Why does a teacher stay with his class for the first eight years?
The class teacher leads his or her class through each day's main morning lesson for eight years and teaches all the subjects apart from foreign languages, sports, practical arts, eurythmy and music. Throughout the developmental stages between the change of teeth and puberty, the class teacher provides continuity within the flow of changing personal relationships. Waldorf education relies on the pedagogically effective personality of the teacher whose authority is based on his or her very commitment, rather than on any programme of learning. With the emergence of the independent faculty of judgement, the point at which the older pupils enter the Upper School, the class teacher hands over responsibility to the carrying group of Upper School teachers.
At a time when it seems that families are breaking up and education in the home seems to demand more than the parent or guardian can manage to give, schools - and teachers - are faced by new challenges. In urban life, increasing numbers of children are left on their own.
Looking at education from this aspect, we can easily realise that institutionalised and firmly set processes of learning cannot fully answer the needs of the developing human being. The needs of individual children can be seen in the context of the general development of the human being and of the changing conditions demanded by this development. Here, teachers themselves remain students. They need to go beyond a study of mere phases of development. The question is not only how to adapt to the particular conditions of development at any given stage, it is rather how to encourage the coming steps and to take them into account, asking how one particular quality can metamorphose into others in later stages of childhood and youth. The teacher will engage in a continual process of inner discussion with Steiner's anthropology and thus train himself to develop the intuitive faculty of knowing what to do with an individual child at a particular juncture of his development - that is, of his relation to the world, to others, and to himself or herself. This will influence the choice of material and the way it is presented to the class. In other words, teachers are prepared to meet the children on their own ground and to take their positions seriously.
In the concept offered by the Waldorf Schools the teacher is required to work with the children as a whole person. The teachers do not leave their "unofficial selves" at home. They are there to do more than merely inform or assess their pupils, they are there to help the children to become self-confident individuals who will be ready to do their work in whatever situation the world presents to them. They listen to the children, take their questions seriously and follow them up, they indicate where signposts have been set to show the way or where bridges have been reached that will have to be crossed at a later time. In short, they do the work of guides in a new country without presenting the children with instructions that are so detailed that personal experience tends to become secondary to a ready-made network of concepts. Class teachers are prepared to accompany their pupils for a certain stretch of time, making this a part of their personal biographies. This aspect of the teacher's profession includes the realisation that what one does, can have an exemplary function in the lives of those individuals that have been entrusted to one's care.
For eight years, one class teacher takes her or his class through the sequences of learning as well as through their emotional development, the development of skills and the steps of becoming a social community. Together with their class teacher, the children go through the processes of learning how to write and do arithmetic, how to read, to paint and to draw, they learn to sing and to play a wooden pipe, to work at grammar and geography, at biology, chemistry and physics. All these subjects are given as periods of several weeks during the first two hours of the school day. These first lessons are often known as "Main Lessons". This practice gives the class teacher a co-ordinating position with regard to the staff who teach foreign languages, gymnastics, handwork and all those subjects that are taught all the year round in lessons that have their firm place in the weekly schedule. Class teachers work with their classes every day and all the year round. A special relationship of familiarity leads to mutual trust. It is this trust, this confidence in the "reliable permanence" of this person's presence which produces the climate of openness and attention that is the suitable atmosphere for learning and inner growth. The word "authority" can be used to name this atmosphere.
Magda Maier / Martyn Rawson