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.