Alignment and Orientation: LeadTogether Highlight #12 11-24-14

Alignment and Orientation: LeadTogether Highlight #11 11-24-14

Alignment is an important element in any organization, school or business. How people are aligned with the whole of the organization and understand both how the parts work together and how they can be successful in the parts and the whole is vital to the ongoing success of any organization. More often than not, the practical realities of an organization’s life draw people into positions of responsibilities without allowing for time to help them prepare with a proper orientation. This is especially true in small organizations that rely on volunteers to make up for the lack of resources.

There are many elements to a good orientation, but these three are perhaps the most essential:

  • Developing alignment with the ideals, values and culture of the organization;
  • Establishing clarity about an individual’s roles and responsibilities and how these fit into the whole organization, and;
  • Providing a mentor to assure support for a successful beginning.

In Waldorf Schools, alignment is the most important. A spiritually oriented organization requires an active conscious connection to its spiritual foundations for all participating members of the community, not just for individuals at the core or in leadership positions.

Every activity, from faculty meeting to board meeting to parent meeting to committee meeting is an opportunity to explore and renew one’s connection to and understanding of the spiritual foundations of the education and the organization. If this is done consciously, it makes a huge difference in the success of the institution. But the alignment with the impulse cannot take place only in the meetings. Each individual must also work on it by himself or herself.

One of the best ways to assure this work on alignment happens--whether it is for a family entering the school, a new board member, a volunteer or a new teacher -- is making sure it is a part of every person’s orientation.

Michael Soule

 

Waldorf in China by Ian Johnson, The New Yorker

WALDORF IN CHINA: CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS

Ian Johnson       The New Yorker

 

In 1994, Harry Huang and his wife, Zhang Li, were running Lily Burger, a tiny backpacker restaurant on the banks of the Jin River, in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. The city wasn’t yet the sprawling metropolis of seven million that it is today, and many people still lived in the picturesque wooden houses of the old town. A thousand miles southwest of Beijing, Chengdu was a refuge from China’s big coastal cities, and a gateway to Tibet.

 

One day, an Australian couple came to the restaurant. The man, thin and ascetic, with piercing eyes, started talking about an idealistic education system that had been introduced in Central Europe in the early twentieth century. Emphasizing the need to help children develop as individuals, it was based on ideas of reincarnation, free will, and individuality. After four days, the couple left, encouraging Harry and Li to stay in touch.

 

 

Harry kept thinking about what the Australians had said. For Chinese of his generation—he was born in 1968—it was an unsettled time. In the nineteen-eighties, there had been a sense of great political optimism. After the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution, the broad-based reforms of Deng Xiaoping had made the future of China seem open. The crushing of student protests in 1989 ended these hopes, and the energy of the Tiananmen generation was diverted into other avenues, such as entrepreneurship. Harry graduated from college in 1992, and roamed China, unsure of what to do with his life. He settled in Chengdu after he met Li, who was an elementary-school teacher there. The Australians’ visit held out the possibility of a goal less self-centered than making money. And their educational philosophy seemed enticing. Li’s job had left her frustrated by the rigid methods and rote learning of Chinese education.

 

A few weeks later, Harry wrote to Emerson College, an alternative-education institution in England, and was offered a full scholarship to study Waldorf Education and the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian mystic who had founded the movement. He hadn’t read a word of Steiner’s works, but he immediately accepted. Li was pregnant with their first child, but later she followed Harry to England and began studying, too.

 

Steiner developed his educational philosophy in 1919, when the owner of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory, in Stuttgart, asked him to set up a school for the employees’ children. Germany was in turmoil—a revolution followed the end of the First World War—and the new school was intended as a corrective to the harsh discipline of traditional schools. Steiner believed that children should be slowly guided out of what he termed “the etheric world,” where they existed prior to birth, and that education should engage first the hands, then the heart, then the brain. Waldorf-educated children play a lot when they’re young, and often don’t learn to read until second or third grade. After nearly a decade of studying Steiner’s system, Harry and Li returned to Chengdu, to start China’s first Waldorf school.

 

Chengdu Waldorf School opened in the fall of 2004. At first, it was little more than a struggling day-care center in an abandoned fishing resort. Dank in the winter, stifling in the summer, and infested with mosquitoes year-round, it was so unpleasant that by the end of the first term all the parents had withdrawn their children. Even Harry and Li sent their children away to stay with Harry’s family. The school couldn’t pay its bills, and the couple wondered if China was ready for Waldorf.

 

Yet, across the country, Waldorf Education had started to attract an underground following. Stories circulated on the Internet about a young, Waldorf-educated German who was working with impoverished villagers in the south of China. He was profiled on Chinese state-run television and admired for his idealism. People also became interested in Steiner’s theories about alternative life styles: biodynamic agriculture (a kind of organic farming); anthroposophy (a complex spiritual philosophy); and eurhythmic dancing (a shamanistic communion with the world of spirits).

 

To win over parents, Harry and Li held workshops, and organized classes on clay modelling, doll-making, and watercolor painting. Volunteers began turning up at the school. Most were Chinese, but foreigners came, too, and they all lived together on the school grounds. Romances flourished, as did quarrels. Foreign Waldorfians worried that most Chinese hadn’t read Steiner’s works, while the Chinese wondered if the Waldorf vision was compatible with Chinese culture. The debates continued through the Chinese New Year spring festival.

 

“Everyone was watching: was it good?” Li said. “Finally, after spring festival in 2005, they came. I don’t know why, but all of a sudden they came.”

 

Harry and Li’s school now has more than three hundred pupils, from kindergarten to eighth grade. There is a five-year waiting list, and there are plans for the school to quadruple in size, with the addition of a high school and a new campus for a thousand students. Less than a decade ago, there were no Waldorf institutions in China; now there are two hundred kindergartens and more than thirty elementary schools. In a country that is still searching for its national identity, the movement is quickly becoming one of the most influential countercultures.

 

 

Waldorf’s rise challenges Western assumptions about Chinese “tiger mothers” bullying their children into becoming robotic overachievers. A growing number of parents are reconsidering the merits and the dangers of the system. People have been shocked by stories like the one that circulated widely last October, of a Chengdu boy who committed suicide by jumping from a thirty-story building. He left behind a note saying, “Teacher, I can’t do it.”

 

Education has been at the center of China’s upheavals for more than a hundred years. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, reformers sought to reverse China’s decline by adopting elements of Western technology. One of the obstacles was the imperial examination system, which for centuries had selected the country’s officials through competitive exams based on the rote learning of Confucian texts. The system strengthened the sinews of a far-flung empire but created a caste of scholar-officials poorly versed in practical matters. In 1906, the examinations were scrapped. China’s two-thousand-year-old imperial edifice collapsed five years later, when the emperor abdicated.

 

Decades of experiments in rebuilding China’s political and educational systems followed. Almost every major philosopher, novelist, and political leader pushed ideas and plans, many of them inspired by foreign models. In 1919, the philosopher and language reformer Hu Shih invited the American education theorist John Dewey to China to expound his philosophy of pragmatism. Dewey was so excited by the ferment that he stayed for two years. “Nothing in the world today—not even Europe in the throes of reconstruction—equals China,” he wrote.

 

After the Communists took power, in 1949, they embarked on a program of mass education. Although the Cultural Revolution led to the closing of schools and the relocation of college students to labor in the countryside, the first three decades of Communist rule all but eradicated illiteracy—a sharp contrast to countries like India, which are still struggling to create a literate workforce. All major cities now have extravagantly equipped “key” high schools, and the curriculum emphasizes math, science, and languages. The system has been widely praised in international evaluations; in a test devised by the Program for International Student Assessment, Shanghai high-school students have repeatedly outranked their peers in the United States and throughout Europe.

 

Nevertheless, many Chinese intellectuals now see education as among the biggest problems facing the country. I visited Ran Yunfei, an outspoken author and social commentator, at his apartment, in a historic Chengdu neighborhood. In one of his books, “Deep Pit,” he lists six issues that he thinks could cause a national crisis, among them the “trite, empty and deadlocked Chinese education system.” He believes that education reform is the only way to eliminate corruption and other problems that seem endemic to China.

 

Ran is forty-nine and a member of the Tujia ethnic minority, who live in the Wuling Mountains, east of Sichuan. Short and dark, he describes himself as looking like an outlaw from a classical Chinese novel—on social media his handle is tufeiran, “bandit Ran.” We met in his study, a greenhouse-type structure that he had constructed on the roof of his apartment building. When I asked about education, he pointed to two big wooden chests in the corner.

 

“I’ve been collecting books on Chinese education for years—I mean, years and years,” he told me in a staccato voice, his eyes bulging for effect. “I’ve got textbooks from the Qing dynasty, the Republican era, Buddhist monasteries, prisons, you name it. And, of course, the Communist era.” He said that all groups in China have treated education as a chance to mold people, but that the Communists went furthest: “They thought they could shape people by shaping the history they learned. The effect is moral decay.”

 

Private schools are rare in China, and Chinese children are not allowed to attend parochial schools, so the state curriculum, which is heavy on politics and on the Party’s version of history, dominates. When young people learn that the heroes they’ve been taught about are products of the Party’s propaganda apparatus, they naturally become cynical. A university student named Zhong Daoran recently published a book that crystallized the widespread feeling of disgust: “In elementary school, they rob us of our independent values; in middle school, they take away our capacity for independent thought; and in university, they take away our dreams and idealism. Thus our brains become as empty as the underpants of a eunuch.”

 

Although all Chinese students learn the same national curriculum, schools vary greatly. In some poor rural areas, children have to take a stool to school each day, because there is nothing to sit on; in wealthier areas, computers and well-equipped science labs are the norm. The better schools require students to pass entrance tests, and bribery is common. Recently, an elementary-school principal went on trial for accepting more than twenty thousand dollars to admit children to his school. An administrator at a high school affiliated with an élite Beijing university told me that parents donate upward of fifty thousand dollars to get their children in. “They think it’s worth it, because if you’re in the right school you can get into college,” he said. The pressure to gain admission is immense. Despite a university building boom over the past fifteen years, good schools are very oversubscribed. University entrance depends on a notorious exam called the gaokao. Students spend all of twelfth grade prepping for it, and many of them also go to private cram schools at night and on weekends. Stories abound of extreme methods taken to insure success: pupils have been hooked up to oxygen tanks so that they can study harder, and girls have been given oral contraceptives, lest their menstrual cycles compromise performance.

 

Government officials have started to recognize the intense pressure on students. Last year, the Ministry of Education banned written homework during vacations for first and second graders. The government has said that it will reduce the gaokao’s importance, and possibly consider other factors in college admissions. It has begun to allow discussion about how to reform schools, and there has been a flurry of books with titles like “Please Let Me Grow Up Slowly.” Ran was encouraged by these developments, but said that deeper cultural problems remained, such as an unquestioning belief in the virtues of memorization, a legacy from the traditional exams of the imperial era. Increasingly, China fears that such methods do not produce the kind of creativity and independent thinking that can make it competitive with the West.

 

“Right now, a lot of parents simply drop the children off at the school and think, That’s done,” he said. “But we have to take responsibility for educating our children.”

 

Every morning at half past eight, the third-grade students at the Chengdu school line up to shake hands with their teacher, Shi Beilei. It’s one of the small rituals of Waldorf Education that convey equality and respect. Shi talked to each child for a few seconds, looking them warmly but firmly in the eye and encouraging them to speak up or to pay attention to a subject that she knows will be difficult.

 

The walls of the classroom were painted a yellow-green, an effect that gave the place a light, fuzzy feel. In the Waldorf system, colors, textures, and materials in the classrooms are carefully chosen in order to avoid shocking children with an angular, overly intellectualized environment. In the school’s kindergarten, furniture is draped in pink cloth. On a linen-covered bulletin board in Shi’s classroom were paintings by the students—watercolors of trees and flowers. As in all Waldorf classrooms, there were no computers, overhead projectors, or retractable screens. Instead, there was a large blackboard with two side panels hinged like a triptych.

 

Class started with the desks pushed against the walls. The children formed a circle and began clapping rhythmically. The fun segued into a math exercise to teach multiplication tables. Shi called out problems on the first three claps, and the students answered on the fourth. Gradually, Shi picked up the pace, making the students think faster. Some were caught out, but none seemed embarrassed.

 

Then Shi opened the blackboard’s folded wings to reveal a magnificent drawing in colored chalk which she had made of Pangu, a hairy giant from Chinese mythology, who created the universe by separating Heaven and Earth with a swing of his axe. The Waldorf curriculum reflects Steiner’s belief that an individual’s development mirrors a civilization’s, so the early years include lots of creation myths and fables. Next to the drawing, Shi had written a story in verse to help the students learn the ten heavenly stems and the twelve earthly branches, part of the traditional Chinese ordinal system used to name the days of the week and years of the zodiac.

 

Shi swiftly organized the pupils into two groups to perform a skit about the Pangu story. While they acted, she read the tale from a book, using a stick and a small drum to keep time, like a storyteller in one of Chengdu’s traditional teahouses. Later, she had them pull the desks away from the wall, and they copied the story into their workbooks, using colored crayons to decorate the margins.

 

The children had a twenty-minute break in the middle of the homeroom session, and ate snacks, having first recited a chant of thanks to the sky and the earth and the farmers. Two forty-five-minute periods followed, one for English and one for handwork, which for the third grade meant knitting. Later, they’d have lunch and, in the afternoon, violin and calligraphy.

 

Shi, like several other teachers, told me she’d taken up the profession as a means of developing both intellectually and spiritually. Now thirty-five, she had previously worked in nongovernmental organizations that sought to alleviate poverty and improve the environment. Shaping two dozen youngsters seemed more manageable.

 

“It’s a platform for me to do my work,” she said. “I feel I learn a lot, too. I’m working through creation myths, which is something that really interests me.”

 

Not all the classes are as carefully run, however. A fourth-grade class I visited in June lurched from crisis to crisis. The original teacher was away on maternity leave, and her replacement was inexperienced. Usually, Waldorf teachers accompany their pupils from one grade to the next, a practice that creates a tight bond but can make it hard for a newcomer to take over a class. Many of the children arrived late. They ignored the replacement teacher, and some of them even slept.

 

David Wells, a Chicagoan who teaches English at the school, said that parents and staff are so hesitant about setting rules that anarchy sometimes reigns. “I saw some behavior like this on the West Side of Chicago,” he told me. “It’s a lack of boundaries. When I came in and said we needed discipline, some teachers thought I meant Chinese-style punishment and rewards. I didn’t, but if a student tells the teacher to ‘f’ off you need a guideline as to what you’re supposed to do.”

 

I met one couple who had withdrawn their daughter from the school. They told me that they had been teachers themselves, and hadn’t wanted their daughter to experience the rigors of the Chinese system. They were attracted to Waldorf because of its strong emphasis on the arts. But, the more they saw of the school, the more they came to feel that the Waldorf Education was predicated on certain ingrained cultural values that China lacked. The husband said that it was admirable that Waldorf granted children a lot of freedom, but that basic values, such as common courtesy and viewing others as equals, had to be instilled first. He thought that this didn’t occur in Chinese homes, partly because the single-child policy has created a generation of “little emperors,” doted on by two parents and four grandparents. Political upheavals like the Cultural Revolution had contributed, too, by eliminating traditional forms of respect.

 

“When you bring Steiner’s ideas to China, you don’t have this foundation of equality,” he said. “Children develop egocentrically. There are no limits, so they do what they want.”

 

Cut off from the rest of China by mountains, Chengdu has a reputation as easygoing but resistant to a central authority. Perhaps because of its isolation it was often a stronghold in wartime, and it has been the scene of several uprisings. Twice the entire population was massacred, and, after a rebellion in the seventeenth century, the city became so depopulated that the government resettled it with people from other provinces. Locals often trace the city’s famous tolerance to this event; because the inhabitants spoke various dialects and had different traditions, they had to learn to accept divergent views.

 

Chengdu’s many parks and temples have public areas where people congregate to chat about public affairs for hours on end—in contrast to most Chinese cities, which traditionally had fewer such spaces. The city is famous for its teahouses, which are to be found on nearly every corner of the historic center. Locals say that this unique urban atmosphere fosters open discussion of public events and hinders acceptance of propaganda. This claim is hard to prove, but the city is home to the highest concentration of dissidents after Beijing, and it has a vibrant gay scene, something that is still a rarity elsewhere.

 

After being in the city awhile, I learned to spot Waldorf parents. The men tended to wear baggy trousers and T-shirts. The women dressed in flowing skirts. They made sure to buy naturally dyed crayons, and wondered whether it was important for them to visit the original Waldorf School, in Stuttgart, on their European vacations. The fact that these parents had the means to vacation in Europe prompted me to ask what they did for a living. Replies were vague. “Business,” people would say, or “import-export.” One man told me that he had got rich selling fur coats to Russians. Tuition at the school is three thousand dollars a year, which is nearly as much as the annual wage of an average Chengdu resident. But not all the parents are rich. Some become Waldorf teachers so that their children can attend at half the usual cost.

 

I met one parent, Ju Zhen, in the yard of a farmhouse shared by several Waldorf families. We stood under a canopy of wintersweets, blooming yellow in the clear autumn air, and watched her seven-year-old daughter nail two pieces of camphor wood together: a small stool was taking shape.

 

Ju came to the school last summer. For eight years before that, she was an award-winning physics teacher in Nanjing. At thirty-seven, she had just about everything the state system could offer: a good salary, a car, an apartment. But she worried about her daughter. Ju had grown up in the countryside and didn’t see the inside of a classroom until she was seven. Her daughter, by the age of five, was already at elementary prep school, learning languages and math. Ju knew that the girl would soon be faced with endless tests and homework. So she quit her job and moved a thousand miles west, to Chengdu. Her daughter is in first grade at Chengdu Waldorf School, and Ju has been hired to help devise a high-school curriculum for the school this autumn, when ninth grade is added.

 

She’s earning far less than she did before, and her new job isn’t as prestigious. In fact, she didn’t dare tell her parents until the change had been made. “It would have been too terrifying for them,” she said. They still don’t approve, but she’s glad that she made the move. Her daughter now has less homework and is learning to work with her hands. Ju sold her car, became a vegetarian, and started to dress in cotton skirts.

 

“In the past, I was just mindlessly working,” she told me. “I’d work overtime and get a lot of money, but I didn’t have any time. I’d use the money at an expensive supermarket to buy expensive food. I’d be working Mondays to Fridays and then spending the weekend spending money. I had a fast-food life.”

 

 

The farm where I met Ju is in a former agricultural community of concrete-and-stucco bungalows set amid hedges, trees, and small fields. About forty families had moved there. In keeping with Waldorf tenets, most kept their children away from televisions and other electronics, and encouraged them to play outdoors. Waldorf also suggests that families eat dinner together at home, whereas upwardly mobile parents tend to leave their children with a grandparent or a housekeeper, and spend evenings in restaurants building up guanxi—the complex web of relationships that are crucial to getting ahead.

 

Children ran around us and out through a bamboo gate. Everyone was headed to a small tract of land that half a dozen families had rented from local farmers. We passed by a few of the locals, who stared at us. To them, the Waldorfians were strange: professional people who wanted to live like peasants but who didn’t use fertilizers.

 

On the way to the field, I talked to one of the parents, Michael He. A software designer, he is tall and broad-shouldered, with a big, square face. He told me that he was interested in Steiner’s philosophy but isn’t a hard-core believer. He is more concerned with giving his daughter a less rigid education and in exploring a new life style.

 

“In the past, when I lived in the city, I almost never went outside,” he said as we walked down a gravel path. “It’s good to read books. In the past, I’d just go online.”

 

We arrived at the land that the families had rented. The men quickly subdivided the tract into individual plots.

 

“I want a big plot!” Ju shouted, and the men obliged with about two hundred square yards. A few days later, I bumped into her at the school.

 

“I planted asparagus lettuce, and my daughter planted beans,” she said. “I had to show her how to use a hoe.”

 

Over the years, volunteers have transformed the grounds of Chengdu Waldorf School into a beautiful campus, with a bamboo grove, a pagoda, and a U-shaped elementary-school building centered around a rock garden. Last fall, I met Li in her improvised offices, a cramped conference room decorated with photographs of mayors and deputy governors who had visited the school. Now forty-two, Li has a smooth, round face with full lips. Though her manner is placid, I have occasionally seen her produce the kind of glare that can change minds in a hurry.

 

 

Discussing the early years of the school, she told me how she got it licensed. Because of China’s rigid laws, most Waldorf elementary schools are operated without licenses, and parents can’t be sure that academic credentials will be recognized outside the Waldorf system. Li said that she’d been lucky: classmates from her teacher-training days were now officials in the local branch of the Department of Education.

 

“When we opened, the government said don’t mess up in three areas: religion, politics, and safety,” Li said. “The child’s safety is, of course, key, but also don’t touch politics or religion. If you get involved, no one will save you.” She said that, although she was drawn to Steiner’s anthroposophical ideas, that had no bearing on the school.

 

Li told me that the biggest problem the school currently faces was an urgent need to expand. Many children are approaching high-school age, and the school does not go beyond eighth grade. Richer parents are eager for expansion, and have the money to finance it. Many teachers are opposed, worried that there are not enough teachers who are properly trained in the Waldorf method. But some parents don’t care; for them, Waldorf is little more than a desirable Western brand.

 

“A third of the parents really like Waldorf Education and study anthroposophy,” Li went on. “A third think, I love Waldorf Education, I love this method, but anthroposophy—it’s not that important. And then a third think, The teachers are good, the environment is natural, and my child is happy, and that’s it. Anthroposophy is a bit cuckoo, but my child is happy.”

 

I met one of the wealthier parents one day in a teahouse. His name was Wang Jundong, and he said, vaguely, that he’d made his fortune in the south and now worked in brand marketing. He was a youthful forty-seven: trim, fit, with short bristly hair and a lean face. He wore chinos, a polo shirt, and a bracelet of enormous rosewood beads, which are popular among Buddhists.

 

The spread of the Waldorf system, he told me, “reflects the helplessness that people feel toward public education.” After his daughter was born, in 2008, he and his wife looked at various schools. Schooling abroad is becoming a favored option for wealthy Chinese, and Wang’s work gave him the chance to emigrate. But he and his wife didn’t want to leave, and settled on Waldorf as the best of the available choices. He seemed enthusiastic about the school, but thought that it needed to be bolder and to expand more rapidly.

 

“The biggest problem now is that the school is run by the teachers’ committee,” Wang told me. “If the parents donate time or money, the teachers don’t pay attention. But now, to build a complete high school, we need a huge investment.”

 

Li had found a developer who was willing to donate land in an enormous development south of the city for the new school campus. But even if the land is donated, construction and equipment could easily cost ten million dollars. “You can’t get donations that big,” Wang told me.

 

The abbess of a Buddhist temple walked past, and she and Wang began chatting. She said that she was there to meet one of her disciples, who ran the teahouse. After she left, Wang said that he would patronize this teahouse more in the future.

 

Wang went through the numbers with me. With a thousand students, the school would make a profit, but not so much that it would have to become a for-profit entity. It could then easily pay back interest-free loans provided by the parents.

 

“If the school is a little more open-minded, the money won’t be a problem,” Wang said. “It can protect its independent Waldorf decision-making. But give the decision-making on practical matters to the parents.”

 

It wasn’t clear that Wang truly valued the Waldorf approach. “Waldorf isn’t a mature philosophy,” he said. “It’s a bit idealistic. You can’t realize it in today’s society. It’s been around for a century, but it’s never attracted a big following. It never will.” He went on, “I think children should attend a school more like Eton. The child’s character is already formed, and needs better study methods. You don’t want your child to have a bad career, right? You want him to get a good position in society. So we need something like that for our high school.”

 

Waldorf’s growth in China has surprised its Western proponents. I met two of them in Beijing. One was Nana Göbel, the head of a German foundation that provides funds and training for Waldorf schools. The other was Christof Wiechert, a former head of Waldorf Education worldwide. They had come to see a new Waldorf school in Beijing, and were travelling on to Chengdu. We met in a recently built hotel on the edge of a dusty road jammed with tractors and trucks. The hotel was decorated with red velour wallpaper and filled with enormous, cartoonish copies of Louis XIV furniture. It felt like a reverse form of chinoiserie, an approximation of something Western that an Eastern designer had only glimpsed from a distance. A waitress brought us hot black coffee. She seemed uncertain how to serve it and opted for a large glass pitcher.

 

 

Wiechert is sixty-eight, amiable and round, but loves a good argument. He looked at Göbel and said that the Chinese experience was, in a sense, similar to the first Waldorf School’s origins. Now, as then, people were in a hurry; Steiner’s first school opened after just a few months of preparation. “When you look at how the first Waldorf School opened, we’d call what Steiner offered a crash course,” Wiechert said.

 

Göbel looked at him sharply. “But those were all people with Ph.D.s, who’d been in anthroposophy for years,” she said. “They knew what it was about, and they were highly educated. The comparison is wrong, Christof!”

 

“And yet there was a willingness to improvise, to try something. It was right after the revolution, and they wanted something new,” Wiechert said.

 

“It’s true,” Göbel said. “I’ve been telling people in Europe that China will be bigger in ten years.”

 

Göbel’s foundation operates around the world, and she said that no place is developing alternative education as quickly as China, where Waldorf is one of a few truly global alternative-education movements. The only serious rival is Montessori, which is usually limited to kindergarten and grade schools. She acknowledged that some people in the movement wonder if China will change Waldorf for the worse. Visitors are often struck by the flimsy knowledge some Chinese teachers and administrators have of Steiner’s theories. Many Chinese have the impression that Waldorf is permissive, and allows children to play rather than to study. Göbel has tried to counter this misconception by sponsoring the first translation of Steiner’s works into Chinese. Still, schools are opening that promise a “Chinese Waldorf” experience that allows for more memorization. A few offer Waldorf classrooms next to Montessori classrooms and traditional Chinese classrooms, where the Confucian classics are learned by heart. In some ways, it’s not very different from how Zen and other Eastern philosophies were introduced to the West—as part of a jumble of exotic-sounding ideas that eventually coalesced into the New Age movement.

 

Göbel had been skeptical of the speed with which Waldorf in China was progressing. But, over time, she had also come to admire it. “They don’t even know if their children will get a proper degree that will allow them to enter college, but they’re willing to risk that, because they don’t want a state education,” she said.

 

Wiechert turned to her excitedly. “Can you imagine that in Europe? It’s impossible. They’re willing to sacrifice and risk everything—and we Europeans, we can only run after them and try to offer what we can.”

A Note from China – LeadTogether Highlight #11, 11/5/14

Dear Friends,

This week I am in Xi'an China teaching in the Waldorf Administrative Training with Chris Schaefer and Ben Cherry. 80 participants from schools throughout China are gathered at the training center in Xi'an for a two week course in school administration, organization and development.The students are inspiring - young (only a handful in their 40's), many  new to Waldorf Education, bright with lots of questions and insights, and very open and enthusiastic.  There was a presentation tonight about Waldorf in Taiwan, the fastest growing Waldorf movement anywhere. There is an amazing amount of interest and initiative in China right now related to Waldorf Education. There was a good article in the New Yorker recently and another one in Renewal (see here).I am gradually getting to know participants and the culture through watching the students work and play together, struggle with deep questions and be open and willing to explore inner work, group biography  work and organizational ideas.

I am looking forward to sharing more when I return. For now, take a look at the two articles if you haven't, they both are good descriptions of the mood and initiative here. (Click here for article)

 

Forming a Spiritual Organ in a School: LeadTogether Highlight #10, 10-27-14

The question of collegial leadership

We had a board/faculty meeting this week, a regular event to build good relationships between the two groups. One activity we did (highly recommended) was to split into threes (one board and two teachers) and explore one of the core principles of Waldorf education developed by the Pedagogical Section Council.

Our group chose #7 Spiritual Orientation. In our conversation we came to the sentence talking about the development of a spiritual organ in the faculty.

My experience with this is that the ability to develop a healthy spiritual organ in the faculty is founded on three things: the ability of each individual to practice his/her inner work and alignment with the light of anthroposophy; the ability of each individual to be successful at putting the results of his/her inner work into action in teaching; and the ability of the group to work together in meditative and social ways in developing a healthy working with spirit. Without these three the formation of a true organ of perception for spirit is not possible.

So what do schools do when the faculty is not experienced enough or trained enough or socially adept enough to create such an organ, our insightful board colleague asked? I described to him the practice schools have of forming a smaller group of dedicated, experienced, pedagogically successful, social and inwardly active teachers that can bring insight, hold the place of spiritual connection and provide a deeper foundation for the school.

His first question was: Wouldn’t that automatically create a stratum in the faculty and a set of consequent problems? We pondered this question for a while and realized that this is the basic social question that we all as individuals are faced – that when two people meet, one has more capacity than the other to consciously connect with spiritual insight and, to create a harmonious working with the other, must exercise true collaborative leadership in a way that the equality between them and the freedom of each is nourished. Otherwise, without the social capacity, the one with more capacity easily is perceived as arrogant or condescending.

This is the same dynamic that we have been challenged with in the movement for a long time – that the college of teachers has a difficult time exercising leadership in such a way that they work in harmony with the entire faculty. What is needed is for college groups to understand that their capacity for collaborative leadership is essential to their success alongside their capacity to be a spiritual organ.

Michael Soule

 

The Virtue of Each One: LeadTogether Highlight #9 10-20-14

Dear Colleagues,

Last week our highlight focused on a central aspect of a Waldorf school, supporting the conscious development of each individual in the community. By nature, the students, parents and teachers all practice their development every day in their respective roles. But how can a community work towards supporting each person, whether they are working on staff with a salary or as a one day volunteer? There are a few keys to supporting everyone in the community in their development. From experience, we know that individuals are more successful when:

  1. There is a clear description of their role and how it relates to the whole.
  2. They receive a thorough orientation to the community and their task.
  3. They have someone with experience (a supervisor, guide, mentor, coach) who can help them along their path.
  4. They have a regular opportunity for reflection, review and evaluation.

All four of these areas are worthy of exploring on their own – What makes a good job description? What is the best way to create job descriptions for volunteers? How can one keep all the job descriptions focused on the mission and clear about the culture? How do we best orient people who are drawn to our community to the core values that make it work? How can one best establish personal support processes for every position, paid or volunteer? How do we support mentors and guides in being consistent and working with integrity? What is the appropriate review and evaluation of volunteers?

At the heart of all these questions is the need to take an interest in each individual, not only for what they can do, but also for who they are, for the gift they bring to the whole and for the unique relationship and perspective they have on the core values. This is what Rudolf Steiner offered as insight when he referred to the motto of the social ethic – “that in the community the virtue of each one is living.”

Because many schools are financially challenged (like many non-profit organizations), we rely on the enthusiasm, involvement and skills of volunteers. How we support them, from having clear job descriptions for board and committee members, to having mentors for volunteers, to giving opportunities for review and evaluation at all levels will determine how successful the community is.

Keep in touch,

Michael Soule

 

Supporting Conscious Development: LeadTogether Highlight #8 10-13-14

Dear Colleagues,

One of the things that sets a Waldorf school apart is the conscious understanding that everyone in the community is on a path of development and our development is connected with each other. The school is first and foremost a place where children are nurtured and guided in the development of their whole being. Behind this is the imagination that the child/student has a spiritual nature, has their own individual capacities, and that these capacities are unfolding over time in both a general and a unique way. This is the heart of the education. It is why standardized tests, programmed instruction, textbooks and over use of media make no educational sense. That the teacher needs to be striving, growing and developing on their own and in relationship with their colleagues, is also clear. What is sometimes less clear is that the life of the school depends on the reality that all staff including volunteers and any adult who participates in the school, be it in a festival, a committee, a faire, a field trip etc. are growing and developing. With the teachers, the ways that they agree to grow and develop are often well documented, in handbooks and professional development plans. But how can we learn to be conscious of the growth and development of each individual in the community? Many organizations are very successful at this – they go to great lengths to orient, select, train, reward and review every volunteer. The extent to which we in our schools pay attention to this is immensely important in the culture and success of the organization. For the school’s development rests upon the ways in which we consciously support the development of each individual involved at whatever level they are able to participate. Whether it is a healthy enrollment process, a clear job description for board members or a support system for those who volunteer, it is one aspect of our work that, in a hurry to get things done, is often overlooked or set aside and one that often creates a considerable amount of confusion that can be avoided. It is important for us to be diligent in this area in everything we do. In the end, how we support each other in our development to be more fully realized human beings is the most important thing, for us and for our children and students.

Keep in touch,

Michael Soule

If you have a particular practice in your school that you think is successful at supporting the individuals in their development – whether it is a successful orientation program, a volunteer rewards program, professional development plans for trustees or anything else, click here to go to the post and add a comment telling us about your success. We would love to know. (Go to the post)

AUTONOMY, ACCOUNTABILTY AND INTENTION: Publicly Funded Charter Schools Using Waldorf Curriculum and Methods by: George Hoffecker

In the spring of 1996 I was hired to be the first on-site principal of Yuba River Charter School (YRCS) in California, the first publicly funded charter school using Waldorf methods in the country. The school, without a name at the time, was simply referred to as “the alternative charter school”. I was fortunate that the teachers at the school were all trained Waldorf teachers, a significant factor in getting the Waldorf charter movement off on a solid footing. As principal, I was heavily influenced by my studies in Rudolf Steiner education and what I had experienced organizationally and as a class teacher for many years at a successful, mature, independent Waldorf school. Collaborative leadership and a threefold governance structure emerged to help us create a vibrant school community that earned the respect of our authorizing district and the “Innovations for Excellence in Education Award for Governance” given by the California Network of Educational Charters (precursor of the California Charter School Association) and the Pacific Research Institute in 2002.

 

In 1993 many of the same people who founded YRCS were operating a long- standing small independent Waldorf school in Northern California. As populations shifted, the school experienced extreme budget shortfalls do to insufficient enrollment and had to close its doors, a crisis that a number of other independent schools have faced over the years. At about the same time, California passed legislation approving the establishment of publicly funded charter schools. This was partially in response to a populist call in the state for “parent choice” in public education. It was also widely recognized as a political strategy to provide an alternative to the growing “voucher” movement of the late 1980s. The voucher movement was very unpopular with both the California Teachers Association and the California School Board Association and created perhaps one of the few times in their histories when they united around a common cause!

 

Soon after the Waldorf school referred to above closed, a few parents and teachers from the school got busy, wrote a charter document just a few pages long (typical for the times-now they are a few hundred pages!) and got it authorized the following year in1994 by a local elementary school district. When I became principal, the urgent task was to help the school fully embody its Waldorf curriculum and methods as stated in the charter within the context of the local school district, rapidly evolving charter regulations and applicable the sections of California Education Code. Fortunately our local superintendent and school board saw in us an opportunity which had benefits for both the charter school and the district.

 

The authorizing district was experiencing “declining enrollment” at the time and saw the charter as a way to “challenge” its traditional schools by providing a “choice” for parents and to capitalize on the new funding stream opened up by charter law. The financial “cut” the district took the first year of the charter’s operations was a whopping 50% of the annual per pupil revenue (PPR or Average daily attendance ADA). The PPR for YRCS was about $5000. Although the district’s percentage was reduced to 9% within 5 years, unlike the traditional schools, the district did not provide YRCS with a site, utilities or supplies. However, with a few of its original Waldorf- trained teachers and their core group of “veteran” Waldorf parents, the YRCS founders gratefully signed the memo of understanding. They opened the school with a kindergarten, a first and second grade and a few specialty subjects, happy to be “alive” as a school again and providing a Waldorf education for their children, even if it meant being a “step-child” of the district The school was free to institute the Waldorf curriculum and developmental model described in the charter document, hire and fire its own teachers, govern itself according to its own “threefold” design with faculty, parent council and charter council working largely through collaborative leadership model. The charter council (similar to a school board or board of trustees and the “final” site-based authority) worked mostly through consensus complying with state “open meeting regulations’ and incorporating “Roberts Rules” to document proceedings. The Waldorf charter school movement had begun.

 

What are charter schools and why were they established?

The National Center for Educational Statistics, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education in 2012 defines charter schools as follows:

“Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are typically

governed by a group or organization under a legislation contract or

charter with the state or jurisdiction such as county offices of

education, school districts, and in some cases universities. The

charter exempts the school, from selected state or local rules and

regulations. In return for funding and autonomy (author’s italics)

the charter school must meet the accountability standards articulated

           in its charter (author’s italics). A school’s charter is reviewed period-

ically typically every 3 to 5 years by the group or jurisdiction that

granted the charter and can be revoked if guidelines on curriculum

and management are not followed or if state educational standards

are not met.

At their inception, in most states that have charter law, charter schools were intended to be a contract between the state departments of education and parents of the state who want a choice as to where they send their children within the public school system. From the start, parents were joined by teachers and other professionals who together developed their charter petition which included a description of the desired curriculum, rubrics which could measure student learning, and a governance and financial structure along with a plan for implementation.

 

Over the last 15 years, charter petitioners have also included businesses. For- profit charter management organizations (CMOs) using “economies of scale” rationales have in some cases authorized hundreds of charter schools existing throughout whole regions of the country. And, most recently, some charter “schools” are virtual with “no there, there”. This author agrees with those critics who argue that large CMOs and for-profit corporations moving into public education pose a potential threat to the positive “reform trajectory” charters have enjoyed thus far as they tend to be less local, less personal and less responsive to specific community needs.

 

Along with offering “choice” for parents within the public schools system, charters were seen by leading educators and policy makers as a way to bring innovation and systemic reform to public education within local districts and to ultimately have a positive effect on national educational policy. Since 1994, many studies have been conducted and have shown that charter schools have, in fact, provided choice for parents and have also given birth to a variety of curricular approaches while at the same time being held accountable to the same student standardized state testing procedures as traditional schools. Waldorf methods charters in particular have enjoyed a high degree of success and perform as well or better than traditional public schools of similar demographics on state standardized tests. (Oberman: 2000)

 

Although there are many more laws regulating charter schools today than there were in the 1990s, charters could be revoked then as they can now for:

  • Not meeting measurable pupil outcomes
  • Fiscal insolvency
  • Illegal operations (including not having “highly qualified teachers” in the classroom)
  • Not meeting terms of the charter document

They were accountable then as now to:

  • Federal and state government
  • Charter-granting agency(district, county, state board, now also to universities in some states, and charter management organizations or CMOs)
  • Public/community at large
  • Parents and students

 

Minnesota and California led the way in the charter school movement, passing the first charter school legislation in 1991 and 1992. Now all but 8 states in the U.S. have charter legislation in place serving approximately 2 million students nationwide in nearly 6,500 charter schools (source: National Charter School Resource Center; 2013). It is clear charter schools are here to stay.

 

As of 2012 there were 6 public schools and 44 public charter schools using Waldorf curriculum and Waldorf teaching methods in the United States and serving nearly 6000 students (source: Alliance for Public Waldorf Education 2013).

 

How are charter schools funded? :The “stepchild”

Typically charter schools receive less per pupil revenue (PPR- the amount of money spent in one school year on each pupil from federal, state and local funding streams) than traditional schools. In one of the most comprehensive studies done on public charter school funding, comparing PPR in traditional schools and charter schools, the 2010 report from Bell State University, Charter School Funding: Inequity Persists (Batdorff, Maloney, May, Doyle, and Hassel; data FY 2005-06) shows that average PPR for traditional public schools in the 25 states in the study who have the most charter schools was $11,708. For charters within those same states PPR it was $ 9,460 or a $2247 disparity between traditional and charter schools on average in states with charter laws. The reasons for the disparity discussed in the study go beyond the focus of this paper but occur mostly with how “local funding” is generated and allocated (local property tax revenue).

 

As of 2014, the average yearly per pupil revenue (PPR) for the 44 Waldorf methods charter schools spread throughout the country is approximately $7500, below the national average PPR for charter schools in general. Most of the schools fundraise each year to supplement their budgets to include the many specialty subjects associated with Waldorf Schools, such as handwork, woodwork, music, and movement classes. Special education services are subsidized from state and federal revenues, but only cover a portion of the need, so schools also usually pay a percentage from their general fund (total PPR) to cover special education costs.

 

Charter schools also frequently assume financial responsibility for their physical settings, although some districts do provide facilities such as in the case of some charters in California. Many of the 44 charter schools also buy services from their authorizing districts such as payroll and accounting services, insurance and technical support paid from their general state allotment per pupil and amounting to an average of 6-7% of the school’s budget. Most charters also pay their authorizers a 1 or 2 % “oversight” fee. Payroll for the charters usually averages about 70% of the schools’ annual budget with most of that allocated to teacher and staff salaries. Based on interviews conducted by the author, monies spent on administration in the Waldorf methods charters are generally below administrative costs for traditional public schools serving similar numbers of students.

 

Waldorf values and methods alive in public schools

 

When, in 1994, Yuba River Charter School was authorized as the first charter school using Waldorf methods in the U.S. it joined a few other non-charter public schools also using Waldorf methodology at the time: one in Milwaukee, and two more in California. Until then, Waldorf Education in the U.S. was enjoyed mostly by middle and upper class families in “independent Waldorf Schools” with a tuition-based funding model. Now, twenty years later, public school children across the U.S. are being given the opportunity to experience programs inspired by Waldorf education in “start-up” charter schools with as few as 70 students to large inner- city charters with nearly 500.

 

Charter developers, with intentions to establish a publicly funded Waldorf-methods school, expect to be able to carry out a child-centered, developmentally appropriate approach that finds its roots in Rudolf Steiner’s vision of how best to educate children. School leaders throughout the country, who have been working to bring to life Waldorf- oriented public school programs, are finding that even with the additional burdens such as state- mandated standards and assessments measuring student academic progress as well as management practices many essential values and practices characteristic of a Waldorf school are discernable, such as:

  • the primacy of the student–teacher relationship
  • the Waldorf arts integrated academic curriculum
  • an array of traditional Waldorf specialty subjects
  • a threefold plus one (the administrator) collaborative governance model
  • a faculty well-rooted in Waldorf education and Rudolf Steiner’s pedagogical indications, including a commitment to cultivating the “inner life”
  • an enthusiastic parent body ready to exceed all expectations in order to make the school succeed

 

In one case, when a required site visit was conducted by a “skeptical” authorizing district, the district superintendent went away inspired after witnessing: the joyful singing of the children; engaged and enthusiastic teachers; supportive parent volunteers; raised garden beds emerging from concrete parking lots; and “hungry” learners”, even in the upper grades. He said to me, “I always believed a public school could be like this. I just never saw it before!”

 

It is true that the public charter schools founded on Waldorf Education need to be established solely for secular purposes. Religious practices from various cultures can be studied but they can’t be practiced. Verses and songs used in the lessons must have secular applicability, neither promoting any one religion or spiritual stream nor systematically excluding any. Main lessons, specialty subjects, holidays, assemblies, seasonal celebrations and even Eurythmy (when a Eurythmist can be found!) can all be included in the life of a charter school using Waldorf methods. Because the PPR alone is not adequate to support the rich curriculum associated with a Waldorf program, parent councils, charter councils/boards, parent guilds or even separate 501(c)3 educational foundations raise the extra money needed each year to supplement the general fund, with some schools raising 100-200 thousand dollars each year.

 

As mentioned above, most charters are not given free facilities from their authorizers. They rent space from the local school district, commercial realtors or from private landowners. One well-established school has secured federal funding that, when matched with private donations, has raised hopes of building their own facility incorporating aspects of “organic functionalism”, Rudolf Steiner’s architectural approach. That will make a statement!

 

Test –obsessed education: facts and fads

Most educators, as well as parents, (even children for that matter!) in the United States have heard of the “No Child Left Behind” Act. Diane Ravitch, a former Assistant Secretary of Education was the leading architect of the George W. Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind law. She is also one of the few educational leaders in the U.S. to acknowledge publicly that the policies she promoted with all of their “ties that bind” were wrong! A growing number of politicians and educational professionals seek an end to “high stakes testing”. According to an article appearing in the recent issue of “YES” magazine, Ravitch wants to “see an end to high stakes standardized testing and other tools of the accountability era.” Now there is even a great divide growing in Washington D. C. concerning the wisdom of Common Core Standards and the testing materials and methodology affiliated with them that many states are adopting. Educational fads come and go but it is my belief that Waldorf education in all of its manifestations is here to stay!

 

 

 

Engaged Community: A new book by Jon McAlice

“All education is self-education and, as teachers, we can only provide the environment for children’s self-education...where children can educate themselves according to their own destinies.” —Rudolf Steiner (1923)

Based on many years working in Anthroposophy and in Waldorf schools, and drawing extensively on Rudolf Steiner’s words, Jon McAlice’s radical, thought-provoking book opens the ­ field for a new vision of the collaborative possibilities available in schools that are established and sustained by parents and teachers for the sake of students.

Seeking to shift the conversation concerning school governance from a structural to a dynamic approach, McAlice emphasizes learning as a multileveled process of becoming. As he puts it, “a school is a working community dedicated to the art of becoming”—a community in which students and adults participate in the ­difficult task of creating a free, self-governing ecology of learning. For this, the adults must learn to trust one another and develop confidence in collegiality. Understanding the guidance of their common task, they must ­find the humility and honesty to listen without judgment and to speak with authenticity. To create a context in which “children can practice the art of self-education,” educators must themselves become examples of self-governing, creative, responsible human beings, committed to learning and self-development through encounters in which content and process merge in an experience of absolute freedom. Thus something new becomes possible.

McAlice shows how such an ideal can become a reality when parents, teachers, and students all work and learn together for the common goal of becoming more fully human within a dynamic, engaged, participatory learning community.

Engaged Community provides anyone involved in Waldorf education with the appropriate tools and language to take the hard work of dialog and conversation to a higher level.

"This is not a book with a recipe for governance in Waldorf schools. Jon McAlice has written a book about the "challenges" of governance in Waldorf schools in the context of the "mission" of Waldorf education. His book is a meditation on this relationship, and urges us to embrace the challenge free from our preconceived notions of how Waldorf schools "should" be run: to look at what is needed now, in our current situations, in our individual schools. At the same time, he shines a light on the manifold opportunities for growth, change, and development that are possible when we embrace this challenge." —Kevin Hughes, Waldorf teacher (26 years at Kimberton Waldorf School—as a class teacher, art teacher, and now member of the “governing team”)

 

Leadership and Self Administration: LeadTogether Highlight #7 10-6-14

Dear Colleagues,

How does one exercise leadership and leave colleagues free in their own development? Having some insight on this question is central to our being able to shape our schools in healthy ways. Connie Stokes, Pedagogical Chair at Highland Hall, recently shared an article from 1998 by Michael Harslem from Paideia Journal for Waldorf Education in the UK that has been very helpful to her over the years on this topic. In the article, Michael explores the question of the levels of leadership in the individual human being and the levels of leadership in a school. It is a helpful guide for anyone who has taken on leadership in the school. Read the article here.

Keep in touch,

Michael