A new imagination of organizational form and function in a Waldorf school
After years of working in and with Waldorf schools, I have found that the imaginative thinking about the governance and organizational structure of a school is key to the school having a wholeness. Since each school is independent and unique, and is responsible for creating itself over time, the key to organizational health rests with the capacity of the leadership at any given time to build an imagination of the organization and from this imagination to find insights that can guide thinking about the challenges faced by the school at its unique phase of development. What has developed for me through many conversations is a thinking process that leads to an organic evolving imagination that can fit an organization at any phase of its growth and in any situation.
I have been in many schools over the last 20 years and have found that the many attempts to describe the organization using diagrams rarely if ever yields any real insight into the life of the organization and how to manage the operations. With various groups, I have gone through a process of building an imagination of the school which brings new ideas, a new sense of relationship, responsibility and helps identify key areas needing attention.
From the whole to the parts
A Waldorf school is a living organization involving many people who each have their own relationship to the endeavor, and who find themselves in groups that have particular roles and responsibilities – all important to the overall function and health of the organism. The school itself is part of its community, an endeavor to create a place where parents can find common ground and inspiration about the care and nurturing of their children. It is also a part of the evolving landscape of the educational community, the non profit community, the philanthropic community and the neighborhood where it resides. As a unique part of the community in which it lives, like any organism in its environment, it needs connection to everything around it for support and nourishment, and some separation from what lives around it for protection and identity.
Like any organism, it has three basic conversations ongoing. First, it has the conversation with itself about its own development – what is its mission, how shall it operate and reflect upon its own life. In this conversation it should be completely free to make its own way, to seek its own light and learn its own lessons. Just like a human being, it is responsible for making its own decisions and judgements and acting accordingly. Secondly it has the conversation with the other institutions and culture around it – how is it connected to other Waldorf shools, to other independent schools, to the government, to its neighbors. In this conversation it should be guided by the agreements it has with others – from being part of the association of Waldorf schools to filing taxes to adhering to fire codes to adhering to state regulations. In this realn it is important that it remembers that it is an equal part of the social fabric and that it has agreements to uphold. Thirdly, the school has a conversation with the earth itself – how it sustains itself, maintains buildings and garners the resources needed to assure its continued existence. This conversation is guided by mutuality – it provides parents with care and nurturing of their children in exchange for financial and personal support, it provides a service to the educational community and receives gifts and resources, it supports many vendors and service providers in exchange for their support.
These three conversations, while essential to any organization, have special significance in a Waldorf school. From the beginning of the first school in 1919, emphasis was placed on the importance of organizing the school from the inside out – that the first conversation, the internal one about its own direction and purpose rooted in self reflection, was the one that should guide the quality of the other conversations, the more outer ones. And this was rooted in the striving of the individuals in the school to be developing themselves. Both the work with the students and the work in organizing the school depend on the inner work of the people involved in the endeavor – their capacity for self reflection. The school was reminded this over and over again – that to be healthy and creative in its task, the individuals must be actively striving towards self-understanding. And this self understanding can come about only when an individual has an active contemplative practice aligned with the impulse of Anthroposophy. But as we know concerning our capacity for nurturing our development, we need help from each other. We are not in a time in history when an individual can develop independently. That means that the work in the school must be guided by processes that allow for individuals to remain independent and free but to seek and explore insights in such a way that their own development is furthered.
From the beginning of Waldorf education and Waldorf schools it has been of the utmost importance for the groups within the school to work within themselves and with each other in ways that seek and explore insights. This requires continual practice. At a simple level this would be expressed at meetings by saying a verse, reading something together, reviewing meetings, having regular meetings between groups and having a clear system of regular conversations between colleagues about their work. But these are just the surface. The work of each group needs to evolve as it seeks both common ground and meaningful ways to support the development of each person in the group. And here is where the faculty as a whole is essential to the work throughout the school. The work of the faculty in meaningful self reflection and the application of insight into the many operations of the school is truly like a heart of the school with the circulation being the sharing of insight as nourishment.
How faculties are prepared and able to do this work is a question. One learns this essential work by doing it, by participating in it. And as the task of holding a class and teaching becomes more and more challenging over time, the amount of energy and time left to spend in deeper work in the faculty as a group is diminished. We are faced with a situation in which there is less time and energy to do deeper work that is essential to the health of the organization. The result is often weakened operations and greater need for outside intervention as the organization is less and less able to meet the demands put upon it. It is a dilemma that when one is ill, one often has the least capacity to heal oneself – too often one must attend to the secondary effects rather than the root cause.
So how does a school potentize its work on seeking the inspired consciousness it needs?
Start with an imagination of a class – we have a teacher dedicated to the growth and development of the students gathered around her. The students (purple) are in the center in the care of the teacher (yellow), surrounded by their parents (light blue) and held in a vessel (red) by the whole faculty and staff.
Now place classes next to each other in a ring. This would create the teachers in a circle with an inner space free from the students and parents surrounded by the classes and parents. What is living between the teachers might be viewed as a kind of sun that radiates out into the classrooms.
Now we notice that between the classes there are areas that are empty, that we could designate as “the school.” What is it that connects the classes into a whole? In this we could add festivals, assemblies and all activities that involve more than one class.
In this evolved picture one can see the inner realm of the teachers. This space is extremely important to the health of the school. Much has been written about the role of the faculty, the ways the teachers can work together to create harmony and effective working, and the relationship between the faculty and the rest of the organism. In the faculty it is important to note the different task that the class teachers and subject teachers have. One is tasked with guiding the journey of a grou p of students, and the other is tasked with helping all the students make strides in relationship to a subject. How these tow are woven together has a significant effect onteh students and the whole school.
In this picture one can also see that the parents surrounding the classes create a supportive substance around the educational work. In this outer layer, a skin is formed that allows for the organism to have identity and protection. In addition, the skin could be seen as semi permeable and allowing nourishment in and letting out toxins.
Now in the area outside the classes and within the skin we have organs that form to help the overall organism to function. Over time more organs are needed to manage the flow of communication, manage the flow of resources and care for the growing structure of the whole organism. Classes need designated spaces, and structures, and tools that all need to be maintained.
In this figure, we have processes from five realms:
Board processes – like that of skin:
Protection (legal issues)
Nourishment (resources and sustainability)
Identity (mission and vision, evaluation )
Interaction with environment (ambassadorship, community relations)
Sensing imbalance and supporting functions
Administrative processes – like that of internal fluids and organs
Managing flows of money
Supporting activities of teachers, parents and all organs
Community building in the whole
Faculty Processes – like that of the heart
Tending to students
Collaboration in faculty
Sensing the whole and the parts
Student Processes – like that of the cells
Playing, working, learning and growing
Parent Processes, like that of the lungs
Connecting and exchanging with the world
In each of these realms, there is a need for an organizing principle or a leading activity.
In the parent realm this can be the class parents in a grade who develop their own structure of support (class rep or class helper) and for the whole parent body it is usually a parent council or parent organization. Its purpose is often to assure that each parent finds their rightful place in the school in which their talents and capacities can best contribute to the whole. It has a second purpose of assuring that the parents as a whole are organized to be best involved in the community building of the school.
In the faculty realm it is two fold : the sections (EC, GS , HS) and the core group, college or leadership team that acts on behalf of the whole.
In the admin realm it is often one or a few administrators tasked with assuring the healthy flow and organization of the administrative realm.
In the board it is the officers and the board development group tasked with helping the board as a whole continue to develop.
In the students it is the classes. In the older sections of the school it can be a student leadership group or council.
Because the organism is an integrated whole, (even thought it might not feel like it at times), every organ (parent council, board, faculty, admin, committees) is connected intimately to the whole and is a microcosm of the whole. Every organ has its own skin, it own identity, its own creativity, its own responsibility for communication etc. all purposefully aligned with the whole organism.
Now we have an overall picture of the organism that can speak to us and with which we can have a conversation.
What happens when a class become weak? What happens when a teacher can’t teach any longer? What happens when the faculty as a group is not able to work toether in such a way as to provide inspiration and insight that can guide the whole organism? Or when they isolate themselves from the rest of the organism and create their own skin that lacks permeability? What dynamic appears when an organization fails to renew its vision? Or when parents who are an integral part of the organism don’t identify with the mission of the school or follow healthy school processes?
Many of the dynamics alive in schools that I have worked with, when seen in the context of a living picture, can be understood more completely and dealt with in relationship to a sense of the whole.
The school is a living organism, that has living processes that function in service to the primary task of the whole – to care for, nurture and guide the development of children who come to the school, to provide support and encouragement to the parents who bring them and to build a conscious community that is committed to the understanding and practice of a new view of what it means to be a realized human being and to be a community.
(Further exploration of the physiology of the organism can be helped by looking at other resources.)
In another article, there is an outline of what aspects of this organism are unique to Waldorf school and what are more general to schools, non profits and businesses. The purpose here is to provide a living picture of a school organism that moves our thinking away from dead diagrams and towards new imaginations and questions.
What I have found important in a picture like this, is that it places the classes and students in the center and the faculty in the center and shows the space required by the faculty from which can radiate the insight needed to sustain the whole organism. This picture allows us to see an image of the healthy social life given to the first school as an imagination for moving forward.
Vision in Action: Working with Soul and Spirit in Small Organizations, by Christopher Schaefer and Tino Voors.
Organizational Integrity: How to apply the Wisdom of the Body to Develop Healthy organizations, by Torin Finser.