The Roles and Qualities of a Waldorf Class Teacher

Mushroom pictureIn this blog post I will outline a few of the many roles of the class teacher in a Waldorf school. I will not be able to detail all the aspects for it may be that no list will be fully complete but I will identify the 3 roles which give me most pause for thought as I embark on this journey towards becoming a class teacher. Each aspect will bring its own challenges and it will be clear that each teacher will find different aspects of the job more challenging than others. Each teacher will bring their own background with them and will find some roles easy, straightforward, maybe obvious, whilst other aspects may seem more elusive, harder or even overwhelming.

For each role that I detail I will consider the purpose of that role and also the challenges that a teacher may face in implementing or embodying the role in the classroom. I will be focussing on my own personal experience and thinking carefully about which aspects of each role I might find challenging. Building on from this I will consider the qualities which I will need to develop within myself to aid me in my meeting of these challenges in order to fulfil all the roles to the best of my ability.

My own experience is that of a secondary maths teacher within mainstream school settings. This will mean that some of the roles of the Waldorf class teacher will be familiar to me whilst other roles will be outside my professional experience. I am aware that having worked in mainstream will be both a help and a hindrance when it comes to being a class teacher in a Waldorf setting. There will be somewhat of a culture shock as I make this transition and indeed I am already experiencing some of this as a part-time subject teacher at a Steiner school.

Some roles of a class teacher will, on the surface, seem very similar to the roles of a secondary mainstream maths teacher but I am conscious of the need to look deeper to find the nuance and subtlety of the Waldorf way which may be absent from mainstream.

One big difference for me will be the age group of the children; six year olds are very different to eleven year olds and will need a very different skill set in order to engage them and help them learn.

I will begin by thinking about the curriculum. The culture in a Waldorf school seems very different to what I am used to. In mainstream there is a never ending conveyor-belt of topics to be covered and one is always playing catch up to the scheme of learning. In the Waldorf school system it seems that the curriculum is less prescriptive, it is used as a guideline and not a prescription. I think this immediately brings both benefits and challenges. On the one hand having more freedom to move through topics at one’s own pace, or at the class’ own pace could feel very liberating. I think there is a danger inherent in this more liberal approach however which is that it could be very easy to let things drift. There is still a curriculum which needs to be covered for each year and it would not do to drag topics into the subsequent year, especially as the topics have been considered carefully to align with each age and stage of development.

I can imagine a teacher, like myself, who loves maths and the Norse spending much more time that is healthy on these subjects to the detriment of less favoured subjects such as spelling and PE.

In order to overcome this challenge of too much freedom, self-discipline is needed. One must view the big picture of the year and the eight-year journey and not allow oneself to get bogged down in favoured subjects. One must have the self-discipline to spend time working with non-favoured subjects so one can embody these sufficiently strongly enough to convey the beauty of these subjects to the children.

Another challenge of working without the constraints of a tightly structured scheme for learning is when one does not think sufficient progress has been achieved on a subject. There is a temptation to spend more time that in necessary on a topic because one doesn’t feel that the pupils have grasped the subject strongly enough or understood the key ideas well enough. Again here, self-discipline is required to know when to move on and let things sleep for a while.

Another major role of the class teacher is to differentiate the work so it meets the needs of all learners. Some children learn some things really quickly and some children take longer. This is a challenge that I face on a daily basis both in mainstream and in Waldorf. The majority of my classes have been set by ability (or prior attainment if one is being politically correct). Even in an environment where pupils are set by prior attainment, there is often a fairly wide range of ability. Simultaneously supporting the weakest students and stretching the most able is an ongoing challenge. I have taught in both mixed ability classes and in sets and definitely find this easier in sets as the range is far less.

I have a feeling that this is a problem that I will be working with my whole career. I have just spent half an hour reading articles about differentiation which give me some ideas and which are useful but I think the problem is so particular to each class that someone else’s experience can only act as a signpost or springboard for one’s own trail and improvement in the classroom with one’s own particular make-up of children.

If I had to point to one quality which a class teacher must have in order to help overcome the ongoing challenge of differentiation I think it must be perseverance. One must be willing to try things and adapt them if they don’t work. Being flexible with one’s ideas and methods is crucial. One must also be very observant of the children, noticing when pupils need that little bit of extra support or challenge. One of the benefits of the Waldorf way is that spending so long with the same group of children allows the teacher to really get to know their individual strengths and weaknesses. This will allow the class teacher to differentiate better and anticipate who will need the support and the stretch at different points in the curriculum. I also think that maths is one of the hardest subjects for which to differentiate in a mixed ability setting. In English, for example, it seems simpler to differentiate by outcome. It seems to involve less prior effort on behalf of the teacher. One sets an essay title (for example) and the pupils respond at their own level. Maths, on the other hand is a cumulative subject which means that if adding and subtracting has not been understood, then multiplying and dividing will be much harder to grasp, so for those students who still cannot add, is it appropriate that they are now learning to multiply? So some subjects will be easier to differentiate than others. Nevertheless, open-mindedness, flexibility and perseverance on behalf of the class teacher will help.

Finally, the role of school-home liaison seems to be a big one in Waldorf schools. And this role itself is made up of several subsidiary roles. As a class teacher, one must inform, engage and educate the parents respectfully and diplomatically. One must walk a tight-rope. On one hand the class teacher must listen to the feedback from children and parents, manage expectations and respond to individual needs whilst on the other hand one must be an advocate for both the children themselves and also for the Waldorf way. One must be flexible enough to accommodate genuine differences and needs whilst confident enough to stand firm on certain issues which one believes to be important for the individual children at hand or the class as a whole.

So much more in Steiner schools than in mainstream schools, the teacher-parent relationship is crucial to the journey and the outcome. The Waldorf teacher will visit the family at home, a practice almost unknown in state schools. The Waldorf teacher becomes a bridge for the child between home and school and this relationship needs fostering respectfully. In mainstream schools I may interact with parents twice a year at parents evenings or similar events for 5 minutes at a time. I have a choice about whether to contact them more regularly but personally never find the time. In addition, every year I have one hundred new students and one hundred new sets of parents to potentially meet. Clearly there is not going to be the time available to foster deep connections with these people. In contrast, at a Steiner school I will have up to thirty families in total to connect with and eight years in which to build a trusting working relationship.

I have had some experience of this as part of a vertical tutor group in mainstream where each tutor group has a few pupils from each year group within it and one takes this ‘family’ of students consistently over several years. Being a tutor in this way has given me some of the most rewarding moments of my career to date and I think that I will draw heavily on this experience if and when I become a class teacher.

I think the challenge here, especially for the newer teacher is how to communicate clearly the why behind certain choices that one makes and to articulate this confidently so that the parents have confidence in oneself as the teacher. This is obviously something which (I hope) will get easier with experience but one way to deal with this is to keep reading and learning and talking to colleagues about what one is doing and how and why one is doing it. As one might do research for a main lesson topic so that one embodies the subject content in order to bring it alive for the children one must research the Steiner methods and embody them in order to bring them alive for both children and parents.

The roles of a class teacher are far too numerous to explore in full. I have only found space to explore three of the many roles that one must fulfil. I haven’t had time to mention, for example, classroom management, enlivening the curriculum, child observation nor many of the other pastoral roles of a class teacher. Of the roles that I have explored there are a number of qualities that I have identified which will aid the class teacher on their journey. Those qualities are self-discipline, perseverance, flexibility, observation, open-mindedness and continual learning. This, although not a comprehensive list, is certainly an admirable set of qualities which any person would do well to aim to embody in their daily life. The question immediately arises as to how one might foster these qualities in oneself. It seems to me that these qualities are the result of self-work. There are myriad ways of engaging with this but yoga, tai-chi or meditation in any of its many forms would be good places to start. Reading is also one important key to self-improvement and I know that Rudolf Steiner himself has written and talked about this although I have yet to explore much of his work. One thing that interests me about becoming a class teacher is that, when approached properly, it is a project of self-work in and of itself. To take on the responsibility of leading a particular group of children from the fairy-land of childhood to the foothills of adulthood is, at once, both profound and humbling and inevitably life-changing and, hopefully, life-affirming.

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