Unschooling and Waldorf: The Student-Teacher Relationship in the Grades

This is a big topic, and we probably can only brush the surface of this today.   And this is long, but I felt I should keep it all within one post, so feel free to read part and come back or settle in with a cup of tea.  This post goes with the two other previous posts regarding Waldorf and Unschooling.

Let’s start with the very ending of “Practical Advice to Teachers” in which Steiner relates the four essential tasks of the teacher:  (this is, of course, the “Cliff-notes” version so to speak):

1.  “….teachers must make sure that they influence and work on their students, in a broader sense, by allowing the spirit to flow through their whole being as teachers, and also in the details of their work:  how each word is spoken, an dhow each concept or feeling is developed.”  “They must be filled with initiative.” 

2.  “….we as teachers must take an interest in everything happening in the world and in whatever concerns humankind.” “The teacher should be one who is interested in the being of the whole world and of humanity.”

3.  “…the teacher must be one who never compromises in the heart and mind with what is untrue.”  “Our teaching will only bear the stamp of truth when we ardently strive for truth in ourselves.”

4.  “The teacher must never get stale or grow sour.  Cherish a mood of the soul that is fresh and healthy!  No getting stale and sour!”

Now let us look and see where the student is.   Donna Simmons writes in “The Christopherus Waldorf Curriculum Overview For Homeschoolers” regarding  ages 7-14 “The child learns primarily through the authority of the love expressed by those around him.”  “During this time, the child is most active in his imagination and needs a healthy awakening of his feeling life to learn best.  This is most appropriately achieved by an imaginative and lively artistic approach to all academic subjects.”    During ages 14-21, “The youth learns primarily through the truth of the expertise around her.”  “During this time, the youth’s intellectual powers must be allowed to stretch and grow. Care must be taken to avoid dogmatism and apathy.  The youth’s natural state of idealism must be cultivated.”

So, what does all this have to do with Unschooling and Waldorf?

In the grades, we see a progression of sorts from one seven year cycle to the next.  We see that the curriculum is designed to meet the age of the child through an artistic, feeling, imaginative, creative way, through movement.  We see that whilst many of the subjects seem set, it is up to us how we bring them alive to our specific child.  Steiner himself said a lesson should never be stale or sour!  He also said there is really no education other than self-education and how as teachers we set up the environment and provide the most favorable conditions for learning.

So, if we understand WHY certain subjects are brought at certain grades, then we can look at how we want to meet that at home and how we want to develop a relationship with all of that within our own homeschool.  For example, in First Grade, some people are very uncomfortable with Grimm’s fairy tales.  We should never try to teach that which does not resonate within us, so we can change that for the archetypal imagery of other tales as long as we carefully explore why areas of the curriculum don’t fit in with us because the Waldorf curriculum really is the human journey.  We also  have to be careful in some regards, because many  of the experiences of the younger grades builds up to lessons in the older grades (ie, wet on wet watercolor painting is really a bridge to the study of color in physics later on), but within reason and with understanding and mindfulness, we can work with the subjects normally studied.  

As homeschoolers, we can also wait on things, to a certain extent, if our child is not ready. My oldest detested knitting in the First Grade, it always ended in tears and crying and frustration,  so we let it ride until Second Grade.  She is now an avid knitter and she loves handwork. 

There are some areas in particular, math especially, where it seems okay to move forward faster than the curriculum.  The science and the language arts seem to more be based upon age/grade because of the content than the math, but obviously also things like the amount of writing can be increased if a child is writing well.  However, it is very important that other areas are balanced – handwork, music, movement…  The one thing that really can’t be moved, though, is “moving ahead” on the content – Norse myths belong in Grade Four for a reason, for example.

People ask all the time what to do if their child has interests in things that don’t come up in the Waldorf curriculum until much later….I addressed that to a certain extent here: https://theparentingpassageway.com/2010/01/09/can-waldorf-work-with-other-homeschooling-methods/  and would like to reiterate a few things.  First of all, see how strong an interest this is:  many children are wholly passionate about something and then that interest fizzles out within a week.  Take a bit of a ho-hum attitude about it and see if it still burns so incredibly brightly.  If it does, can you meet it in steps and stages rather than going whole-hog wild?  This is prudent for all parents, not just Waldorf homeschooling parents.  You don’t want to run out and buy a Baby Grand when your child has never taken a piano lesson but has an “interest”.  But you can encourage the exploration!

Do you worry your child is gifted in some way and the curriculum will not meet your child’s needs?  Whether your child is  reading at a six-year-old level or a twelve-year-old level, you can be creative in meeting the child with Old Testament Stories in the Third Grade.  The academic piece can be adjusted up or down.  And in my experience, those who are “forging ahead” often need “balancing out”, which the Waldorf curriculum supplies beautifully. 

Some people, I think, have not seen Waldorf Education in the Grades in action and have this thought that it is two hours of a Main Lesson sitting at a desk.  I would like to refute that!  Here is an example:  one may start the morning with verses and singing whilst standing up and moving, limericks and tongue twisters and some mental math with tossing of beanbags or throwing a ball.  One may then move into some sort of movement, whether that be a true circle time, an obstacle course, work with copper rods, drawing with a crayon between one’s toes, etc.   Then perhaps time for a break!

Then we may gather for more of the Main Lesson, where we take more time for movement,  look at some vocabulary or math concepts, hear a wonderful story.  Perhaps then we  draw, paint, build or create or cook or delve deeper into what we are studying in another way….. Then another break and movement and playing and perhaps after lunch and quiet time,  we regroup to bake, do handwork, play the recorder.  I used to think that Head, Hearts and Hands meant very specific things (such as the “Heart” part could ONLY be foreign language, painting, eurythmy, etc), but I am realizing the further along I go that different teachers do different things and some of it can depend on what block you are in and can only be limited by your own creativity. 

Some people worry that with any sort of method of homeschooling, their time for siblings to play will be underminded, that it will take too big a chunk out of the day. I can assure you that in the Early Grades, the Main Lesson can be short,  and you can intersperse breaks to play or snack.  The number one joy of any method of homeschooling is being with your family!  You also don’t need to homeschool five days a week either – in most states it is the total number of days per year that must be met.   In the Early Grades, I have heard many Waldorf homeschooling mothers take things nice and slow until the nine-year change.  Only you can decide your relationship to this healing education.  (And homeschooling this way will be healing for you as well!)

There will be days that you feel you must buckle down and get to work.  This is part of homeschooling, no matter what method.  Just like when you worked outside of the home, some days inside the home with homeschooling may go awry.  There may be days when you decide to go hiking instead of doing school, and you adjust your plans accordingly.  There may be a day when your child doesn’t want to do math because it is “too hard” and you work through the tears together and bring it all  home and the tears stop and your child gets it!  How exciting! 

What you bring to your Waldorf homeschool must above all be an expression of yourself and the things that resonate with you within the curriculum.  If you are a gardener, perhaps you will be basing much of your math, science, even history of different societies by looking at how people work with the land, calculations for gardening, the science of botany and agriculture.  If you have other skills, this will come out as well.  This tends to worry parents, who want to make sure their child isn’t “missing” anything, but  really, even a Waldorf school teacher has his or her own strengths and weaknesses and picks and chooses how to bring things into the classroom.

Most of all though, the student-teacher relationship is one based upon respect for each other, and through the child loving “natural authority” of the teacher and other revered, kind adults.  “Gratitude- Love-Duty” is how the first three seven year cycles can be summed up.  Roberto Trotsli, in his book, “Rhythms of Learning” talks at length about this in Chapter Two of that book (Chapter Two is entitled “Teacher and Child”).  Love for the world and everything in it becomes the basis for duty in the ages of 14-21.   During the early grades, we connect children to their world through love.  This is what we make our academic lessons up with this piece in mind.    We also work with the children of this age through their temperaments.

The final piece of all of this, also brought up by Trotsli  in this chapter, is that, “Each of us is engaged in the process of becoming.  Our students are often our teachers in this process, for they force us to face our shortcomings and limitations and inspire us to continue to strive to transform ourselves.  By working on ourselves, we work on behalf of our students.  By coming to know ourselves, we come to know our students.”

Many blessings on today,


3 thoughts on “Unschooling and Waldorf: The Student-Teacher Relationship in the Grades

  1. Carrie, what a great, great post! It is so helpful for me to read this. It is much, much clearer now for me how I can work in the grades without forcing anything in my children’s mouths. I love the point Steiner makes about never getting sour and stale. This is very important, I think.

    Thank you so very much for all the time you spent writing this. It is such a wonderful gift. I feel relieved by what you explained here.

  2. Pingback: Neurologic Development: Opportunity, Experiences and Encouragement | The Parenting Passageway

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.