Public Waldorf Schools Cultivate A Love Of Lifelong Learning And Self-Knowledge

By Amy Bird

One of my responsibilities as the Development Director at Desert Marigold School was to meet with every new family. The format was a thirty- to forty-five-minute scheduled conversation with parents that took place ideally within the first couple months after their children enrolled. By this time, parents had already taken the required school tour. Most had also shown up for back-to-school night, and many had attended a curriculum overview hosted by the faculty. More than a few walked into my office wondering what could possibly be left to go over.

I told them that I hoped to share a picture of the life of the community as a whole. I wanted to open a conversation not just about what it meant for them to be parents supporting their children’s growth and all that goes on in the classroom, but also what it meant for them to be individuals on their own paths of development who had chosen to be in this place at this time.

Mostly, I asked lots of questions: What do you love doing? What attracted you to the school? What skills do you have that you’d like to share? Of the many activities that go on—teaching, gardening, animal care, landscaping, hospitality, fundraising, event planning, and more—are there any you want to learn more about? What hopes do you have for your family that you think might be connected to being here?

Over and over I found myself saying the same thing: the families who thrive in the school community for many years tend to be the ones with adults who participate and grow and change as much as the children do. Describing the school as a learning community for everyone seemed to help make sense of why the school felt different.

All in all, I think Alliance schools excel at being places where children, teachers, parents, administrators, and board members alike are engaged in a process of ongoing learning. Truly, it’s hard not to be in a state of constant individual growth when our schools are so new, there is so much work to be done, and there are so many different people involved. Even when we’re not inclined toward self-reflection we can usually see the value in making new mistakes rather than simply repeating old ones.

My burning questions have more to do with the sufficiency of our collective learning processes, both as school communities and as a larger movement for social transformation. Do we have the courage to keep reimagining what Public Waldorf is and what it might become? Do our schools have the vitality and flexibility they need to rise up and meet the tremendous needs and opportunities of our time?

The Alliance core principles document begins with the assertion that the purpose of the principles is to ensure that Public Waldorf education is ever-evolving, and continuously renewed through practice, research, observation, and active reflection.

I love that sentence. I also know that it’s far more difficult to live out that assertion day by day than it was to put it into words. It means there’s no relying on what has always been done. No getting comfortable. No future where we have it all figured out.

Even the “essential” practices enumerated in Principle Seven can lose their freshness and potency if we don’t pay attention to how we practice them. “Artistic activities” can get inserted into meetings just to check off that box. Study groups can become places where people don’t speak for fear of being judged (or where people actually are judged). Any practice can become deadened or perfunctory.

This includes how we relate to Rudolf Steiner as a primary source of guidance. Waldorf educator and Alliance advisory board member Betty Staley puts it plainly: “It does not help if students or teachers imitate Steiner’s statements without understanding them, as this leads to dogmatism.” More of her commentary can be found in a guide to a series of foundational Steiner lectures recently published by the Pedagogical Section Council of North America as part of the preparation for the upcoming international “Waldorf 100” celebration. I hear in it both invitation and admonishment. To continue to benefit from the depth and breadth and complexity of Steiner’s research and insights, we will have to continue to do our own hard work.

Reading through Principle Seven one more time, it’s the word “cultivate” that sticks. I see a farmer. I see a field. I see how the farmer moves through the field with attention and care. To cultivate is to enhance the living qualities around us and within us. One does not happen without the other.

■ Amy Bird works on the lending team at RSF Social Finance. Previously, she was administrator and then development director at Desert Marigold School in Phoenix, where she lives. Amy has a certificate in Waldorf Administration from Rudolf Steiner College. She served on the Alliance executive committee from 2011 to 2015 and is currently a member of the Alliance Advisory Board.

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