Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Four Temperaments and their Role in Waldorf Education

Can you explain the temperaments and how understanding a child’s temperament is important in instruction—and in parenting?

Waldorf class teachers often imagine their class as an orchestra with four different sections. Up at the front of the room, eager and ready, are the horns. These students are strong, dynamic, forceful, and sometimes a little brassy. Toward the windows we might find the winds—light, lyrical, and lilting. The sounds they make are more light filled and gentle, like the flute, a melodic sound that easily drifts off. In the back of the room are the strings. Some, like the violins are intricate and a little high-strung. The strings are knowledgeable, thoughtful, observant, and capable. They carry the music along. In the fourth section we might find the timpani drums, waiting patiently for their turn. They may not contribute as often, but when they do, everyone notices how much richer the orchestra sounds.

These sections are like the temperaments: choleric, sanguine, melancholic, and phlegmatic. It was Rudolf Steiner’s intention that the first Waldorf teachers would understand the temperaments and know how to apply this understanding for the benefit of their students. He spoke about this understanding in his teacher training course for the first teachers (See Discussions with Teachers).

An understanding of the temperaments definitely predates Waldorf education. It was originally referred to by Hippocrates back in ancient Greece and related to the four humors (yellow bile, black bile, blood, and phlegm) that gave rise to the four temperaments. The choleric temperament is forceful, powerful and at times given to anger. It is the opposite of the phlegmatic temperament which is relaxed and sedentary—interested in comfort, leisure, people, and a good meal. The melancholic is the brooding temperament—introspective, complex, and philosophical—quite the opposite of the sanguine, who is light-hearted, social, carefree, and at times flighty. This understanding of the temperaments was also present throughout the writings of William Shakespeare. Characters like Hamlet (melancholic), Falstaf (phlegmatic), Puck (sanguine), and Lady Macbeth (choleric) embodied, for better or worse, the characteristics of these temperaments.

“When I am dull with care and melancholy, [He] Lightens my humor with his merry jests.” — The Comedy of Errors

“I tell thee, Kate…
I expressly am forbid to touch it;
For it engenders choler, planteth anger,
And ‘twere better that both of us did fast,
Since of ourselves, ourselves are choleric.”— The Taming of the Shrew

In a Waldorf School, the role of the temperaments applies most appropriately to the grade school child. High school teachers have a different paradigm for understanding their students, as do the preschool teachers. But in the second phase of childhood, from grade one until the end of middle school, a student’s temperament becomes apparent and important. Steiner hoped that the temperaments would help teachers better understand their students by providing a window into the hidden inner world of the child.

In general—and of course generalizations have their limitations—teachers find the choleric students like action. If there is something to do—nails to hammer, boards to carry, a hole to be dug—they are ready. Like Tom Sawyer, they do not lack confidence and are often fearless and ready to lead.  They are great supporters of fairness, yet they can be hard on things—particularly shoes and clothing—and yes, on people. They tend to walk with a heavy foot and seem to take up more personal space than some of the other children, which can quickly make a room feel small. The cholerics have an intensity similar to the color red and they can burn with the heat of high summer.

The sanguine children are ever so interested in their classmates. In grade one, they are the first to learn the names of the other students. They notice who is absent, who has had a haircut, and who has a new coat. They live strongly in their sense impressions, noticing and delighting in change. Remembering their homework or their jacket or lunch box can be challenging, however. They are like the spring, light, breezy, and carefree. They are like sunshine in the morning.  They are like the color yellow.

The phlegmatic children are the most consistent. They arrive each morning in a similar way—quiet, well-mannered, deliberate, and orderly. They like their world to be predictable—particularly at meal times—and they do not like to be pressured or rushed. Like the tortoise in “The Tortoise and the Hare,” they can be slow, but steady, and they are usually loyal friends and pleasant classmates. The phlegmatic children take care of their things. Unlike the choleric child, whose crayon case often looks like it has been in a battle and some of the crayons have been wounded or taken prisoner, the phlegmatic child’s crayon case generally looks like it is brand new. These children can be as still and peaceful as a cold winter’s night. Their favorite color is often green.

The melancholic students learn quickly. They have a good memory for facts and details, particularly in a story, and often write long, informative compositions. They are very observant and reflective. It is not an exaggeration to say that the melancholic child experiences pain deeply. Blisters, cuts, colds, bruises, sore throats, and scrapes seem to burden them more deeply and more often than the other students. Melancholic children are like the autumn; a hint of sadness is in the air. Their favorite colors are often blue and purple.

The four temperaments provide teachers with insights into a student’s behavior they may not have gained otherwise. Years ago, a student entered my fifth grade class because of the difficulties that he had finishing his assignments at his previous school. His parents had spent well over a thousand dollars having him evaluated, but neither the evaluators nor his teachers at the previous school could find a way to help him overcome his difficulties. When he joined our class he still had the same challenge; his assignments took him longer than the other children. But one morning in main lesson, as I watched this student prepare to work, I noticed something that was very helpful. When the class began their work and opened their main lesson books and started to write, this young fellow took out his pencil case and opened it slowly. He then carefully took out his main lesson book and his pencil sharpener and placed everything neatly on his desk in their accustomed places. Then he began to sharpen the pencils that were a little dull, first the red, then the green, and, while he was at it, also the gold. Then he organized all of his pencils so they were back in rainbow order. When everything was perfectly ordered, he finally began to work on the title. Unfortunately, by this time, most of the students were nearly half done with their assignment. And that was when the light went on for me. This young fellow was extremely methodical, a characteristic of a good phlegmatic child. This was a deeply phlegmatic boy working in a deeply phlegmatic way. Add to this the understanding that phlegmatic children do not like to be pressured or rushed, and it was easy to see why this student had been unhappy at his previous school. My work was to help him to be true to his temperament and keep his world neat and orderly, but also complete his assignments in a timely way. This became a project that we undertook together. I encouraged him to sharpen his pencils while he ate his snack, so they were ready for the next day, and when we had research assignments in the later grades, I would always check in to make sure that he did not procrastinate in starting his work. “Slow and steady,” became the guiding principle, and each year he became more capable. 

The temperaments have been a “working idea” for me over the years, and there have been instances when new insights have helped my understanding grow. Sometimes this occurred through a special moment in the classroom or at recess—seeing a child’s drawing or painting or watching how a child walked (cholerics can be heavy footed and walk on their heels, while melancholic children can drag their feet.) At other times it came through a colleague’s remarks. I remember a colleague asking another Waldorf educator the following question. “I am a choleric mother, but my daughter is phlegmatic. I worry that I don’t understand her temperament. What can I do to support her?” The answer surprised me, and I have never forgotten it. “Clean your cupboards.” The person went on to add that the phlegmatic child loves when everything is in order, and they love the feeling of ordered abundance. A well-stocked cupboard, with all of the cereal boxes neatly lined up, as well as the soup cans and the jars of dried fruit and nuts in a row, provides the phlegmatic child with a sense of wellbeing.

Another bit of advice about bedtime, that I happened to hear about, was given to a parent of a melancholic ten-year old boy. The mother was told to physically comfort her son at bedtime while he was still young enough to allow it. “Warm his pajamas and his towel in the dryer and then make him a cup of tea with honey. Something sweet will help him feel that life is not so hard.”

These stories, and others, helped me to understand the needs of each temperament. We often have insights into the temperament we had as a child, but understanding the needs of all four temperaments is essential for the teacher. It is for this reason that the do’s and don’ts of the temperaments are of the greatest help.

  • Never speak to cholerics in anger, and do not try to reprimand them when they are angry. It is better to let them know that you disapprove of what they have done and that you will speak to them later. Let them have their “time out.” And be consequent with cholerics. It doesn’t help them to get away with things.

  • Melancholic children are inclined to believe that no one understands how hard their situation is. Never tell a melancholic to “get over it” or to “cheer up, it’s not so bad.” Rather allow them some time to speak about everything that hurts, remembering that the melancholic is often happy to be unhappy. And keep in mind that melancholic children do not like surprises.

  • The phlegmatic children love to be comfortable. Find a cozy place for them to sit with something good to eat, with family nearby or a good friend, and all should go well. Remember that phlegmatic children do not like to be hurried—not at bedtime, and especially not in the morning. But they thrive in a predictable routine.

  • Do not expect sanguine children to stay focused for very long. They have a carefree temperament and are easily distracted. It can be hard for the sanguine to stay on task, and yet the best way to keep them on task is to divert them. When we interrupt sanguine children in the middle of work, it often creates in them a longing to get back on task.

Perhaps Steiner’s best advice to teachers (and parents) was to meet the child’s temperament with a therapeutic dose of more of the same. When a melancholic child sees
someone who truly suffers, someone whose daily life involves real pain, they understand how hard life can really be and their melancholy diminishes. When a phlegmatic child encounters someone who moves at an even slower pace, they want to hurry up. And it is the same for the sanguine and the choleric.

It is also important to keep in mind that it is not always easy to discern a child’s temperament. Much is at play, including what is inherited from the parents. In addition, temperaments usually occur in combinations. At school we see sanguine-phlegmatic children, melancholic-choleric children, sanguine-choleric children, and more. So it helps to observe patiently and to read more. A.C. Harwood’s classic, The Recovery of Man in Childhood, has an informative chapter on the temperaments, and Rene Querido’s book, Creativity in Education, also has an excellent section. In fact, I would like to end this blog entry with an excerpt from Querido’s book that I find to be a delightful characterization of the temperaments.
“I became aware of the differences of temperaments in a very dramatic way. I had a large class of over thirty, fifth or sixth grade children. We had a little ritual for the art block; some children handed out the paper, while others dipped it in the water and put it on the boards and sponged it. Some children gave out the brushes and the paint. Everything was going pretty well. A large bucket of water stood in the middle of the room and an empty bucket stood next to it. The idea was to paint in silence and to exchange dirty water with clean water whenever it was necessary. One Friday, there was an accident, and a huge bucket of water got kicked over everything. What did the melancholics do? They got up and stood in it. The sanguines were immediately standing on their chairs shouting, “Ooh what is that?” The cholerics rushed out after mops and buckets. What did the phlegmatics do? You may not believe it, but they sat in their chairs and lifted their legs up above the water. I got the best lesson in my life.

This story has a sequel. I didn’t think the cholerics and sanguines would be able to coordinate cleaning up the water, so I took them outside in the courtyard and played a game with them. I asked the phlegmatics to clean up the mess and they did. It took twenty minutes, but they cleaned up thoroughly. They have a wonderfully practical quality. The melancholics stood around for a while and then joined the game; they felt more comfortable playing than cleaning up. The variety of responses to this common situation was really enlightening.”
                                                   Rene M. Querido, Creativity in Education

 Jack Petrash

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

TED talk with Sir Ken Robinson

Here is a great video of a TED talk with Sir Ken Robinson. It has been around awhile, but it is still relevant to our educational discussion, and if you want to know more, take a look at his book, The Element.

The Youtube link:

Or, the direct URL at the TED talks website:

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Spirit of Waldorf Education

“Is the Waldorf School a religious school?”

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable still exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness.
Albert Einstein
Because a Waldorf School endeavors to awaken and maintain a child's experience of the mysterious through awe and wonder, parents often ask if it is a religious school. This is a difficult question to answer because the term religious can be understood in so many different ways. Perhaps the most accurate answer would have to be both, "No and Yes."
In the sense that a religious education is associated with a creed or a catechism that children are asked to memorize and accept on faith, the answer is decidedly "no." There are no tenets presented to Waldorf students that are intended to become their set of beliefs. Neither are Waldorf Schools sectarian and for that reason they can thrive equally in a Buddhist country like Japan, an Islamic country like Egypt, or on a kibbutz in Israel.
But in the sense that a Waldorf education helps children remain open to the mysterious dimensions of life, to the complex web of meaning that connects human destiny with other individuals and events, to the over-riding sense that there is something present in life that is greater and wiser than we are, the answer is "Yes." In keeping with the origin of the word religious, derived from the Latin religare (to reconnect or bind together), it is the task of Waldorf Education to help children remain open and connected to this inexplicable aspect of human existence. For this reason it is appropriate to describe Waldorf in a broad way as a spiritually-based education.
At the heart of the Waldorf approach is the understanding that young children are innately spiritual and arrive in this world with the ability to recognize the mysterious and sublime. The words of the poet William Wordsworth seem to convey this best:
There was a time when every meadow grove and stream,
The Earth and al the World did seem,
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and freshness of a dream.
A preschool teacher protects this unconscious awareness in the young child by creating an environment where a child can sense that the world is good. Through activities, routines, and stories, children encounter the inherent goodness in human existence, the wonder and bounty of nature, the comfort of loving human care. These elements reassure, welcome, and invite a young child to embrace all of life.
In the grade school, children's spiritual awareness diminishes slowly over time as their sense of self, their independent individual awareness, becomes more pronounced and distances them from the immediacy and oneness of early childhood. It is at this time that Waldorf teachers provide children with the experience that the world is beautiful. Through arts-infused instruction, through a program rich in poetry, painting, and music, and through science study that explores the splendor of our natural world, the children's feelings are nourished by this aesthetic quality.
In the high school, a young persons growing capacity for critical thinking longs to know that the world is true as they grapple to understand modern life by recognizing patterns and underlying causes of human behavior and in world events.
These experiences -
- that the world is good for the preschool child -
- that the world is beautiful for the grade school child -
- that the world is true for the high school student -
enable Waldorf graduates to engage life. It was Rudolf Steiner's contention that when children are educated in a sound three-dimensional manner, they are able to sustain their inherent spiritual nature.
But a spiritually-based, holistic, and child-centered education must have other dimensions as well, specific ones, and one of these is character education. Character education is a serious matter for all schools and for our society, but also a complicated issue. In his essay "The Education of Character," Martin Buber points out the challenging nature of moral instruction.
But if I am concerned with the education of character, everything becomes problematic. I try to explain to my pupils that envy is despicable, and at once I feel the secret resistance of those who are poorer than their comrades. I try to explain to my pupils that it is wicked to bully the weak, and at once I see a suppressed smile on the lips of the strong. I try to explain that lying destroys life, and something frightful happens: the worst habitual liar of the class produces a brilliant essay on the destructive power of lying. I have made the fatal mistake of giving instructions in ethics.
This statement highlights the fallacy of giving direct instruction in ethics, but schools, nonetheless, have a responsibility to help awaken the ability for moral judgment. One truly effective way to educate character is through the stories that are told to the children because stories speak directly to the heart, enabling teachers to guide but not preach. Storytelling is a time-honored tradition around the world. For ages, people all over our planet have instructed children in this way. In a Waldorf School many of the moral lessons conveyed to the children are brought to them indirectly through fairy tales, folktales, legends, and mythology.
When schools work from a spiritual premise, they, by necessity, make assumptions that run counter to the current way of thinking. For example, in our culture we have commonly accepted that the word myth is synonymous with untruth. This is not the case for Waldorf teachers who would more likely state that mythology conveys profound truths. The inner psychological truths conveyed in mythology, legends, and folk tales provide our children with understandings that help them to know human nature on a deeper level.
An important characteristic of a Waldorf Education is that it offers a spiritual view of humanity. The human being is seen as a bridge between two worlds - the earthly and the heavenly. Although our bodies have a mammalian nature (we are warm-blooded, our children are born live, etc.), there is also something uniquely dignified, noble, and heavenly in our nature. This spiritual aspect has been named in a variety of ways throughout history. It has been called our daemon, our angel, and at other times our genius.
In his book, Education in Search of the Spirit, John Gardner states, "in the original sense of the word, genius is a guiding, inspiring principle that is accessible, if we will, to every human being. The source of strength and guidance is not concerned with special abilities but with the whole person. An education works either to close or to open the channel between a child and his or her genius. Genius was once an intuitively perceived reality: the protective and guiding spirit that gave each person prepared to receive it the wisdom, or love, or power for good deeds on Earth. A person's genius was a higher self that could be called upon to infuse life with values transcending personal limits. Genius, says the Oxford University Dictionary, stating the ancient view, is a tutelary god or attendant spirit, allotted to every person at birth to preside over destiny in life."
How confusing and sad that in schools today, the progressive as well as the traditional, this term has come to mean something entirely different, some special privilege no longer available to all. From a spiritual perspective all children have genius. This premise raises an important question: How do we nurture and protect the childs genius?
Unlike other spiritually-based schools that teach in a conventional manner and then add a class or two to address children's deeper needs, Waldorf Schools meet the inner needs of their students through the entire educational program. It begins with the reverence and respect that the teachers feel for each child. It occurs continually throughout the school year at timely moments when students stop to say a verse or a grace and acknowledge the existence of something greater. But more extensively, it takes place through a unique approach to teaching that engages children actively, emotionally, and thoughtfully. This truly holistic and balanced approach nurtures the deepest in each child by encouraging warm-hearted involvement, an enthusiasm for learning, and an abiding interest in the world.
This spiritual dimension of a Waldorf Education supports and strengthens children. It is the surround that quietly pervades their whole educational experience allowing them to find their way freely to a deeper, more meaningful experience of life, one that is consistent with their family's values and beliefs. This spiritually-based education provides a compass for young people affording them direction in a chaotic world and enabling them to enter adult life with confidence and courage. For Rudolf Steiner and the first Waldorf teachers this was the foundation that supported children's healthy development. In today's challenging times this foundation is needed more than ever.
Jack Petrash

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Authentic and Heartfelt Teaching: It Won’t Always Look the Same

This posting will concurrently address two recent questions that ask if it is problematic to have markedly different teaching styles in our Waldorf School.

This is a thought provoking question, one that I have often struggled with when I have been asked to visit schools and mentor or evaluate teachers. Even in a Waldorf School there can be many different ways of teaching and a wide variety of classroom management approaches. When I have observed this, I have often reminded myself that good schools, regardless of their philosophy, allow for variation. In fact, good schools often pride themselves on this variety.

Personally, I like a quiet classroom. I prefer things to be orderly, and in pursuing this goal, I have found the path to success with my students. However, I must say that two of the best teachers that I have known over the years, one in a public school and one at our Waldorf School, had classrooms that were loud, slightly chaotic, and yet incredibly dynamic. These teachers fostered lively, creative learning environments in their classrooms. Moreover, adding even more nuance to my understanding, I have also observed other teachers that had classrooms that were exceedingly quiet, but in which the learning environment had been stifled by the strength of the discipline. Hence I have learned to look at the quality of each class experience in its entirety.

One of the finest books that I have read about teaching is The Courage to Teach, by Parker Palmer. In his book, Palmer addresses this very point when he speaks about good teaching.

“…good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher… My evidence of this comes, in part, from years of asking students to tell me about their good teachers. Listening to those stories, it becomes impossible to claim that good teachers use similar techniques: some lecture non-stop and others speak very little; some stay close to their material and others loose the imagination; some teach with the carrot and others with the stick. But in every story I have heard, good teachers share one trait: a strong sense of personal identity infuses their work. “Dr. A. is really there when she teaches,” a student tells me, or “Mr. B. has such enthusiasm for his subject,” or “You can tell that this is really Prof. C’s life.” One student I heard about said she could not describe her good teachers because they all differed so greatly from one another. But she could describe her bad teachers because they were all the same: “Their words float somewhere in front of their faces, like balloon speech in cartoons.” With one remarkable image she said it all. Bad teachers distance themselves from the subject they are teaching – and in the process from their students. Good teachers join self and subject and students… Good teachers possess the capacity of connectedness.”

In a Waldorf School we want our teachers to teach out of a heartfelt connection to their subject and to their students. That passion should pulse consistently through our whole school. It manifests in the enthusiasm that I see in my colleagues. At the same time however, where a Waldorf School also needs to have unity is in the teacher’s understanding of the child. Rudolf Steiner encouraged the first teachers to see the children as our text and in learning to read our students, we should come to a clear understanding of the distinct needs that children have at their three stages of development – preschool, grade school, and high school – and how that understanding applies in classroom management situations. In a Waldorf School all teachers are asked to “receive the children with gratitude and reverence and to educate them in love.” What should guide a teacher in those challenging moments is the understanding that our mood of soul, our emotional state, is of the utmost importance and that situations calling for discipline must always combine opposites – love and firmness, nurturing support and clear re-direction.

In his fine book, Starting from Scratch, Steven Levy (a former Massachusetts State Teacher of the Year) writes:

The challenge in discipline is that you have to represent both grace and justice at the same time. The offender has usually acted out of a place of need. She needs to be inspired, uplifted, strengthened in confidence. If she is shamed in front of the class, the opposite effect is often achieved. On the other hand, the class needs to see that justice has been done, that a crime will not go unpunished…

“Mr. Levy, John keeps shooting a rubber band at me.”
I put on my stern face. “John, come here right now.” We go out into the hall. The class snickers.
“Ha! He’s getting it now.”

Meanwhile out in the hall: “John, whenever we are having a discussion and you raise your hand to speak, I can’t wait to hear what you have to say. You bring such an interesting perspective to the class. This class needs your gifts. You are in this class for a special reason and if you do not share your gifts with us, our class will never become what it is supposed to be and neither will you. Do you understand? Now c’mon, we need the best you have to give.” John nods his ascent. We walk solemnly back into the room. The class believes justice has been done, and John has been encouraged, built up. For many children with a tendency to be disruptive, that is all they need.

For me this story from Levy’s fourth grade public school classroom is a guide, a model for the teacher I want to be. Truthfully, I may not always get there. But it is what I strive to embody in my teaching. This is the kind of understanding that should pervade a Waldorf School. I know that Steven Levy would agree. He and I trained to be Waldorf teachers together forty years ago.

One of the central understandings that both Parker Palmer and Steven Levy convey is that to be a good teacher you need to be authentic. You have to learn to teach out of your own inner promptings. This authenticity is at the heart of our authority as teachers and it is what helps us to be the author of the work we do in the classroom.  It is a living experience, and that is why education is also an art.  One must consider the whole experience to evaluate it properly. 

Having said this, it is important to mention that schools should have and do have policies and guidelines that need to be embraced and upheld by all teachers. These can be about media use, discipline procedures, social issues, the dress code, and even lunch. Authenticity will show itself in so many individual ways. However, it should not manifest as insensitivity and indifference to the needs of children and parents. So if you have a question about something that your child’s teacher is doing differently, please ask. The answer may be lengthy, but if I know my colleagues, it will also be fairly thoughtful.

Jack Petrash