What it’s like to be a Waldorf teacher – some facts and figures

Steiner education has it’s own academic journal: RoSE: Research on Steiner Education. It is bi-lingual with roughly half of the articles in English and half in German. It’s run as a collaboration between the Alanus University of Arts and Social Sciences near Bonn, Germany and the Rudolf Steiner University College in Oslo, Norway, which are both anthroposophical institutions. It calls itself (perhaps erroneously) “an independent organ of intellectual dialogue”. To their credit it is an Open Access journal with the full text of all articles freely available online and authors retain their own copyright. (Those unfamiliar with the world of academic publishing might be surprised to learn that this is often not the case!)

The archives are an interesting source of anthroposophical reflection, especially on the practical expression of anthroposophy in education.

The article “What it’s like being a Waldorf teacher: Results of an empirical survey”, Vol.4 No. 2, by Graudenz, Peters & Randoll is a revealing snapshot of the thoughts of some 1,807 teachers in 105 Waldorf schools in Germany. Although the authors found a high level of job satisfaction, the teachers surveyed also expressed a number of concerns that are specific to the Steiner Waldorf environment.

One of the most important statistics is that almost 75% of all teachers are either actively involved, practising anthroposophists or described themselves as “positively disposed” towards it. Interestingly this proportion rises with age, to over 80% for teachers in the older (over 60) age group. 18% were members of the Christian Community, the anthroposophical church, rising to 25% for the over 60s. The authors note that there is an ongoing difficulty in recruiting younger teachers.

On the subject of qualifications, only 46% had a university degree with a teaching qualification, although over 80% had undergone some kind of training in Waldorf education. A substantial minority (38%) expressed the opinion that their training had not prepared them adequately for their profession. Unsurprisingly, those who felt best prepared had previously taken a degree with conventional teacher training, followed by a Waldorf course.

Teachers in Steiner Waldorf schools are often poorly paid compared to their peers in conventional schools, especially in the private sector. Only 35% in this survey said they were satisfied with their income. 77% were “of the opinion that not enough money is allocated for personnel costs at their school.”

In spite of their low remuneration, the survey found that over 90% of Waldorf teachers were happy in their profession (compared to just over 70% in state ‘comprehensive’ schools). The authors cite a number of possible reasons for this level of job satisfaction: the relative autonomy teachers in Waldorf schools have in shaping their lessons, the selective nature of the schools and a generally positive relationship with parents (who will share, at least superficially, some of the educational ideals of the teachers). Another of the reasons given, that Waldorf teachers have a perception that their relationship with students is somehow special, has some negative connotations: “they also seem to have a tendency to idealise this relationship and to over-estimate their role as teacher (as shown by comparing personal and external images of this).”

One major area of concern was the management structure at Waldorf schools. It was felt that the collective, collegiate approach, without a headteacher, led to inadequate information exchange with communication that was not always open and transparent, inefficient decision making, the development of fractured “groups who do not (any longer) attend the teachers meetings” and “individuals who strongly influence the climate of opinion – i.e., “hidden headmasters”. All of this will be familiar to parents who have had cause to complain to a Steiner school. It must be equally frustrating for a teacher with a grievance to have it resolved satisfactorily.

Other problems cited were a “preponderance of older colleagues in the teaching body and the concomitant tendency towards a split into “traditionalists” and “reformers”. The turnover rate among young teachers tended to be high.

The inadequacy of Steiner teacher training courses has already been noted. I’ll quote in full the author’s reservations on “the insufficient quality of teacher training at Waldorf seminars and colleges.”:

“Over decades there has been a failure there to take stock of developments in modern educational research and to integrate this new knowledge into their own curricula. Indeed, the opposite gesture has been most apparent, namely that of dissociation from educational theory in order to pursue their own path. The consequence of this is that in Waldorf education further development is scarcely discernible.”

Quite simply, the problem is that Steiner teacher training courses focus exclusively on the study of Steiner’s works with very little or no attention paid to any other educational ideas.

The survey ended with an open question asking teachers for their view on the greatest challenges for Waldorf education in the future. A major theme in response to this question was the need for further development, “renewal of the body of anthroposophical thinking”, whilst at the same time “maintaining [a] hold on the anthroposophical foundations”:

“Many have a keen awareness that Waldorf education is in need of transformation, but without wishing to jettison its ‘roots’, its ‘foundations’, in the process. ‘Steiner’s thinking must be carried further’, ‘not set in tablets of stone’, which is the gist of quite a number of comments, could set in motion a widespread debate on the renewal of Waldorf education. Against the impulse towards further development stand those comments focused upon preserving, defending and being loyal to tradition.”

This would be a positive development, were it to ever come about. I’m not optimistic though. There is 100 years of more or less static thinking on Steiner education. Even the terminology seems frozen in time since Steiner himself founded the first school and lectured to its first teachers.

The authors close with the thought that the public image of Steiner education is another subject that preoccupies many teachers. They have their own recommendations as to how this can be improved:

“This involves having a well-aimed information policy, open engagement with anti-Waldorf prejudices, good presentation of one’s own qualities, and stronger involvement in the public debate on education.”

This advice applies equally well to Steiner educators in the UK, where the public image of Steiner education is in decline. Overall, I suggest that given the uniformity of structure and approach in Steiner education throughout the world, their findings would be equally valid here too.

A watershed moment

Last night was a watershed moment for Steiner education in the UK. It was the subject of a critical report and studio debate, for the first time on national TV. This followed the release by the Department for Education of documents revealing that they were aware of concerns parents had about the inadequate handling of some serious incidents at several schools. It was claimed this could be explained by their underlying philosophy (anthroposophy). Briefly, these include incidents of racially motivated bullying among pupils that were not dealt with despite repeated complaints, the use of racist epithets by teachers, bullying of pupils by staff in 8 (out of 25 independent Steiner schools in the UK at the time), a culture of secrecy and lack of accountability. Full details, including the documents themselves can be found on the BHA website.

The BBC Newsnight report is available on YouTube:

In light of the fact that it is the way these incidents were handled by staff at the schools involved that is especially worrying, I thought it would be interesting to highlight the reaction of the Steiner representatives brought in to respond on the broadcast.

Firstly, Sylvie Sklan of the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship (SWSF) vigorously denied that modern Steiner schools would have any time for the more objectionable of Rudolf Steiner’s ideas:

“The idea that we have incarnated through the races is a very controversial idea that is not part of our modern thinking in Steiner schools at all. In fact I would find it quite outrageous and unacceptable. It is not a basis upon which one would want to found any criticism of Steiner schools today because it just does not exist. It is not what we believe.”

Clearly that is the official party line, but a close look at the history and structure of anthroposophy tells a different story: that this “very controversial idea” is in fact central and, according to reports, has been reflected in the actions of a minority of teachers.

Sylvie Sklan’s SWSF colleague, Janni Nicol, comes dangerously close to giving the game away when she discusses how Steiner schools can embrace multiculturalism:

“Karmically we choose to be born into different races to have a specific environmental, cultural and racial experience. Perhaps this is part of learning how to live together, to grow in awareness and empathy?”

On the more general subject of bullying, Rachael Black, a Steiner parent, responds with her own experience. She comes across as relatively convincing and articulate in the report:

“There was an incident where my child was attacked in class and it was terribly traumatic for everyone involved. The school, however, were incredible at dealing with it. The teacher in the classroom, the assistant, were both very nurturing, very caring and my daughter has flourished and grown after the event. The school management team pounced on the problem very, very quickly.”

Good. That is how it should be. In fact, I want to believe that this is the way incidents of bullying would be handled in all Steiner schools, in 100% of cases. No school is perfect, however. The true character of a school and its supporting organisational structures is revealed in how they behave when things go wrong. If reports of bullying weren’t followed up, one would expect an honest admittance of failure, an apology and a commitment to not making the same mistakes in the future. Instead, it’s alleged in the studio debate that in some cases “bullying was not just tolerated but in some sense ‘thought of as a good thing'”.

Frances Russell (introduced as an ex-Steiner parent, Greenwich Steiner school, she is also the Business and Policy Director of the school) responds:

“This is total rubbish what you’re talking about now. I am a parent who had a child at the school but I’ve also been involved with setting up and running this particular school for the last six years, been involved with it for ten and been involved with the movement. The allegations that were raised in those reports were never tested. This was just some parents who had written to the Department for Education and they were being raised in the reports as issues of how do we manage if parents come up and say these kinds of things with the media. There’s absolutely no proof at all. What you’re describing does not happen in Steiner schools. That would never happen in our school. It would never happen in any of the schools that I know anything about.”

I would suggest that a blanket denial was not the wisest approach to take here. Whether through incompetence, inadequate management structure or a misguided belief in karma, the allegations are serious in nature and scale. They deserve a more considered response.

Today the SWSF issued a press release that is similarly dismissive:

“The two papers… include a number of allegations received by the DfE but without detail or corroboration. The Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship is aware of & seeks to refute several allegations recorded in these papers.”

The lack of engagement with the substance of the allegations does not reflect well on the SWSF.

Frances Russell went on to say:

“All this stuff about the pseudo-spiritualism and everything is all to do with Steiner’s views on anthroposophy, which are not taught in schools. It is there for some adults to use as a way of guiding their lives, if they choose to do so. It just does not form any part of a modern Steiner school.”

Let’s assume that Ms. Russell, despite her ten years of involvement with the movement, genuinely believes that. When writing for an anthroposophical audience however, rather than the general public, there are Steiner teachers who are clear on the importance of anthroposophy in modern Steiner education.

I’ll close with an excerpt from the curriculum document published on the Brighton Steiner school web site:

“The curriculum for Class 5 has a main theme of Ancient Civilizations. The narrative thread for this theme often begins with the fall of Atlantis and the exodus led by Manu in his boat pulled along by a giant fish. Manu and his followers initially settle in the Gobi desert. From this original settlement groups set off to establish new civilizations in India, followed by Persia, then Babylonia, Egypt and finally Greece…

Through studying these ancient civilisations in sequence, the children experience the qualitative changes in the development of humanity that took place through these different cultural epochs. This process of human development has a direct resonance with the child’s developing consciousness.”

Even if only taught as interesting myths to fire the imagination, the stories of Atlantis and Manu seem an odd place to start learning about ancient history. The link between the developing civilisation of humanity and the developing consciousness of the individual child is perplexing. However, all becomes clear when you read Steiner’s book Cosmic Memory!