No Absolute Certainty – For Sure

January 21, 2013 in Inside SWS

“In this school, more than in any other, we need, if we are to move forward properly, more than a trusting working together with the parents. Our teachers certainly depend on finding this trusting working together with the children’s parents because our school is build through and through on freedom.” (Rudolf Steiner, parent evening, January 13, 1921)

One of the reasons I was drawn to join the Seattle Waldorf community and assume the responsibilities of Head of Administration was the opportunity clearly presented to me for ongoing learning and development, both personally and professionally. While I felt confident in bringing the skills and expertise needed in many of the key areas of the school, I knew very little about Waldorf education or Anthroposophy (just the spelling and pronunciation were challenging), let alone a deep understanding of the educational and spiritual philosophies. Over the course of the last 18 months, one of the more enriching and rewarding aspects of my work is participating in the ongoing pedagogical study of the College of Teachers. I imagine my experience mirrors that of many parents who are new to SWS, and are learning in tandem with their children, as their Waldorf journey unfolds.

I was reminded of this during our study group discussion yesterday, which drew on Christof Wiechert’s writing about working with parents, and specifically the parent evening. I’d like to share what for me were a few valuable “nuggets” from both Christof’s book and my conversation with colleagues.

“What does education mean for parents? It means that they always want the best for their children. Teachers also always want to offer the best, through their teaching, for the children entrusted to their care. And there’s another point of agreement: in education you can never know what is best, because you can only partly anticipate how education will affect the future. In this realm, there is no absolute certainty.” (Emphasis added).

In a world driven by data, information, and cold, hard facts, this is an unsettling proposition. People want answers and guarantees, full-disclosure of risks, and thanks to Nordstrom, the ability to return anything if we are not fully satisfied. Teaching and education don’t fit into a neat and tidy package like other products available for purchase. I recall once at an admission open house (not at SWS) a prospective parent pointing to a graduating student and remarking, “I want my child to turn out like him.” While not intended as such, the thought was horrifying – that a school could churn out educated children like a “commodity,” and parents could be assured upon admission of what would tumble out five or eight or twelve years later. As Christof cautions, “whoever engages in education from a perspective of certainty, actually no longer educates. Educating, as well as being educated, is a process, a journey.”

“In spite of that, parents and teachers want some basic certainty concerning the development of their children. Simply sharing this awareness can diminish the tension between teachers and parents. It means that parents can, without losing their trust in the teacher, acknowledge that he can make mistakes; it also means that the teacher completely accepts the biographical and pedagogical conditions of his students.” That’s right – we make mistakes. We have days when we do not bring our best selves forward, or when we are less prepared than we would like. This journey is new and uncharted for each of us in some way, which adds to the richness and excitement of the experience for both students and teachers. Establishing a level of transparency from the start, and a culture of acceptance and compassion, allows us to truly see one another for who we are, and build an enduring partnership.

Hence the paradox here – we are asking parents to trust, and invest, in something inherently uncertain. This dilemma became starkly evident to me through our reading and dialogue in the College yesterday. As I reflected on this further, it seemed to me that perhaps this in fact represents the very beauty of Waldorf education – that every child is a unique being, whose potential and capacities unfold through the course of their lifetime. That we are not offering parents an “off the shelf” option, which might be oh so much easier and simple. Instead we have embraced, in the words of Steiner, that the “soul content of humanity is in the hands of those cultivating youth.” What a responsibility and privilege for teachers and parents alike.

Wishing you a warm weekend!