by Mark McGivern
When we start out as Waldorf teachers we naturally imitate more experienced educators, just as young children learn through imitating adults. We are lucky if we find stellar educators from whom we can learn successful practices and adopt solid ideas. The imitation stage is necessary and should be consciously embraced. But just as children outgrow the imitation stage, so does the teacher.
Eventually our approach must shift from imitation to an inner, developing sense of what is needed. The reasons are manifold. We can get stuck in old patterns and irrelevant habits. Our own personalities can become too dominant. We can begin to lean heavily into what we already think we know and fail to observe important realities in the class and in individual children. The value of the imitation phase of learning is that we experience the effects of solid ideas and practices. However, it may become an obstacle to knowing for ourselves.
In The Child’s Changing Consciousness, Steiner refers to mature teaching as an “instinct for knowing what to bring.”
“Only if your knowledge of the human being has such inner fullness that it can become instinctive can it lead to the proper kind of practical teaching.”
“Teachers need to transform their knowledge of the human being into a kind of higher instinct whereby they can respond properly to whatever comes from each individual child.”
He goes on,
“The healthy instincts of the past are no longer with us today. A new and unbiased look at education has to be backed by fully conscious cognition, and this is possible only if our understanding can penetrate the very nature of the human being. This is what anthroposophy is all about.”
Not all teachers have a connection to Anthroposophy. Some have completed a Foundations Studies program but perhaps have never found a living relationship to it. Though trained in Waldorf methodologies and pedagogy some teachers have not personally engaged with the roots of the approach. Some have lacked the opportunity, and anyone who has been a Waldorf class teacher for at least a few years would acknowledge, the weight of the practical work can leave little time and energy for the focus and attention that Anthroposophical study requires, not to mention the inner activity at its heart. It may also be that for some the experience of studying Anthroposophy was too intellectual, too lengthy, perhaps too philosophical and unrelated to the practical work of the teacher. For some teachers, the ‘foundation’ in Anthroposophy their training provided might not have been the solid footing it was designed to achieve; it may not have developed into a ‘living inquiry’.
One central characteristic of a living inquiry is the unfixed image. Intellectual concepts tend to harden knowledge into passive information from which the emerging characteristics of the phenomena have no room to be seen and worked with. Ultimately, abstraction develops, and the danger of a fixed, dogmatic and hardened approach follows. Imaginative images however can remain pliable to our thinking and strengthen our observation and perception of the phenomena. This is what is meant by ‘living’. Inquiry is the continual openness to the deepening of our understanding. This is different from the accumulation of abstracted knowledge.
The path of the maturing Waldorf teacher leads from an imitative stage to an “inner fullness” of knowledge, a movement from ideas to living inquiry. This inner fullness isn’t simply a thorough knowledge of the curriculum. If this were the case, knowing what to bring each child would be simple. You would just ‘bring’ the curriculum. But this is clearly not the case. The teacher’s task is to develop the capacity whereby they see the needs of the child and class and respond instinctively with the right activity.
If teachers do not feel sufficiently oriented to the anthroposophical picture of human development, how can this inner fullness be achieved? If a teacher’s foundation studies didn’t result in a living, nourishing connection to this picture, how then can this maturation be reached?
Myth and historical legend form the core thematic content for many grades. These stories bring deep images of good and evil to the feeling life of children, which in later life become an inner resource of moral and ethical thinking. Given this, can the teacher too allow the meaning of these tales to affect their inner life? Can images of the human story, from our spiritual descent into matter to our current and future development, live in the teacher in a way that brings them renewed energy, confidence in the anthroposophical roots of Waldorf education and courage for their important work?
The elementary waldorf teacher travels with his or her class through the rich terrain of mythic image in a way unprecedented for modern education. The teacher’s role is to bring these stories in such a way that their pictorial richness echoes dramatically in their use of speech, detail, pacing and story form. In doing so, the teacher too lives deeply into these images.
Anthroposophy offers an understanding of these images as a pictorial experience of the human story. Investigation into the origins and meaning of the stories, through a meditative, reflective engagement with these images is one way teachers can experience anthroposophy, the roots of the waldorf approach, as a living inquiry. Knowledge of the origins of myth opens up the anthroposophical images of the human story through cosmic time to mythological time to historical time. The mythic images then become a means whereby the teacher can experience new pictures. If these are ‘true pictures’ as Steiner claimed then the teacher can deepen their connection to anthroposophy by staying attuned to the effect these pictures have on their own inner life of thought, feeling and will. Do new inspirations arise? Does one feel nourished, almost inexplicably so, from these images. Will the Intellectual knowledge of origins and anthroposophical definitions of meaning give way to the inner experience of courage, strength and inspiration?
For example, the Norse myths derive from the Lemurian age of the human story, the first era of the manifesting human form, a time one could picture as the embryonic state of humanity, when the soul capacities of will and imagination were forming in human beings. As the teacher brings the stories of Thor, Odin and the life of Asgard etc, they can be inwardly inquiring into the effects of living with a picture of cosmic time and its burgeoning development of will and imagination in Lemurian existence. For this is the reality being communicated imaginatively in the mythic image. If the teacher is attentive to the pursuit of truthfulness in their own soul, a quality the students subconsciously are attuned to, then the living nature of these images should have an effect, one the teacher can come more deeply into relationship with through their own inner inquiry and experience.
The ability of today’s teacher to bring the living images of mythology deep into their own soul in a way that strengthens their thinking, feeling and willing and enriches their capacities for holding an ‘inner fullness’ of instinctual knowledge for what their children need, may be a way of meeting the need of teachers for renewal of their inner resources as well as responding to what children now face in our world. Today’s culture provides children with an ever-growing diet of ready-made imagery, manipulatively delivered to be addictive. The need for living inner pictures has never been greater. As Claus-Peter Röh, the head of the Pedagogical Section of the Goetheanum, observes “As Waldorf teachers we need to penetrate the fascination with these floods of outer images and develop, out of clear insights, valuable living inner pictures that are conveyed from person to person as we teach students of various ages.”
Just as today’s children face the world of ready made images, the teacher too faces the world of ready made teaching. The maturing instinct for what to bring and what to do comes from the inner life of the teacher, not from ready made prescriptions. The stories the teacher tells can be a way into their own ‘living inner pictures’ from which such inspiration can be found to mature from imitation to confident knowing.
Join Mark for his workshops on Myth and the Human Story, open to all but especially designed for the working Waldorf teacher. We will form a complete picture of the origins of the mythological stories told in the Waldorf curriculum and practice ways to work inwardly with these pictures.