youngest group and I visited her regularly when a subject teacher was with my class. I’d like to say I enjoyed sitting with the little ones in their little chairs and table and that was the only reason why I visited but honestly Mrs. Squirrel baked some pretty tasty bread.
I also visited Mr. Worm’s kindergarten ... Mr. Worm was the kind of male teacher every woman wants teaching their child. He was dashing, dark, tall and young but very married [with] two children ... It was common to see a quaint mob of “single” mothers flirting with Mr. Worm after school.
Mrs. Peacock was another kindergarten teacher who I mistrusted on sight. She always seemed to be performing. Mel-o-dra-ma-tic.
...I had two faculty members with children that should have been in second grade but wanted their children in first grade. Why? Because they didn’t like Mrs. Rabbit. I was unknown and untested therefore held some promise like a new romantic interest. Mrs. Rabbit was gaunt-looking like you would expect a melancholic person to be and by gaunt-looking I mean - well, depressing.
...We were warned in teacher training about faculty parents. I didn’t fully comprehend why and I don’t know if I would have unless I experienced it ... Anyway I wanted to be helpful and I didn’t realize the harm that would be done by these children’s parents. We all had the best intentions and I was terribly naïve.
One of the reasons why faculty meetings felt like a root canal was not only due to the fact that no one seemed to be able to speak succulently thus toying with my nerves, but because of Mrs. Bear.
...Part of the problem was she was never trained as a Waldorf teacher and because of this she felt she had to prove herself of her worthiness. And she spoke her mind. All the time. This can be charming or caustic depending circumstances and moods.
So because the concept of clear and concise never entered a faculty meeting (a salt and pepper combination essential to everyday living), I started to react physically. After one particular name-calling session between Mrs. Bear and Mr. and Mrs. Turtle, I got sick with the flu ... Then the faculty decided I should be the secretary and take down the meeting notes. I was efficient and to the point something they hadn’t apparently seen before.
A typical morning in Waldorf begins with the children lining up at the door of the classroom and the teacher shaking each child’s hand
...Teachers generally structure their mornings around the same guiding principals with a few variations. That principal being to plan the morning lesson in a rhythmic way so that is there is an interchanging of “outward” and “inward” activities.
Outward (exhale) activities would be like exercising or doing housework or playing games with your friends. Inward (inhale) activities involve concentrating, reading, or reflecting.
...Once the children enter the classroom, they put away their belongings and class begins. Each child stands behind their desk. We sing roll call ... Sometimes I would simply sing the child’s full name and they would answer back “I am here” the same way I sang.
...After singing roll, I choose a child, perhaps this would be the child of the day (or my little helper) to come up and light the candle on the nature table. The candle is lit out of reverence, to set a mood, much like you would at church or at the dinner table. Then the child returns to his place and we say our morning verse which was written by Rudolf Steiner.
“The sun with loving light makes bright for me each day. The soul with spirit power gives strength unto my limbs. In sunlight shining clear I do revere O God, the strength of humankind. Which thou so graciously has planted in my soul. That I with all my might, may love to work and learn. From Thee come light and strength. To Thee rise love and thanks.”
...[T]he candle is blown out and the class sits down. Depending on the time of the year or what the children have learned, we sang or played our flutes together. Other verses or poems were also recited in class.
Teaching involves guesswork ... [b]ut the one thing I could always count on was circle time ... Circle is when your class forms — you guessed it, a circle and plays (cleverly disguised learning) games ... We sang songs or practiced the alphabet or counted while they moved their desks and chairs.
...If a child gets out of hand he sits out and watches miserably. And if the whole class gets too rowdy, I simply ended circle time. Silence and disappointment would descend....
My children enjoyed jump roping and bean bag games the best but we also used rhythm sticks and tennis balls. Teaching children to count and memorize their multiplication tables using these types of materials becomes almost effortless.
Some of my class parents seemed very interested in the fact that I had a few rambunctious boys ... My class parents were so concerned about these boys that they even held a meeting before school started....
When I first asked the faculty, “Who is my mentor?” They shrugged and looked at each other, “I don’t know. We’ll get back to you.” Then they told me, “You’ll have to find your own.” Then they thought about that then said, “Okay that’s not fair, we got you Mrs. Raven, the music teacher.”
There was a bit of a mystery that surrounded Mrs. Raven’s past. And by mystery I mean controversy but she was a seasoned teacher having gone through the gamut and she seemed willing to help. But we didn’t get along.
... I discovered she was a dangler. You know dangle the reward or prize in front of the student as incentive for good behavior. I thought children should behave because you told them so. Sure, I believed in a little dangling but she had capes, crowns, swords and a whole mess of props that I found exhausting and silly.
...Out of all of the boys who were deemed troublemakers the only potential problem Mrs. Raven was concerned with was #8, the hitter.
“I think you might consider not having him in your class.”
“No, I want him.”
...During his earliest years, #8 didn’t receive as much attention since his mother was diagnosed with cancer. And after his parents separated he lived in both homes bouncing back and forth between the two every other day. ... [I]t’s no wonder he was a hitter.
...#18 had intense temper tantrums. By far he was the most perplexing and troublesome out of the bunch.
...During the main lesson, if he was unable to draw or copy his work in the exact manner he wanted it to be, he’d start to cry. And for the record, he’s not the crying type.
...Sometimes he would start to rip the page out of his book. (I think one time he was successful) Other times he would throw everything on the ground. I was at a loss.
...All this drama was building up to the one glorious moment that I will never forget. Once again he was upset about his work. Perfectionist doesn’t even begin to describe it. He scribbled furiously over his perceived mistake. Howling and crying we all watched again as he used his little arms to sweep across the desk, his crayons and book falling to the floor. Then he got up, threw his book in the trash.
...I stuck my head out of the classroom door and told the office in my calmest voice although I’m sure everyone in the school could hear his howling, “Call #18’s parents. He needs to go home.”
...His mom finally showed up. She shook her head staring at her baby boy acting out, crying and whining. She whispered to me, “He never acts like this at home.”
No, they never do.
My class became the epicenter of attention. It didn’t take much. The woman who worked in the office was a class parent of mine. And she was neighbors with #3’s family. And the mothers of #14 and #17 loitered around the school like it was a country club.
And so I started to gain a reputation of not being able to handle boys.
...“I need a new mentor” [I said].
“You got it kid,” Mrs. Bear said.
“And I need an assistant.”
“Whatever you want,” Mrs. Squirrel coaxed, “we’ll figure this out together.”
Because we had little funding and because of everyone’s inexperience, all of my assistants were pulled from kindergarten and so they inevitably had to go back to their original classrooms. There was little consistency. Or you could say there was a great deal of consistent change. Just when one of the assistants stayed long enough to understand how to work with me and the children, she had to go back.
...Mrs. Peacock showed up one day unexpectedly and announced that she wanted to try her hand at leading the class. She always wanted to be a grade’s teacher and wouldn’t I let her have a chance? She played a few games with them and left smiling, satisfied by her performance. Another day Mrs. Blue jay stopped by. She sat back and watched. Then on another Mrs. Bear. Mrs. Raven observed my class as well. Other days, I had no assistant or visitors.
First grade had become a revolving door.
Then it happened. I couldn’t avoid it. We had a parent meeting. No one wanted to learn about the Waldorf curriculum I was teaching the children. Everyone wanted to hear about the “discipline problem” going on. The gossip at Trembling Trees spread faster than a California wildfire....
...Staring at the sea of angry parents, I realized I was the youngest person in the room, that my mentor was of no use (when she was around) and that I was quickly developing a bad reputation.
...All eyes went to #18’s dad who was leaning back in his chair, “Yes. Truthfully I think you all are crazy. I can’t wait to get out of this school. I think Miss Cox is doing a fine job and all of you are making her crazy.”
...“How are you handling discipline in the classroom Miss Cox?” Mrs. Blue jay asked.
“I’m doing several things. First I’m giving praise for good behavior. Secondly I’m taking time away from recess for bad behavior. I’ve been trying several things. Different things are going to work on different children. But despite the gossip that is surrounding my classroom, I assure you there is learning and a lot of work going on. We’re working together as a class more and more each day. Remember it’s only been a few months.”
...A couple of the parents spoke up on my behalf, on behalf of not gossiping. An uneasy truce was made — Mrs. Seventeen said she would try to limit her gossip. But we both knew she was being polite for the sake of moving the meeting along.