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+++ 15.12.2017 +++

Topic: Mentoring

The biggest challenge is to build up our own curriculum

Li Zewu was the first teacher in China to commit to Waldorf Education and has been working at the school in Chengdu since 2004. As a mentor, he was involved in founding many more Waldorf Schools in China. For the Newsletter of the Friends of Waldorf Education, he shares his personal experiences as a teacher and a mentor.

Being the first Waldorf class teacher in China was a real double-edged sword. On the one hand, I experienced the loneliness of not having other teachers to converse with for many years. Even though, prior to this, I had had 12 years of teaching experience in public schools and had studied abroad, I was still a greenhorn. On the other hand, I was able to experiment with the many new concepts. I could make my mistakes and learn from them as I went along.

I truly appreciate all the support and advice I received in those early years – mostly from overseas partners such as Ben Cherry from Australia and Benno Nijhuis from the Netherlands. I was able to understand, first hand, what was needed for a teacher embarking on such a new journey.

Becoming a mentor, therefore, was a natural transition after several years of my Waldorf life. I started making suggestions and giving advice to the new class teachers at our school. Objectively speaking I didn’t consider this to be mentoring, but merely lending a helping hand. I started doing this more frequently as the number of classes grew at our Chengdu school and more schools opened in China. Incidentally, there are currently 16 classes at the Chengdu school (grades one to twelve) and about 70 schools in all of China. It is, therefore, obvious that there is a need for mentoring or more specifically a need for my attention.

I was a class teacher for about 10 years and now I am primarily teaching history in our high school and doing general school management at Chengdu Waldorf. However, I’d like to focus more on class teaching because that is the foundation of helping children and pertinent to the survival of a school.

I have visited as many schools around China as I was able to – from the very northern part of China, near Korea, to the very southern part, near Hong Kong, and Hong Kong itself. From the very eastern parts close to the Pacific Ocean to the western cities. There are several vast differences between the schools I visited.  The class sizes varied, with the smallest class having only two students and the biggest having nearly 30 students. Some classes have mostly boys and some mostly girls. Some classrooms are in very small rooms in residential houses, some in fancy hotel-like rooms. This kind of situation one can understand and relate to, because this education system is still in the early stages. Everything was new – brand spanking new. The parents and teachers are extremely courageous for sending their children to these schools, for them to be taught this new way of education. We refer to this as ESS – Education Self-Surviving. They had many concerns about the competitive education system in the mainstream schools, which is really full of fear and has just one single aim – Gaokao – the Chinese University Entry Exams.

What I normally do during mentoring at those schools are three main things: to visit a class and give feedback to the teacher whose class I observed; to give some suggestions to the leading teachers there – normally the founders; and to raise some discussions with the entire teaching staff.

1. By visiting the classroom I am able to see the class situation directly, such as the teacher’s teaching methods; the connection between the students and the teacher and the relationship between the students. In the earlier stages, the children love their teachers dearly; the teachers worked so hard to manage the class and content; and I would say they devoted themselves to this merit.

There are many teachers still in training. Due to the fact that ESS is urgently needed, they have to put their educational ideas or ideals into action. So they are truly striving to achieve this. The content presented by the teachers followed some international curriculum, but also with adaptations, especially in the language and history sections. The biggest challenge is to build up our own curriculum, and that is not easy. There is the “why” and the “how” of integrating Chinese content into a western curriculum. Then we have to dig deeper – how does consciousness develop in China, and is it similar to the western curriculum? Or, how can Chinese content meet the needs of the children? I do have an advantage over foreign teachers, because I’m a local and deeply understand the culture, I think. It’s a challenge to balance the international and the Chinese content. There is either too much international content and not enough Chinese, or vice versa.

As most teachers were inexperienced in the early days of Waldorf China, there were usually two trains of thought. The first was that Waldorf meant freely doing things, creating a happier life at school, festival activities, singing, eurhythmy, no homework, etc., versus the systematic public teaching, which meant overwhelming students with materials, information, homework and more homework. I could see that the teachers I observed were torn between these two systems. My objective was to see what the students really learned during the lessons, and what the teacher ignited in the classroom. To see how thinking, feeling, willing worked through the process and ticked all the points.

There is a strong tradition in this nation called DuJing – Classic Reading. People like Confucius and Laozi wanted to promote classical books and reading from ancient times and thereby strived to save our ancient culture. We need to study these, no doubt, but there was a trend to then ignore child development and the holistic aspect of subjects. Teachers, me included, have been doing research on this, and it is an ongoing process. We have not achieved much yet, but it will come because Anthroposophy provides us with a new tool that is extremely useful in this respect.

Classroom visits are a very direct way to observe the class and the teacher, but there are many different aspects to this and it can be tricky. I usually only see one side, the time is always too short, and therefore I don’t see the teaching in its continuity. So I always schedule more talks with the teacher, discuss lessons plans, have general discussions with the teacher and others in the school. It helps. We are teachers and we easily get lonely, especially the new teachers. They need encouragement and assistance in the beginning of this career, so we need to support each other with warmth. My advantage is again that I speak the same language as the teachers because I understand what they are going through.

2. To connect with founding teachers is also useful. Education depends on people. In my opinion, in China more than that. The social structure is still in a reforming process. Therefore, schools need to be more flexible to fit into society. The founders take on a huge responsibility in the beginning and for quite some time afterwards. They always need to be available, need to overlook the whole situation, and be there to support the teachers in a very direct manner. I could be the medium in between as I have experience in this.

3. I feel it is useful to work with the entire staff of a school. I could assess the vibe of the school and was able to speak frankly about any problems they might have. I try to help them overcome certain issues and to let them see things from another point of view. I also use this time to make an objective observation about the kind of work that they have done. The particular teachers whose classes I visited can use this opportunity to reflect with encouragement.

I have been mentoring in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is the place with the fastest business life and global cultural change, but also struggles with its own identity. There are two Waldorf schools now: one uses English as their mother tongue and the other one uses Cantonese – which I am unable to understand. They both need help in Chinese history and Mandarin. I try my best to provide some teaching methods and materials on these subjects. By communicating and cooperating with each other, we can make great progress in the future.

Throughout my mentoring, I always give some “pills” as suggestions: child development and cultural study, but most importantly study Steiner’s educational thoughts and origins. We are very fortunate to have some good translations of some of Steiner’s works from German to Chinese, and I am proud to have been involved in some of this work. There is always a light that can inspire us.

It is nice to see the progress that the teachers whom I have helped are making. To see how they are growing, are improving in their teaching and in their self-development. I have cultivated many friendships through my work at different schools. There is a saying in the Book of Odes, an ancient Chinese classic:

Cold blows the north wind;
Thick falls the snow.
Ye who love and regard me,
Let us join hands and go together.

It is quite a challenge to apply Waldorf education in China, as the environment we face appears colder and more distant than somewhere else in the world. But what a great work we are taking on! The student’s eyes shine like stars, the destination is settled, and the gleams guide us. Yes, we need to be together and to change or transform whatever obstacles we are confronted with. And, buddy, we will win!

Li Zewu (thanks to Miranda Skelton for English wording)

This article appeared in Rundbrief - Waldorf Weltweit, Fall 2017/Winter 2018, pp 27-29

Tags: waldorf weltweit mentoren mentorenarbeit rundbrief

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