Where the Spirit Leads – the Evolution of Waldorf School Administration

Social Development Insights of Rudolf Steiner in Waldorf School Administration and the new Leading with Spirit Training program starting this summer.

(In this essay, Michael Soule and his colleagues in the Leading with Spirit training program, discuss the evolution of both the role of the administrator and Rudolf Steiner’s social ideas in Waldorf School’s in the United States over the past 30 years. This article also introduces the people and the ideas behind the new Leading with Spirit administrative training starting this summer sponsored by the Waldorf Institute of SE Michigan, WISM and hosted by Alkion Institute in NY and the Whidbey Island Waldorf School in Washington State.)

In 1986, when I, (Michael Soule) was hired as the administrator of the Seattle Waldorf School, the idea of an administrator in a Waldorf school was still new. Of the few established schools in the Northwest, in Vancouver B.C. and Eugene, OR, there was just one other administrator. I remember the many hours we spent on the phone (yes, long distance) sharing stories and ideas.

What would happen in the 20 years between 1980 and 2000 was akin to a mini educational explosion. In the Northwest region alone, we went from having a single school in Portland, Eugene, Vancouver and Seattle to sprouting 25 new schools – nine within an hour and a half of Seattle. Across the continent, some hundred new schools were founded!

Today a Waldorf school without an administrator is a rarity. The question is: where are these administrators coming from and how do they receive training that will help them succeed in the unique Waldorf organizational culture?

While Waldorf teacher trainings began sprouting up across the country in the ‘80s, there were only two courses that provided professional development for administrative staff until 1993. One was a week-long offering during the spring semester of the Sunbridge year-long teacher training course and the other was a year-long seminar at the Social Development Center at Emerson College. (Both of these programs were developed by Chris Schaefer, a Waldorf graduate, consultant, author and trainer.)


Also in the late ‘80s, a number of leading thinkers in the Waldorf movement gathered regularly at Rudolf Steiner College, in Fair Oaks, CA, to exploring themes of Waldorf school organization, finances, economic life and other social and organizational issues. Participants at these conferences pondered upon what an anthroposophically inspired organization looked like and what were considered the core principles and guiding imaginations that might help a school thrive both as an independent school and as a center of cultural renewal.


I attended a number of these gatherings and the week-long seminar at Sunbridge. Then, after fives years as the Seattle Waldorf School administrator, I took a year off both to travel and to study at the Social Development Center in England. In the following years, I took on the various roles of Waldorf teacher, consultant, AWSNA executive and again a school administrator, but I never lost track of the ideas and questions central to Rudolf Steiner’s insights of how to continually grow an anthroposophically inspired organization. It would be some 20 years before my hopes for a training program for administrators in the Northwest would materialize.



We all know that the hope of Rudolf Steiner, when he helped found the first Waldorf School, was that the school would become a beacon of spiritual impulses for the local community – a center of social/spiritual renewal. This would require a special kind of working together by the teachers and staff and volunteers of the school led by an interest in anthroposophical insights. But who was to lead these endeavors?


It was clear that Steiner imagined that the teachers, trained and experienced, committed to working both educationally and socially out of anthroposophy, would provide leadership to their own schools and that these schools would find support from local groups of people involved in anthroposophy.


What has happened for Waldorf schools in North America is a different story. Today, more than ever, there is a shortage of trained and experienced teachers. The task of teaching has become so demanding that teachers have less and less time to explore the social organizational dimension of the schools. Therefore, to help ease the burden on the teachers, schools have developed professional administrations to share the responsibility of running the schools and instilling related social ideals.


Between 1991 and 2008, Chris Schaefer and a group of colleagues, offered the first training for administrators of Waldorf schools at Sunbridge College in NY. This training arose in response to the problems arising in Waldorf schools related to either hiring administrative staff with no understanding or real connection to the education, or hiring teachers to do administrative work with no professional experience. It was an intensive course that took participants through a journey of exploring the basics of Waldorf education and anthroposophy, helped individuals on their path of self-development and explored the unique organizational dynamics of Waldorf schools.


Much of this curriculum stemmed from Chris Schaefer’s experience as a Waldorf student, as an organizational consultant with various companies and as a teacher at the Social Development Centre at Emerson College, where the focus was on the work of the Dutch anthroposophist and doctor, Bernard Lievegoed. Lievegoed, one of the leading thinkers and practitioners of anthroposhical organizational development in the last century, was a teacher, author, head of the Dutch Anthroposophical Society and a student of Rudolf Steiner’s.


“What we were hoping to do, at the Social Development Centre and at Sunbridge, was to keep the ideas of an anthroposophically inspired organization alive in small groups of people. That’s why each course involved not only helping participants develop their professional organizational skills but helping them each find a living relationship to Steiner's social insights through their own practice of inner work based on anthroposophy. Our hope was to help people become the vessels for new social impulses and to serve and help lead their schools on their individual journey of growth and development. To a great degree we felt successful. One of the challenges we faced was that our students would return to their schools and not have the easiest time integrating their new capacities into the schools’ structures. We spent a lot of time on the phone coaching our students!”


Leading with Spirit picks up where the Sunbridge program developed by Chris Schaefer and his colleagues left off, but with some significant differences. We understand that this type of training program needs to be flexible to meet the many demands of current administrative staff in Waldorf schools. The vision for the program is to offer a regionally based course that can be joined by new students at any point in the program. It will provide students with opportunities and support to do research, to come together in intensive seminars with colleagues, to be able to explore other local and regional weekend offerings, and to provide ongoing mentoring to participants as they meet challenges between courses. All of these are rolled into a flexible but intensive learning journey. (You can find an outline of the course content and process at www.leadingwithspirit.org)


Starting this summer in Hawthorne Valley, NY, hosted by Alkion Teacher Training Center, and by the Whidbey Island Waldorf School in WA, the program begins with one simple week-long intensive. Another program group hosted by the Waldorf Institute of Southern Michigan will start in the summer of 2016 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The program website provides detailed information.


The future of Waldorf education and the possibility that Waldorf schools can be transformative organizations rests both on the capacity of teachers to continue their good work out of a real creative impulse connected to anthroposophy and the capacity of administrative staff to do the same. Leading with Spirit is one attempt to support this essential task.


A graduate of the first class of the Sunbridge administrative course, Mara White, Director of School and humanities teacher at Waldorf High School of Massachusetts Bay, joined Chris in 1996 as a core faculty member in the Sunbridge administrative course and will again be instrumental in the program being launched this year. Working with Bob Dandrew, the Chair and Development Director of AWSNA in 1993, Mara helped establish a network of administrative and development staff in Waldorf schools across the continent to grow a supportive community of those working in schools in administrative capacities. The goal was to highlight the importance of administrative work and to encourage an understanding that this work in the schools is, as with teaching, a vocation.


What grew from these efforts was named DANA (Development and Administrative Network of AWSNA). DANA is still active today, with coordinators in each of AWSNA’s eight regions. “DANA was another hope to provide individuals who were involved in school administration with support, collegial mentoring and shared resources and to gather information for the movement’s leaders on the needs of the administrative work and staff in our schools. The DANA network initiated an effective practices project (resources on the AWSNA website), hosted conferences and worked to be active as the administrations in schools grew more and more professional and better rooted in anthroposophical principles. After many years of work with DANA, I am even more committed to providing professional level training focused for administrative staff in Waldorf schools. We need a training that can be flexible, and both regional and continental, at the same time. Our new work with Leading with Spirit is an attempt to do this.”


Another collaborator on Leading with Spirit, Marti Stewart, began her administrative work at City of Lakes Waldorf School thirteen years ago. Marti views her work as an Administrative Director as a true vocation and believes in the profound importance of administrative work in creating and maintaining health in our schools. "In the same way as the teacher guards and respects the unique gifts each child brings to the class community, it is the task of the administrative staff to honor and nurture the gifts of everyone in the adult community." Marti participated in the administrative course at Sunbridge and was inspired to look at the deeper aspects of guiding the administrative work in a Waldorf School. Now, as a regional DANA Coordinator in the Great Lakes Region, she is excited to be a part of an administrative course that can support individuals who are serving in administrative roles across the continent. "I am especially excited that the Waldorf Institute of Southern Michigan (WISM) is willing to offer the training program in our region."


Sian Owen-Cruise agrees. As High school Coordinator at the Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor and Interim Director at the Waldorf Institute of Southeastern Michigan, Sian is another colleague in the movement who started her work in administration and sees clearly that the development of Anthroposophically centered administrative structures is essential to the growth and development of Waldorf education in North America. Sian comments “it is clear to me that my path in Waldorf Education is one of administration and the building of collaborative schools that truly support children and their families, and have an impact on the wider community they are part of.” Sian is also a graduate of the Sunbridge course.


In Steiner’s life, after many initiatives were launched in 1917 around his social ideals, he found that people did not have the capacities to be successful in some degree because they were not prepared to understand the spiritual ideals needed to be creative in new ways. While this realization was a life disappointment for Steiner it also served as one of the impulses for Waldorf education. Steiner believed that a new educational process, and a journey based on a new understanding of the human being, might have the hope of preparing generations of young souls to meet the social challenges of their times with new capacities. That is still our hope with Waldorf Education. And that is the basis for this new training program.



Come join us this summer.