By Kristin Domingue

Photo by Jessica Gliesman

When we spoke with the teachers at the Rudolf Steiner School, we were pleasantly surprised to meet teachers who were deeply nourished by their work instead of burned out by overwhelming bureaucracy. The love and joy they possess for what they do showed so vibrantly in the conversation—it was contagious. This interview left us inspired and hopeful about the future of education and the possibilities for Steiner graduates as one of the largest independent school movements in the world. In a moment when America’s school systems are so deeply challenged by problems such as school board politics and new threats to child safety, this interview was a reminder of what it’s like when things are working well.

Background note from the Wikipedia entry on Waldorf education:

“The first Waldorf School was opened in 1919 in response to a request from Emil Molt, the owner and managing director of the Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette Company in Stuttgart, Germany. This is the source of the name Waldorf, which is now trademarked in some countries when used in connection with the overall method that grew out of this original Waldorf school.”

What draws a teacher to a Steiner School?

Wendy: I always knew I wanted to work with young children, but I didn’t know how I wanted to approach that. At first I thought maybe nursing was what I should do, but then I realized that the idea of sick children might be a little too difficult emotionally for me. So, I decided to become a kindergarten teacher. I had fond memories of kindergarten; when I was in school, I used to skip recess to go read to the kindergarteners.

I started moving toward a degree in education; while I was in the process of that, a friend of mine gave me a pamphlet for the Waldorf Teacher Development Association. She just handed it to me and said, “This is you.” I connected with their teachers and took courses for early childhood education, and I haven’t looked back.

I was already intrigued by the way they educated students holistically. One of the aspects that most inspired me, however, was the fact that the school is both parent- and teacher-governed. This means that instead of the government dictating what students should learn and how they should learn it (which these days is primarily through testing and memorization), we work hand-in-hand with parents to design and teach the curriculum in a comprehensive and age-appropriate manner. In this way, we are partners with the parents, and that feels very unique.

Maria: I studied art and music in Costa Rica and worked with at-risk children. Even though I loved the work, it was mostly centered around music, and there was something lacking for me in that approach. I wanted to work with the students in a more interdisciplinary fashion. While our program was a great musical education program, it didn’t allow for that kind of flexibility.

Eventually, I began assistant-teaching third grade at a Waldorf-inspired school, and when my husband and I moved to Ann Arbor, I came to the Steiner School. Because we were encouraged to teach the curriculum with an interdisciplinary approach—to bring together literature, language, history, math, science, and art—I knew this was where I was supposed to be.

Ericka: I was drawn to this school because I get to be a real human being and I get to be honest. I can be authentic and I’m allowed to care about my students. I could not do this job if I wasn’t allowed to authentically and deeply care about them.

My friends who are public school teachers aren’t allowed to connect with their students in the same way I can. My students that have graduated are still friends of mine; I know their families and feel like I’m a part of them. Instead of an assigned relationship that ended, it never ended. It continued on after they graduated and became adults.

The second major thing that drew me was the more engaged way of learning. At traditional schools, you’re required to have students memorize a bunch of facts. When I look at this world, the facts that I memorized when I was in college aren’t even true anymore. The traditional model creates a world filled with people who can memorize, but not think—what kind of world is that?

The Waldorf science curriculum requires a student to engage and think. I feel like I’m helping develop a group of human beings who can look at what’s happening in the world and actually think for themselves about how they want to form it. They can understand what’s going on and be able to make a plan of action to actually address it rather than being paralyzed or saying, “I never learned that in school.” I feel like I get to teach in an authentic way that is true to what it means to be a human being.

The final thing about the curriculum that thrills me is that I’m not required to teach scientific paradigms that we know as a scientific community are outdated and wrong. Here, I’m allowed and encouraged to update what is taught every year to align with the current scientific data. This is critical. We have a lag time of ten years between what’s going on in reality and what the textbooks say; I can give my students an advantage that’ll outlive their textbooks.  

How is Steiner School different?

Maria: One of the things that makes our classrooms and schools unique is that as grade-school teachers, we matriculate and move with our class from grade level to grade level. We have to study a lot to learn a new curriculum every year. I am constantly studying and reading and learning, imagining new ways to bring information together in complementary and cohesive ways.

For example, there may be subject matter that was initiated in fifth grade, and then I reintroduce it to them in the seventh grade to teach more detailed information and deepen their knowledge. My job is to anchor the information in concepts and historical storylines with which they are already familiar. This allows them to integrate complex ideas in more rational ways as they draw the connections between what they previously learned and what they are learning now. It’s intrinsic to the curriculum that we bring all of their core subjects together into one narrative that is logical and enjoyable for the children.

I always sought a school where the disciplines aren’t separated. I believe that when children are brought up with the idea that everything is connected, they begin to see the world as a whole rather than sorting reality into neat boxes. This gives them the ability to think creatively and critically in their later years, able to see connections and willing and wanting to make these connections themselves.

Because this is our goal, the curriculum is structured developmentally. We have a curriculum that serves the child where they are not only according to their age, but where they are emotionally, physically, and mentally. The curriculum is living and dynamic, it’s not stagnant. It’s not from a book that has been unchanged for many years. There are themes and narrative arcs that ground the different subjects for that grade level. The teacher’s responsibility is to maintain the essential information and constantly reevaluate how to share the new information that is appropriate for the next developmental stage of the children in front of us. We also evaluate what’s happening in the world and convey that to them in a way that is age-appropriate to share.

For example, in fifth grade, we start with ancient cultures—Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, and ancient Greece. In sixth grade, we move into discussion about the Romans and the Middle Ages. Developmentally, the sixth grader is in a very tumultuous time emotionally and physically with the sudden onset of puberty. There is so much growth and movement throughout all of European history. This resonates with what is happening in the children’s lives at that moment in time.

Ericka: When I look at the students and the curriculum, I can see that at the high school level, we’re actually doing graduate-level work; we’re training people how to think independently and actually be incredible scientists rather than just memorizers.

A key skill in our science curriculum is observation, which should be true for every science curriculum. One of the ways that science and art come together is that new knowledge comes from careful observation—through observational drawing of a scientific phenomenon in addition to just reading about it. We are constantly trying to find these ways of connecting various subject matter and previously-developed skillsets.

For example, in a lot of the public school systems, you only study biology in ninth grade, so you only have a ninth-grade understanding of biology. But you’re not a fully sophisticated adult in ninth grade. At Steiner, we study every single branch of science in every single grade in high school. The students have a full understanding of all the different disciplines, not just a memorized list of facts like “The kidney does this, the liver does that.” By the time they’re in twelfth grade, they’re studying biochemistry and looking at gene regulation and the environment; they’re learning ecology and they’re studying how genes evolve under ecological pressures and how the planet evolves.

They’ve had all these stepping stones from kindergarten, grade school, middle school, and through the three years of high school that lead up to senior year. In twelfth grade, they have a phenomenal explosion of epiphanies as they are fully seeing a much bigger picture of our world. It breaks my heart to think that someone would only know biology from a ninth-grade lens, and only in a biology classroom. Instead, in our way of teaching, one subject is embedded in all of the other subjects. It’s everything, all the time.

We also make it a point to not tell them what to think. In the science class, instead of me telling them what they’re learning, they have an experience and I ask them what they learned. When I was in school, the teacher would say, “Today we’re going to do a lab about this subject, and this is what it’s going to tell you.” Then you would do the lab, and because the teacher told us what it was supposed to tell us, we would write that on the exam. Then we all moved on to the next subject.

Here, I don’t tell them what they’re going to learn. They have to read the lab instructions the night before so that they have the techniques and they can be safe. Then they do the lab or they see the demonstration. The next day, we review what we did. It’s so important to practice remembering what you did and being able to articulate it. As we know, nowadays people can tell you that something happened and everybody believes it, even if it’s not at all true. So, you have to repeat what happened. I ask the students, “What did you see? Did we all see the same thing?” Because collectively, they never see exactly the same thing; we synthesize the information and discuss what we learned from this laboratory experience.

It’s my job as a teacher to make sure they’re absorbing all of the things that they need to learn, and to ensure that the information comes through their own observation instead of me dictating it to them. Here, we are intentionally cultivating minds that think. They remember what they learned by discovering it rather than by memorizing it for a test and then forgetting it because it has no relevant context.

As a teacher, I watch the students go through the process; as a mom, I watch my own child go through it, and I have another level of gratitude as I see the brilliance of this form of education. As a mother, there are so many healthy components of a well-rounded education that I so badly want for my children. I want them to get exercise, eat healthy, do something musical, and do something creative just by going to school every day. Here, they actually have all of the things every mother wants to check off each day for their kids. It’s a dream come true. As I watch the curriculum blossom in my own child, I can see it’s a genius process. We’re pretty lucky here in Ann Arbor because we have a Steiner kindergarten and preschool, so a child can start at the beginning and go all the way through to high school, which is very unusual.

How are the students different? 

Wendy: Personally, I just love the little children. When you come to school every single day, and these little ones see you and they embrace you like they haven’t seen you in years when you just saw them yesterday—it’s endearing, authentic, true, and full of beauty. They’re allowed to be that way here, to be themselves and to laugh and express. They are encouraged to be exactly the way that they are. There’s no other place I’d rather be. I often walk through these halls when classes are in session and I can hear the children singing, teachers teaching, and the kindergarten nurse laughing, and I just think how lucky I am to teach in a place where kids can act the way they naturally act and learn the way they naturally learn.

Ericka: The thing that has always really struck me is that the twelfth graders are the most healthy, balanced, interesting, inspired, and capable human beings I’d ever met in my life. It excites me to see that this is who my tenth-grade daughter is becoming.

In grade school, she learned about all the religions and all kinds of cultural origin stories. As she went through the grades and then into high school, her understanding of these different world cultures reached a much deeper level. Her understanding is richer than anything I understand as an adult, because I don’t understand that religion or I don’t know what the people from that area believed or thought.

Very often when political events happen the way they do in the world, I’m curious about why; my daughter, as a tenth grader, will hear something on the news and explain it to me because she’ll have the whole backstory on the people and the land. When she talks with her friends from other schools, they’ll have caught on to glib things to say that maybe another adult mentioned and they are now repeating. But my daughter can actually think and pull together all of that knowledge she learned throughout the whole curriculum and think on a more complex level than I can about world politics. It’s phenomenal. As a mother and an adult, even though I’m avidly trying to grow and think all the time, she has a deeper capacity in the humanities than I do, all because of this education. This just makes me thrilled! Being taught how to think as early as possible makes all the difference.

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The great gift of speaking with the teachers from the Steiner School was seeing that in education, we have choices. We loved hearing how a different approach can support children in not just learning, but also thinking in broader yet integrated ways. While they are certainly learning all of the basic skills and information that all children learn for their grade level, they are also learning how to adapt and integrate the dynamism of a rapidly changing world. Who could ask for a better approach to life in such transformative times?

To find out if Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor is right for your family, visit us at www.steinerschool.orgor call Janine Huber at 734-669-9394