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.
...Kathy from teacher training helped me connect with Amy. Amy had gone through the same training and had taught the full cycle of grades.
...Amy was closer to my age, seemed normal (believe me a rarity during those days) and most importantly, she was focused. She gave me a lot of material and seemed eager to share books, songs, poems and whatever material she had on hand.
...We talked a little more about how to strengthen my teaching techniques but I couldn’t help but ask, “Did you see anything in my teaching that alarmed you?”
“No, what do you mean? Why do you ask?”
“It’s just, everyone has been so critical of me — the parents, the faculty; I’m beginning to believe that I’m not a good teacher. Maybe I’m not cut out for this. And if I’m not a good teacher, I want to know.”
“Lani, I saw nothing that would lead me to believe that you are not a good teacher. You need work but believe me, we all do. I remember how hard it was. First grade is tough but it does get easier, I promise.”
...During recess the children asked if I wanted to play tag. Even though the second, third and fourth grade teachers were out there with us I wasn’t sure if I should and honestly I had to be in the mood. But I knew I needed to open up so I asked the other teachers if they would mind and they said no, go ahead. So I chased my little acorns around the play ground discovering soon enough that I didn’t have the stamina to keep up with them. They laughed, squealed and shrieked as I reached out, ran and changed directions in hopes of capturing a victim. When recess was over the class brain, #2 looked up at me, “Whew. That was fun!”
...I started to relax and joke around with my class a little more. In training we were told to make your children laugh at least once a day and I took it to heart. I love being a comedian. I knew I couldn’t be sarcastic or use similar adult humor but I figured out how to be silly and absurd, one of my favorite forms of comedy. When I asked the children to retell or recollect the fairy tale they had heard me tell the day before I asked questions that would make them smile.
...Then one day #17 announced, “Your new name is Miss Coxey.”
Girls #1, 2, 3, and 14 giggled in agreement.
“Yes, Miss Coxey.”
“Miss Coxey?” I asked, “Why?”
#3 grabbed #14, “Because, we said so.”
“I don’t know. . .”
#1 laughed, “Well, I do.” And they all ran away tee-heeing over their little secrets.
...When I embarked on the journey of becoming a Waldorf teacher and working with children, I knew I had to change some of my behavior. I stopped swearing. I weaned myself off of television and the daily news. I stayed away from alcohol and any mind-altering substances in order to be as pure as possible. I truly wanted to be a good role model that the children could look up to because I remember what it was like to have someone outside of family to look up to. But I was running out of wisdom, patience and sanity.
Oh, it was just pot. Are you still on that?
When I was told to tell the kids to stop calling me Miss Coxey, I did. And when I was urged to stop playing with the children, I did that too. During parent meetings I addressed their concerns as intelligently, calmly and confidently as possible.
...“Miss Cox?” Mrs. Blue jay said, “Can I talk to you?”
“Of course,” I sat down at one of the children's desks.
Mrs. Blue jay joined me, “This is very difficult for me to say but I thought you should hear it from me. Okay?”
My mouth formed a tight line. I could tell I was going to need a cigarette. Did I mention I started smoking again? First thing I did when went I got home these days.
“Oh, Lani. This school is driving me crazy. The parents are driving me crazy,” She laughed uncomfortably. “This year has been very stressful for [#15] and I’m afraid I’ve enrolled her in another school. She’ll stay with you until the end of this year but then she’s going.”
Number 16’s mom was approaching me. She was a solemn woman with graying hair. I got the feeling her husband was never around to help her with her daughters.
“I’m sure you’ve heard about Mr. Turtle’s class.”
“Yes, I have. What are you going to do?” Her eldest daughter was in his class and by now everyone had heard that Mr. Turtle was resigning. It was an unsettling situation. He was Mr. Worm’s good friend, one of the founding fathers of the school and was possibly pressured into resigning. I wasn’t sure of the situation.
“Well, there’s not much I can do. The class is so small that the parents have decided to break it up. So I’m sending both the girls to [another] school.”
...Mrs. Bear and I were walking to get coffee.
...All teachers are encouraged to visit each of their children at home ... These visits are very eye opening. #14’s parents and I kept missing each other, never able to pin down a date so I didn’t visit her until the end of the year.
“Yeah, I did. Boy, they are loaded.”
“Oh, yeah. Both of them come from old money.”
“Yeah, so anyway it was a little strange at first but then we all went to the park and the rest of the visit was fine. I was there for a long time.”
“I guess they were testing you. Well, that is what I heard anyway. #14’s parents were on the fence about whether to keep their daughter in your class or not and they figured the home visit would make or break their decision.”
“What?” I was pissed. “They were testing me?”
“Hey, easy there. Are you sure nothing happened?”
“Yeah,” I searched my memory, thinking back on the day’s events ... They were watching me. What was I suppose to have done?
“I don’t understand.”
“Hey, I don’t understand it either kid but those parents are a big loss to the school. See what you can do to get them back.”
When the school hosted an open house, some of the parents arrived to help us talk to potential families. #14 was hanging out in our room when she walked up and asked, “Miss Cox, can I use the bathroom?”
I laughed, embarrassed, her mom just across the room but she chose to ask me! “Of course you can, dear, you don’t have to ask me. It’s Saturday.”
#14 meekly left the room.
On Monday, her mom confronted me, “My daughter was very upset by the way you treated her.”
“What do you mean?”
“She asked you if she could use the bathroom and you laughed at her.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean it in any mean way, she knows that.”
“No, she doesn’t. She was very hurt. She thought she was doing the right thing by asking you. We were at school, she’s been taught to listen to you when she’s at school.”
“I’m sorry,” I was taken back by her intensity, “I’ll apologize to her as soon as I see her.”
Then there was that time when #14’s mom started to cry because my nature table was messy looking.
...Then there was the book incident.
THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE [a Christian parable by C. S. Lewis] was recommended by one of my parents. #10’s father urged me to read it to the class. He beamed when he told me how much his son enjoyed it and how they were well on their way to reading the rest of the series. So I read the book to the class. I liked it. And the children were certainly enthralled. There’s some violence in the story when the Lion gets killed but I was told children do not interpret these images the same way that adults do.
...Arguably THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE carries metaphoric themes ... But I didn’t read it for that. And I’m still not clear what it was about the book that she disliked so much.
“How could you have read that book?”
“It was recommended to me.”
Mrs. Fourteen was distraught, “I have tried very hard to protect my daughter. I feel like you have undone some of this.”
Then she asked the dreaded question, “Did you even read the book before you read it to the class?”
I was caught. “No.”
“No? How could you? You have to read the material before it is presented. You should read the material before you read it to the class! What if? What if? Why didn’t you ask us?”
“Do you seriously expect me to ask permission from the parents if I can read a book to the class each time?”
...I was beginning to wonder if #14’s mom was a nut case.
Unfortunately nut case or not, her husband was on the Board of Directors. I didn’t understand how to please high-profiled parents....
...Then there was the letter, it stated that they after careful consideration they were pulling their child from my class to attend another school closer to home. I wondered why she bothered to lie.
At the end of my first year, a parent meeting was called by Mrs. Blue jay (who never showed up) because four families were pulling their children out of my class. The fourth one was #17. Her mother was the defender of gossip, if you recall.
This meeting was one of those dark stains, a memory that I have tried to blot out, like much of my time as a teacher.
...Fifteen people attended: Mr. Worm, Mrs. Rabbit, parents from my class as well as a mother from Mrs. Rabbit’s class who thought she could be useful in our meeting.
In the middle of the nauseating discussion ... #14’s mom said, “One of the problems is Trembling Trees is a young school that does not attract quality teachers. It attracts teachers with little or no experience, like Lani who was not emotionally available for my child.”
I sat there in silence. I was, by this point, used to being insulted both privately and publicly.
...I was surprised when my mentor Amy cut her off because no one had ever done this before, “I really don’t feel that is appropriate. We’re here to talk about the class.”
The tension in the room was not just thick, it was stifling. Someone unaccustomed to the thickness of Trembling Trees would have been gagging from the tension but we all had learned to breathe in this environment by now. The parents went back and forth discussing their happiness with me and the smaller size of the class or their alarm and concern with my inability to hold the class together. I clutched my pen as I took notes trying to keep my throat from closing in.
...I listened as they talked about who left, like #20 and why. Someone brought up another girl who was in my class briefly. She was a charity case from the beginning but due to family problems had to leave the school. I couldn’t believe I was about to be blamed for this one too.
...[D]espite how humiliated I felt, how out of control the whole meeting seemed and useless, very useless unless the point was to dance on my grave as if I were dead. But then the pivotal moment occurred, when 14’s mom nonchalantly said, “I don’t think Lani cares.”
My face slid off. I lost it. I lost it. I began to cry and the harder I tried to hold it like a child holding her breath, the more helplessly I sobbed.
...“This is an opportunity for you to tell Mrs. Fourteen how you feel, Lani.” Amy placed her hand over mine. But my mouth would not open.
...I kept shaking my head. I don’t remember looking up very much during that meeting. I didn’t trust myself to speak besides I was crying too hard. Instead I crumbled and re-crumpled the tissue that had been placed in my hands. I refused to be any more vulnerable than I already was and so for the rest of the meeting everyone said polite things and then thankfully like an operation gone wrong, it ended.
I braced myself as Amy made the announcement that I had just learned before the meeting - she was pregnant with her second child and would no longer be mentoring me. I felt continuously abandoned. Everything was becoming a personal blow.
...The next day #1’s mom came up to me, “Hi, how you doing?”
Her voice was soft; I could tell she had heard about the meeting, every juicy bit I wanted to add bitterly.
“I heard about the meeting yesterday. Sorry we couldn’t make it. #1 wasn’t feeling well.”
“But I heard,” she went on, “that people were happy to see you cry.”
My head snapped back, “What? Why?”
“Why,” she smiled, “because it showed that you care.”
...God knew how I desperately wanted to escape from my flawed Waldorf career.
Of course I had thought about quitting. But when I thought about my children I decided to hang in there. Maybe the worst was truly over. The parents who caused the most heartache were gone and I was committed to my class and my career. I decided to hang there one more year.
To say it had been a tough year was an understatement in the least. The year went by in a blur, my memory like a jack-in-the-box popping up when I least expected it. I compared notes with my classmates from training when I saw them during conferences and I knew my experiences were very different. They seemed refreshed as if they had just spent time in the French Polynesia. I felt like I had just gotten out of a fight that had gone the distance and the decision was not in my favor.
...Since I rarely heard anything positive about my teaching I doubted whether or not I was supposed to be doing this. I was confused because my teacher training had been such a wonderful experience. I felt like I had received green lights the whole way. I had found something meaningful and I thought Waldorf supported my desire to grow as a spiritual being.
It certainly didn't help that I was a people pleaser on the inside but on the outside I tried to convince everyone I was in control. Because to me, to show weakness was a sign of weakness and since many thought I was already weak so why would I show it?
Inevitably my world shrank. I had no friends to go hang out with, no family nearby and no social outlet. I went to work, came home and did it all over again: lather, rinse, and repeat. It was as if I had made the decision to live the most out-of-balance life I could possibly imagine and to get that close to suicidal tendencies. It felt like I never clocked out because I was constantly thinking up new ideas, new games; it was addictively exhausting.
A young school is a pioneering school needing guidance, direction and encouragement. If not a mentor or sister school to help lead the way, an administrator or principal is necessary. Trembling Trees needed a necessary. And the faculty one day realized it. And in an even bolder move, did something about it.
We all looked to Mr. Worm since he was handsome and charismatic and most importantly well-liked but he wilted under the weight of responsibility.
...Mrs. Blue jay was heavily leaned upon because she had the most experience but it is one thing to be part of an established school and another to lead a new one. She had two voices: one was soft and round like her body and the other was loud like her opinions. Mrs. Bear couldn’t stand her. Mrs. Blue jay felt the same way about her. Meetings were very stressful.
And when I was in the grades meetings I often felt like I was the mediator between Mrs. Bear and Mrs. Rabbit. I could relate to Mrs. Bear’s fiery temperament as well as Mrs. Rabbit’s melancholic one. Mr. Turtle was almost never around for our meetings. But since everyone was moving up a grade, Mrs. Bear’s class were now fourth graders, Mrs. Rabbit’s third grade, and mine second grade, this meant we had to find a new teacher to take on the upcoming first grade class.
...There were two candidates that we chose from to lead our budding school as the new school year begun. An older woman who I’ll call Mrs. Rose was an established mediator. She seemed like the obvious choice to me. But in the end the faculty voted for Mr. Skunk, a short and stocky man who had a lazy eye and chronic halitosis. My children were terrified of him. I was especially frightened when he turned the janitor’s closet next to our classroom into his office.
...As the new school year was getting underway, Mr. Worm asked if I could meet him and Mrs. Rabbit for some coffee to go over some business.
Mr. Worm arrived soon after I had secured a table outside.
...We delayed a little bit [waiting for Mrs. Rabbit] by getting some drinks but Mr. Worm decided to start, “We just wanted to talk about your needs and what we could do to help you out for the new year. I know last year was rough and we want to make sure things run smoothly. For instance, the big question is, do you have a mentor?”
“Yes,” I beamed, “Amy recommended her. She’s talked to her on my behalf explaining my situation. Her name is Joanna. She’s great. She’s done the grades cycle a few times — a lot of experience and just a sweet old lady.”
“Wonderful!” He pulled out a small notepad and pen and jotted a few things down.
“Ah! There she is,” I waved to Mrs. Rabbit.
As Mr. Worm turned around to say hello, I noticed something written at the top of his notepad: Fire Lani??? The word fire was underlined a couple of times....
...My second grade class had been whittled down from the first grade’s more popular numbers but it is the class I picture when I think about teaching, when I remember this time. In fact, I have to remind myself that the first year even occurred. This I am sure was because I was unbelievably stressed out and any connection I once had with my former first grade students was severed. #14’s mom still frequented the school though because her son attended kindergarten....
...Anyway one day her daughter was with her. I said hello with a big smile to the little girl who I used to slide down the slide with. She was shy but had opened up to me throughout the year. Instead she withdrew without saying a word and hid behind her mother. My mouth hung open. #14 never spoke to me again. I wondered what her mother had said about me to change her heart....
...[W]ith the second year life slowed down just a little bit ... I started to figure out my style, if there is such a thing, because the major distractions were no longer there. I had thirteen disciples who loved me and hated me and there were times I felt the same.
...When you have a smaller class the personalities of the children are magnified. We were like a nuclear family ... I never should have had a large class to begin with — so many of those children should have been rejected from entering first grade but the school wanted to grow and fast.
...Mr. Wolf’s class was large, another testament to Trembling Trees healthy kindergartens but Mrs. Blue jay recognized that her cohorts were not doing anything to get the kindergartners ready for first grade. So she started working with Mrs. Peacock and Mr. Worm on exercises and games and assessment tests.
...I was a little infuriated that no one seemed to recognize that the reason why Mr. Wolf was successful with his class was because he was treated differently. #1’s mother practically clasped her hands together in delight when she saw Mr. Wolf and I knew she was wishing her daughter was in his class instead of mine.
...I was also angry that no one seemed to understand that many of the children I inherited were not prepared for first grade and yet I was to blame.
...A division was then established during my second year with Mr. Skunk as king of the forest. Then much to the protest of the other faculty members, the loudest being from Mrs. Bear, a “Core Group” was formed consisting of Mrs. Blue jay, Mr. Worm (later replaced by Mrs. Squirrel when Mr. Worm stepped down due to health problems) and Mr. Wolf.
Yes, that is the name they called themselves. The Core Group ... This elitist group became the court of law in the land, thus most of us who went to plead our cases left defeated or angry or both. When I went to them asking if we could come together and discuss what happened in the first and fourth grade class last year as a case study, Mr. Skunk told me that, “From what I heard you should have been fired last year. I would have fired you.”
The Core Group became official when its members announced in the school’s newsletter that any parent who wished to be heard could hold a private audience with them. Mr. Skunk opened the door of his janitor’s closet to complaining parents and when the rest of us complained that the parents should first come to their child’s teacher Mrs. Blue jay’s response was, “Not every parent feels comfortable with their teacher.”
...We had just come back in from recess. My second graders were fighting for some reason, short with one another and generally in a foul mood. This was out of character. I had a good-natured class. But today child after child came to me during recess complaining about what he said or she said what he did and what she didn’t. I wondered what kind of curse had blighted my class.
As my class settled down in their seats, I put my hands on my hips and said, “What is going on today?
Somebody shrugged. Mostly they looked around waiting for me.
Then I said, “Something is in the air. Everyone is in a bad mood.”
“I know,” #2 declared. “It’s so weird.”
A few of my second graders nodded in agreement.
“All right since everyone seems to have something bad to say to one another, we’re going to say something good about one another.”
I have no idea where this inspirational thought came from. This was probably one of the best things I did as a teacher.
...“All right,” I rubbed my hands together, scanning the room for the easiest child to start off with, someone who was well-liked by both boys and girls, “#10.”
Hands shot up.
“I like #10 because he’s nice to everyone.”
...After a few more of these compliments warmth entered into our winter classroom. Shoulders relaxed. The children were eager to say something positive and even if someone didn’t raise their hand at first, they later put it up after they had thought of something to say.
...Then it was #6’s turn. She was the tiniest girl in class. Often given the role of ‘baby’ in the game of house.
...I picked a classmate to say something about her, I wish I could remember who but this is what she said, “#6 never says anything bad about anyone.”
Those words sunk in for a long pause. I was in awe that I never consciously recognized that before, “Yes. That’s true, isn’t it? You never say anything bad about anyone.”
I looked at her curiously. A few other children spoke up in agreement.
...When we finished saying something positive about every student, I smiled, “There! I feel so much better. I’m so proud of all of you.”
“But we haven’t done you yet Miss Cox.”
“Oh, that’s not necessary.”
“No, no, we have to do you too.”
“I’ll go first,” #2 volunteered, “You’re a wonderful teacher.”
I felt misty eyed, “Thank you.”
“I love you Miss Cox,” came a whisper from #3.
Then others piped up, “I love you too Miss Cox,” until they all were saying it.
“And I love all of you,” I whispered fighting the tears, losing the battle, and then walking to my desk to grab a tissue.
There was a bigwig from one of the California schools coming up to visit ours for a Waldorf standards inspection, like an audit or evaluation or root canal. Let’s call her Old Woman....
...Old Woman did not have the time to visit all the classrooms but it was agreed that she would visit mine and Mrs. Rabbit’s because we were considered needing the most help. She spent about two or three days observing our morning lessons.
...I didn’t perform well. I knew somewhere in the small part of my brain that I could play the ass-kiss game but I’m not of the boot-lickin’ toady sect.
...Whenever adults (as oppose to children) were around I became very self-conscious of my weak singing voice which of course only made it worse. My throat would tighten and I would squeak rather than carry a tune. Then there was the one day I decided to wear jeans. What can I say? The school building was ancient and freezing cold in the winter.
Thursdays were short days, so that the faculty could have one of their useless meetings, so I felt justified in wearing jeans. I knew I blew it.
As we sat in a circle, Old Woman discussed how she thought Trembling Trees was a lovely up and coming school.
Then Mrs. Blue jay asked the dreaded question, “How did your classroom evaluations go?”
...Old Woman proceeded to tell everyone all the juicy little giblets and tidbits they wanted to hear, “Miss Cox and Mrs. Rabbit have a lot of work to do in their classrooms....”
I felt a little more of any dignity that I still had burn away ... I clenched my fists and looked over at my fellow suffering colleague. She looked as pained as I did.
...Even if we both had glowing reports, the finer details, the things we needed to work on should not have been shared with everyone in the room. It was embarrassing. Maybe I’m wrong. But both of us were the product of an ill-formed classes complete with outspoken parents and problematic boys ... I wondered if the rest of the teachers would have been pleased to have their evaluations shared openly in front of their colleagues. We weren’t even asked if this was okay.
...[T]he repercussions Old Woman’s evaluation caused continued long after she left. First her evaluation for me was sent to the wrong school so I did not receive her formal letter months after the visitation had occurred. When I did receive it, it was harsh.
...I wrote an addendum to the Old Woman’s assessment which took many, many, many revisions. I had to flush out the bitter taste in my mouth. Perhaps if I had worn a hoop skirt and acted like Glinda the Good Witch from Wizard of Oz I would have gotten a better evaluation. Unfortunately I donned my Wicked Witch of the West outfit.
But I defended myself as honorably as I could by reasoning that I did engage the children in a healthy way and that I did have a good imagination for the boys.
...After I gave a copy for Mr. Skunk to sign, I made copies for Mr. Worm and Mrs. Blue jay as a formal courtesy.
That day Mrs. Blue jay found me in Mrs. Squirrel’s preschool class. She peeked her head into the room.
“Can I talk to you?”
“Sure,” I got up and closed the door behind me, “Is everything okay? You seem out of breath.”
“Yes, I’m fine. Look. I just got my copy of your addendum to Old Woman’s evaluation. Did you sent it yet?”
“No, I wanted Mr. Skunk’s approval and for everyone to see it first. What did you think?”
Mrs. Blue jay laughed awkwardly, “Uh, I don’t think you should send it.”
“Why not?” I wasn’t expecting this, “I made some valid points. I wasn’t mean. It’s completely professional. I mean she criticized my clothing for crying out loud. There is nothing wrong with the way I dress.”
“You’re right, you’re right. It’s just. I’m just concerned about what kind of message we are sending. . . She evaluated our school too, remember? We need to get approved as a Waldorf school. If you send this letter it might give her the wrong impression.”
She saw the look on my face and then rushed to say, “Look, I think you did say some valid things but she might take the letter wrong way. Why don’t we sit down and talk about it? Just don’t send the letter, Lani. Please. Maybe we could rewrite it?”
The letter was never mailed.
o 0 O 0 o
And here, gentle reader, I will end this series of excerpts. A real cliffhanger, no? What happens next? Does Lani prevail? Is she vindicated? Does she rise through the Trembling Tree ranks and depose Mr. Skunk? Or does she turn her back on all the insincerity and cruelty of her colleagues and march away, head held high? Or is she terminated, dismissed, fired? What happens?
To find out, you’ll have to go to Lani’s informative, gut-wrenching, hilarious, and heartbreaking blog. To start at the beginning, go to http://lanivcox.blogspot.com/2009/08/introduction.html.To pick up the story where I left off, go to http://lanivcox.blogspot.com/2010/04/my-engima.html.
By the way, Lani does not consider her blog to be “anti-Waldorf.” You may want to draw your own conclusions about the lessons her experiences offer. Waldorf proponents often see things very differently than anyone else would.* What lessons do you find in Lani’s tale?
o O o
* One of my oldest friends became a Waldorf teacher and then, eventually, left the fold. S/he is now an adherent of a very different faith. Reading some of the shocking Steiner quotations I have dug up [e.g., see "Steiner's Bile"], s/he has expressed distress and chagrin. Yet s/he has also written me defensive messages, affirming the correctness of that long-ago decision to join the Waldorf movement. This is, perhaps, not terribly logical; but it is deeply human. When one has, in good faith, made a decision, it is hard later to say the decision was wrong. Things that once seemed beautiful and true may still seem provisionally beautiful and true, despite any evidence to the contrary — and perhaps despite the potentially disillusioning experiences one has undergone. And there's this: The larger the mistake one makes, the harder it can be to admit it — even to oneself. — R.R.
o 0 O 0 o
Lani V. Cox, the author of the memoir we have been reading,
has pubished a paperback edition as well as a Kindle edition of the memoir.
[CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (2015).]