Updated: May 1
If you are new to Waldorf education and/or you want to learn more about the deeper principles at work within it, then the following exploration may be helpful. It belongs to a series of articles that will delve into myriad manifestations of balancing two principles: "form and freedom."
My Waldorf journey started with a school tour...
When I toured my very first Waldorf school, pretending to be a potential parent but actually just looking for an educational stream that felt like the right fit for me as a teacher, I witnessed something that had a tremendous impact on me, both as an educator and as a human being.
It was the mid-1990's, and I toured a K-8 Waldorf School with a group of about eight other parents. Our tour guide led us into a seventh grade classroom. When we entered, the students were quiet, gathered around a central table, intensely focused on some kind of science experiment. After a few minutes, the teacher brought the students away from the experiment. He put them in pairs and had them practice some juggling techniques around the edge of the classroom. The mood lightened and there was a more boisterous atmosphere. After a few minutes of this, the teacher had the students put away the juggling bags and return to observe the experiment again. After a couple more quiet, focused moments, our tour guide led us out of the classroom.
The experience was so strange to me, so unlike anything I had experienced in my own educational journey through several private and public schools, so different from anything I had observed in the previous three years working as a substitute teacher in the local school district, that I was not even sure what questions to ask. If I had asked a question, it might have started with "What the....?" Fortunately, our adept guide seemed to anticipate our questions and curiosity. Before anyone posed a question, she said,
"You may be wondering what we just witnessed. Was that a science lesson? Or, was it a movement lesson? Technically, that was a science lesson and some movement was used to enhance it. The teacher understands that the lesson--any lesson, even a science lesson--must breathe. Like anything else in the world, if it is going to live, then it must breathe. So, the students were guided through a breathing process. They were focused, still, and quiet for a while. Then they were allowed to breathe out in a more playful activity. Before we left, they returned to quiet focus..."
I knew in that exact moment that my destiny was to become a Waldorf teacher. Finally, someone was talking about principles of education that related to a deeper truth about life. I was not aware until I was in my own Waldorf Teacher Training program a year later that Rudolf Steiner told the very first Waldorf teachers that one of their most important tasks would be to help students learn how to breath in healthy ways. Of course, while our physical process of breathing is certainly important for our health in a most immediate way, Steiner was also speaking of the breathing process as it can be experienced in other forms, even on a psychological or "soul" level, just as our tour guide was revealing during that fateful tour.
Before we look at any other expressions of breathing, let's look at the physical process as a sort of archetype to which we might compare other living processes.
Breathing is a great image for us to contemplate because it is a dynamic, living process. In other words, it is not static. It is not still. It does not come to rest in one single image. If we do attempt to reduce it to a simpler imagination so that we might capture its essence, so that we can grasp the archetype, then we can say that there are three primary parts to the imagination: the full inhalation, the complete exhalation, and the actual breathing between those two extremes. In other words, we see that breathing is a process that occurs between two poles. Healthy breathing balances the intake of oxygen and the elimination of carbon dioxide. By breathing, we constantly regulate a balance between hypoxia (too little oxygen and too much carbon dioxide) and hypocapnia (too little carbon dioxide and too much oxygen).
For organic, living beings, this breathing process continues throughout the entire life. It does not come to rest. So the breathing archetype is a dynamic principle, an ongoing process of balancing between at least two poles. It is easy to compare the principles within the physical breathing process to a person walking a balance beam or even to a tight rope walker. In this simple picture we understand that the person walking is striving to find a balance between falling to the right and/or falling to the left. At the same time, there is no still-point in the process. The person makes constant adjustments to maintain the balance as well as possible. Again, balancing is a dynamic process, not static.
This dynamic balancing principle can be seen in other areas of life, too. We must achieve a healthy balance of foods that we eat. We must achieve a healthy balance of activity and rest. In our relationships with others, we must find the healthy balance of truly considering others' thoughts and feelings while also honoring our own. In managing our personal finances, we must balance how much we spend with how much we earn or have. When we dress in the morning, we balance how much or how little clothing we will need to wear in order to maintain a comfortable body temperature and we know that we may adjust our clothing layers throughout the course of the day as needed. The list goes on and on. In so many ways, we engage in dynamic balancing processes. It is helpful to recognize these and understand them so that we can consider how we can healthily balance our teaching practices for the student's sake.
Let us look at an area that applies to all of us: the preparation and presentation of lessons. If you are like me when I started teaching, you are consumed to a deep belief that you cannot actually ever prepare enough. There is always more you can do to make the lesson a little bit better. If you think in this way, please contemplate what I am about to say. Such thinking is flawed. There is truth in it, but it is not the only consideration.
Preparation is important, of course, and we must do enough of it to give substance to our lessons. Yet, it is possible to over-prepare and to rely too much on the plan one has prepared.
On the other hand, it is also a risk that one might under-prepare and rely too much on spontaneity, trusting that it will all just somehow work out for the best. There is an expression that applies here, though I have never really understood it: "flying by the seat of one's pants". Whatever the inspiration for this saying, it captures the feeling that doing anything without adequate preparation is to invite all sorts of potential problems. It may seem easier on the front end, but a lack of adequate preparation can cause all sorts of issues.
Naturally, it becomes quite easy to see that these two polar opposite tendencies are faulty. If one constantly over-prepares, the lessons will be as dry as over-cooked food. By contrast, if one constantly under-prepares, the lessons will be cold and raw. There is a balance for which we must constantly strive.
When Rudolf Steiner presented his seminal courses to the first Waldorf teachers in 1919, he repeatedly told them that it was far more important to understand human development than it was to develop a tidy, well-planned curriculum. He wanted teachers to understand that teaching is an art, not a checklist. The ideal of Waldorf education is that the curriculum will arise quite naturally from our understanding of child development and our keen observations and contemplations of the actual children before us. He certainly recommended that the teacher should go through the process of planning out lessons; he also wanted the teachers to understand that these plans were destined to be abandoned in some ways, because...life happens!
The process of preparing a lesson is important. We gather together whatever information and materials we may need to bring the students to new levels of learning. We contemplate, based on what we know of the students, how such things can be introduced, demonstrated, and practiced so that the lesson meets the students in the most beneficial and engaging ways. In short, we gather what we need and we make our plans.
So, what's the problem with planning?
There is no problem with planning. As I said above, it is important. The problems arise when we become too invested in that part of the process, when we become stuck on a plan. When we actually present the lessons, we must be willing to go "off-script", to meander. We stay close enough to the intended direction of the lesson, but opportunities will arise to digress a bit.
We have all been in situations when someone was stuck on a plan and could not adapt when the plan no longer served the situation. I once designed a really great set for a class play which we were set to perform in the school's outdoor amphitheater. The performance date arrived and skies were overcast, but the weather did not forecast rain. Nevertheless, it started to sprinkle during the first scene. By the middle of the play, it was fully raining, the players were soaked and the audience members were hiding under tarps pelted by raindrops so that the entire proceeding was inaudible to even those in the first row. Undeterred, I was so invested, so willfully insistent that nothing should stop us, I would not let the students stop the play. By the end, most of the audience was gone and several players were shivering. It was, to be blunt, a miserable experience for all involved. There was nothing wrong with the plans I had made or with the planning process. I was simply too attached to things going exactly as I had envisioned them that I could not adapt as needed. When it came time for the presentation, I did not allow life to push/pull things in a new direction.
So, naturally it could be tempting to think that maybe we do not need to plan very much. After all, hardly ever does anything go according to plan. So why waste time and energy planning? Perhaps you have heard that old Yiddish proverb: "We plan, God laughs." It makes a salient point, does it not?
Yes, it captures a truth we can all understand, but it would be naive to think that it means we should not plan. Instead, it is telling us that God--or we can say a "creative spark" or a "breath of life" if those would be more comfortable for you--needs to be a part of anything that would live. Whenever we hold too tightly to our preconceived plans, we miss out on opportunities for spontaneous inspirations because we are too rigid. The Yiddish saying is not suggesting that we should never plan. It reminds us that we are only co-creators in life. We have plans and life sometimes has other plans or, at the very least, life offers us very fulfilling opportunities to meander, to stray from the planned path and find unforeseen blessings. Often this kind of inspiration for meandering opportunities will arise from the students themselves. We might present a lesson in third grade about a sundial. A student asks to share about her bedroom window which catches the afternoon light but not the morning light. If the teacher is awake to such an opportunity, then this little aside might help the lesson click for more students. We can look at the classroom and ask where the sun shines in the morning and where it shines near the end of the school day. We can ask the children about their homes in the same way. Then we can bring the focus back to our original plan. Those few minutes of "digression" may provide a greater level of meaning when we eventually erect our own sundial at school. Now the sundial is connected to their own experiences in their own lives. It is not an abstract lesson about time, formulated and executed in an academic vacuum.
This is the healthy balance that the teacher must pursue at all times. At first, it is difficult. How do we recognize truly potent opportunities for a meaningful meander? How do we achieve the right level of preparation without overdoing or under-doing it? There is no easy answer, because balance is dynamic not static. So, we can only talk about ways that we can work with balancing.
When we contemplate our lessons after they are carried out with the students, when we look back on the events as phenomena, without self-aggrandizement or self-deprecation, then we learn to see things as they need to be seen. Then we make adjustments as they are needed. A natural wisdom develops within just as a young child naturally learns to walk with dynamic balance. As teachers, we also go through a toddler phase. So I say to anyone who may be feeling the frustration of such a phase: keep going and have faith. You learned to walk without having to overthink it. Just keep trying. Each day you are gaining skill, growing in wisdom. Keep planning and presenting your lessons, and when you feel so inspired, keep taking the risk to meander. Sometimes, a small digression can bring a wonderful new insight or perspective for a student and/or for the teacher.
We must not worry about perfecting this balance. Such would be a vain pursuit. The balance of living will never be static; it will always be dynamic. It is not the path, but the walking of it. Like breathing, we will always be striving to maintain a healthy balance. Accepting this lifelong pursuit without worrying about any end-goal of mastery--this is a critical realization for the educator.