Thursday, May 17, 2012

Waldorf Education–A Luxury or a Necessity?

I love the Waldorf School, but sometimes I worry that by having my children attend a private school, I am sending them the wrong message, one that implies that they are privileged or entitled. How do I prevent this?

This is an important question for a Waldorf School, one that touches on the understanding that any school’s strength can also become its weakness if we are not mindful. One of the significant aspects of our school, one that I have always appreciated, is that we are an independent school. Because of this independence, our school has autonomy, and this allows our teachers, administrators, and trustees to shape the school’s program and to make timely decisions that influence the children’s educational experience without needing outside approval from a board of education or a school board and without having to navigate the convoluted terrain of such a bureaucracy. This independence makes it possible for the teachers who are immediately involved with the students to make decisions in the best interest of those very children who sit before them each day.  Having begun my teaching career in the New York City public schools, where I could not even have my own key to the school so that I could work in my classroom on the weekend, I truly value the creative possibilities that autonomy offers.

However, I also know that the independence that I value comes at a price. The Waldorf School is a private school, and the word private has the same root as the word privilege. As both a parent and a teacher, I have not wanted my children or my students to be left with the impression that they are privileged–fortunate, yes–but not privileged, and certainly not entitled. A former colleague of mine believed that gratitude is a barometer for soul health in children. I believe this as well, and because of this, I have observed the children carefully over the years to see whether they are able to appreciate the benefits that their education provides with gratitude and not take for granted the sacrifices that their parents and teachers make to provide them with a Waldorf Education.

One important factor that determines whether feelings of privilege arise is whether parents see Waldorf Education as a luxury or as a necessity. When our education is perceived as one more enriching experience in a child’s life–in addition to ballet, soccer, horseback riding, drama camps, and more–the notion of privilege can arise. But for most parents, a different sentiment is present, which is the sense that Waldorf Education is a must.

As parents, we work hard to insure that the values we hold as important are conveyed to our children. We want our children to be empathetic, trustworthy, responsible, kind, considerate, and more. We also want these values to extend to others, not just to family and friends but also within a broader community and even throughout the whole Earth.  If we hold out hope that our children will grow up to be respectful and considerate, we need to counteract the prevalent cultural models of disrespect and irreverence that are commonly portrayed in the media where children often are depicted as smart, sassy, and outspoken. What many parents find is that as our children grow older, the external cultural influences increase, and it becomes harder to preserve the values that we believe are important. For parents who look for support in maintaining sound, healthy values in their children, the Waldorf School becomes a necessity. In a culture that promotes the notion that power, wealth, self-interest, and sexual appeal are the keys to happiness and fulfillment, many parents long for a countervailing force, one that encourages children to look deeper for lasting notions of what truly matters. These families seek support for the simple values that they hold dear–eating dinner together, uninterrupted family time, time in nature, time to worship, and time to play and to share stories–and they appreciate the support that a Waldorf School community provides.  For these families, the Waldorf School is not a luxury: it is an essential need.

Other parents seek a Waldorf education because they believe that school should encourage children to become lifelong, creative learners. They sense that Waldorf’s unique approach to teaching the whole child through a program that is infused with art, music, and movement, will help a child’s mind develop in a unique way, one that fosters the very kind of creative thinking that is becoming endangered in an era of high stakes testing. They believe that life is too precious to be weighed down with the leaden approach to learning that is commonly found in traditional textbooks and in multiple-choice exams. 

In addition, there are also committed parents for whom the notion of privilege is negated by their earnest search for a school that recognizes and nurtures the spiritual nature of the child. When a school is based on a spiritual understanding of the human being, its educational program is fundamentally different, not simply because of the kinds of attitudes and behaviors that are encouraged in the students but also because the very way in which the curriculum is presented to the children is fundamentally different. The natural world is presented as a place of wonder, mystery, and wisdom through the spiritually sensitive educational lens. Human events, both personal and historical, are seen as being rich with meaning and message. For this to be conveyed to children, the spiritual lessons cannot be compartmentalized and limited to one period a day. Rather, the spiritual values of a school must become what Ted Sizer, from the Coalition of Essential Schools, referred to as the surround, the implicit atmosphere of a school that becomes the air the children breathe.

When parents look closely at these issues while exploring their educational choices, they often come to feel that what a Waldorf School offers their child is essential on so many levels. The Waldorf School then becomes a necessity because it is a choice that shapes who our children are going to become. When this occurs, the Waldorf School can no longer be seen as a luxury. Instead, like a good pediatrician, healthy food, and a safe place to play, it is simply part of what we feel we must provide.

Jack Petrash

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