Goetheanum, Dornach, Switzerland / April 10-15, 2023
By Adam Petersen
During spring break, Mr. Petersen travelled to The 11th World Teachers’ Conference, hosted by the Anthroposophical Society’s Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland. The conference welcomed 980 participants from 61 different countries.
Despite the differences in language and culture, there was a palpably felt connection of common purpose, that all present were dedicated to the service of children, through Waldorf education. It was edifying to arrive in a foreign place and find an intact community of 1,000 people to which I immediately belonged.
In this letter to our community, I am sharing a collection of thoughts and sentiments which I gathered directly from the keynote speakers of the conference. All of the thoughts I am presenting here are either quoted or paraphrased directly from one of the several keynote lecturers, or otherwise woven in from the ensuing post-lecture conversation groups.
I reference each lecturer ahead of sharing their portion of content. I open first with a verse by Rudolf Steiner which seems to capture the ethos of the conference themes:
The healing social life is found
When in the mirror of each human soul
The whole community finds its reflection
And when in the whole community
The virtue of each one is living.
[Dr. Tomas Zdrazil] - Czech class and high school teacher, doctorate in health promotion in ed.
School is a place where the health of the future is working, it is a place of protection. We have to make the educational process into a healing process. The world is an environment which bears unhealthy forces. School must resonate more strongly with health-giving forces. Teachers must become physicians, and to consider that children themselves are the homeopathic remedy.
The pandemic of our time is an alienation from nature - Nature Deficit Disorder. Poor nutrition and lack of movement are also leading contributors to illnesses. The human body is a synthesis of the realms of nature (mineral-physical, plant-etheric, animal-astral). We cannot be healthy if we are estranged from them.
We also need to have the experience of making meaning out of life, which we do with the will. It is essential for young people to come to see the value of serving others. This leads to the discovering of one’s purpose in life. It is psychologically hygienic to discover one’s purpose. All education, all learning, can really only derive from lived meaningful experience. How do we engender in our students a sense of desire for these meaningful life experiences?
There is further a need for community, or experiencing the interest of another, of feeling the love between us. The transcendent medium of community resides between the polarity of seeing/perceiving ∞ being seen/perceived.
These three needs, corresponding perhaps with the threefold human being - proximity to nature [body], experience of living meaning [soul], love and community [spirit]- are reflected in the upper grades’ morning verse. To speak the morning verse aloud gives the sense that something comes into union within us - a kind of building up of the kingdoms of nature, culminating in the soul-spiritual essence of the human being.
Morning Verse, Grades 5-12
I look into the world, in which the sun is shining
In which the stars are sparkling, In which the stones repose,
Where living plants are growing, Where beasts do feel and move
Where human beings, soul-gifted, Give the spirit a dwelling place.
I look into the soul that lives within my being.
The World Creator moves, in sunlight and in soul-light,
In wide world space without, in soul depths here within.
To thee, Creator Spirit, I will now turn my heart,
To ask that strength and blessing, for learning and for work,
May live and grow in me.
[Dr. M. Michael Zech] - German Waldorf teacher since 1992, professor, international lecturer.
The job of teachers is to accompany the incarnating process of the child, which tracks as a microcosm of a world narrative of gradual individualization. By the time a student is in grade 12, it is no longer about absorbing historical narratives, but rather inspiring a sense of context for each student to develop a purpose by which to relate to the world.
If I want to encounter others, I need to learn to become a “stranger in my own culture”, to find a home in being “on the way.” This offers the possibility to be of ourselves, to shape culture out of our walking the earth as individuals.
The history of humanity is a consonance of diversity. History is dialogue - what has happened is gone, it can only come alive if we ourselves resurrect it and give it meaning. The content of the historical cultures we teach is subsidiary to the quality of consciousness from that time. It is this quality that the incarnating child recapitulates. So what other histories might we teach from these epochs of time that depict these qualities of consciousness? We can transform European history from being THE history, to being just another history, and we can begin to teach histories.
[Dr. Wilfried Sommer] - German Waldorf HS physics teacher, professor of phenom. education.
The movement through puberty is a “becoming bodily” experience. Waldorf education facilitates the movement from personalistic to objective, a carrying of individual resonance into the objective experience - a melding of the two, not a forgetting of one for the other. To give birth to understanding in the resonant space of embodiment.
Waldorf education works with the trust that the world is rich, and can be presented as a “place worth being,” that the project of “becoming human” feels worthwhile.
[Dr. Thomas Fuchs] - German professor of phenomenological philosophy and psychiatry.
We are essentially bodily beings, and we can regard our body dually - the “Body I Am” and the “Body I Have,” the subjective and objective body, the I, versus the Me. Identity emerges in the crossing between I and Me, between spontaneous self emergence, and prescribed social conditioning.
The objective body manifests in our view when we step out of our body’s immediate life processes, which happens when triggered by illness, trauma, or simply by being seen by another. The experience, manifesting negatively, can result in self-consciousness, shyness, or shame, resulting in bodily rigidity. This objective body becomes a means for behaving in presentational ways, with socially prescribed attitudes.
Adolescents are oriented with the sense that all the world is watching them. Social media doubles down, rigidifying conditionings, bereaving children of the capacity for imagination. We want not to disconnect students from the contemporary world, so how do we help children to breathe through the potential rigidification of social conditionings?
Through warmth, rhythm and play. We gather tools for building self-confidence, and we must turn to simple everyday activities with mindfulness - eating, drinking, sitting, waiting, being silent - in order to reside more livingly in our bodies.
[Kathy McFarlane] - NZ early childhood teacher for 35 years, international teacher educator.
Nowadays, it is a struggle to get young children to play freely, and to receive stories without resistance.
For our time, we must cultivate wonder (will), compassion (feeling), conscience (thinking). Compassion means “suffering together with,” which requires of one to accommodate the other. Until we recognize we are all the other, we will stew in mistrust.
Covid rendered humanity into stark polarities. The middle space was attacked - the realm of heart and lungs. The feeling realm, the social sphere, was compromised. We must learn and grow from these pandemic illnesses. We must revitalize this middle space. How?
By cultivating the capacity to give of oneself, but not so much as to lose oneself. By telling beautiful stories, which can incite free play, through which children can learn to live in the other. Free play is divine play, with nothing to gain, and nothing to lose. Play must have no objective, no agenda, lest it squelch creativity.
[Michael Ben Shalom] - Israeli class teacher, co-founder of first Waldorf school in Israel.
Another way is to walk, with children, in nature.
From home to school, most children ride in cars. The limbs are inactive and breathing is shallow. Our modern reality allows for an hours-of-sitting, out-of-limbs lifestyle, resulting in a massive weakening of the will, along with fear and anxiety.
Walking is rhythmical, it deepens breathing, engenders warmth, warmth elevates us. It is a deep, wordless education of a real process.
However, to be able to walk for the sake of walking is sometimes a luxury. Not all even have access to nature. If we prioritize walking in education, could we potentially cultivate a world in which walking spaces become more accessible, available and safe, particularly for women, children, POC?
[Ya Chih Chan] - Taiwanese Eurythmist, founding teacher at first Waldorf school in Taiwan.
All activity can be in a state of Zen, which is to be conscious of body and intention, actively meditative. This can be a self-healing experience, and healing power is not active without the will and intention to heal / be healed. We can heal through attentive listening.
The potential for self-healing is being compromised by modern, mechanizing, ahrimanic forces. When we use our bodies in a meaningful way, with ourselves, and with children, we are in touch with Zen, with a self-healing resurrection. The healing happens only through the active consciousness of the I.
[Dr. Linda Williams] - class teacher, mentor, teacher educator for 30 years, Detroit WS.
Resilience is an act of rebounding, of bouncing back. This definition is often applied to material things. If an object cannot endure stress, it ruptures, it is not resilient. Resilience has come to pertain to ecosystems, in their ability to endure changes or disturbances while maintaining status. Ultimately, the word evolves to apply to individual human beings, in the manner by which we maintain in wake of shock and disturbance.
How do we heal the pain that ensues with harmed bodies? Countless anecdotes of racial erasure, “cancel culture”, harshness and disgust - these are threats to a child’s sense of self, of worth - from the countenance of hearts without compassion. Trauma doesn’t happen to us, it happens within, after a wounding.
We have to learn to settle our own bodies, our nervous systems, well enough to even begin to incur healing, to harmonize and connect with bodies around us. What settles our bodies? Meditation, prayer, chanting, mindfulness exercises. Nutritious food, water, exercise [on a rhythmic basis]. Good sleep. Nightly reviews of the day, morning reviews of the night. Daily activities that bring simple joy. To ensure regularity with any of these practices, we must prioritize them. When things are awry, double down on simple pleasures.
Resilience is directly related to the support given in young life. Resilience is not an exclusively individual capacity, it is social. The resilience of a child is distributed among their living relationships. Even one person can contribute to the resilience of a child.
Stress, anger, and erasure bring pause to heart rhythms, weaken immune systems, increase risk for infection. What is the antidote? Joy, compassion, stimulating powers of self-healing. Rituals of belonging build resilience. The Pedagogy of Belonging: “I am, because we are. We are, therefore I am.”
“Human beings will feel the need to wake up more fully in the encounter with the other human being. We must become more to our fellows than before, we must become each other’s awakeners.” - Rudolf Steiner, Awakening to Community
We can each cultivate simple practices for re-calibrating the nervous system, including “rituals of belonging.” In order to share such practices with our students, we must ourselves be practitioners of them. What are your individual practices of embodiment, of re-calibrating? What are our community’s “rituals of belonging?”
By way of our personal and communal practices, we can re-awaken and expand our middle sphere, the realm of genuine love and compassion for others, for the grace of “suffering together,” for the growth of our capacity for resilience, and in the event of rupture, for the experience of mending in the context of a present and supporting community. Resilience is not individual, it is social. Compassion is intrinsically relational. These shared virtues must remain intact if we are to retain our true nature as human beings, ever sustaining the moral balance between temptations of self-indulgent and antisocial behavior. This is our work.