The Art of Teaching

January 23, 2015 in Inside SWS

Fred Dahm. Second semester of my junior year in high school, he taught the history elective, “Political Philosophy.” Attending a large public high school in rural Wisconsin, I had yet to really be engaged in my classes. Until Mr. Dahm. He introduced me to Heilbroner’s Worldly Philosophers, FitzGerald’s Fire in the Lake, and Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers. To my conservative father’s dismay, I became an ardent supporter of Jimmy Carter and subscribed to the Washington Post. I am certain that my path to undergraduate and graduate studies in international relations, and eventually to teaching history in high school was thanks to this teacher, who until this week, I would have touted as the most inspiring and influential I have experienced. Then I met Douglas Gerwin.

Douglas is Director of the Center of Anthroposophy in Wilton, NH, where he oversees adult education and Waldorf high school teacher preparation. A graduate of the Waldorf School of Garden City, Douglas travels around the country visiting Waldorf high schools, sharing his decades of experience and expertise with faculty, parents, students and the broader community. We were fortunate to have him with us for the better part of the week, including a faculty in-service day, a Board of Trustees meeting, and a public presentation on Wednesday evening. I (somewhat selfishly) even volunteered to drive him to the airport, hoping to get every last minute of possible conversation with this exceptional teacher of teachers.

So what made this experience so powerful? It’s not often I get the chance to be the student, fervently listening and taking notes, and during these past few days I got a real taste of what skilled Waldorf teachers bring to their students. Douglas’ passion for his subjects (and there were many) is palpable – the room pulsed with his energy and enthusiasm. That he is a content expert goes without saying, and his ability to prepare and deliver a “lesson” was almost magical. He is a consummate model of the commitment to life long learning. Perhaps most importantly, he created a joyful space for dialogue, punctuated by his sense of humor and repartee with his audience. These qualities and capacities – passion, enthusiasm, knowledge, continuing self-renewal, and not taking oneself too seriously – are the hallmarks of great teachers. Great teachers – like Douglas Gerwin (and Fred Dahm) – do not pour content into students like pebbles into a bucket. They ignite interest and cultivate curiosity, drawing out rather than filling up. As Douglas shared, “We cannot educate intelligence. Over time, we can awaken it.” That, in very simple terms, is the essence of Waldorf education.

What did I learn from this master teacher? More than I could possibly write in one sitting, but I would like to share something from Douglas’ lecture, 3 Intelligences: Cognitive, Emotional and Moral that resonated for me, as both a parent and an educator. He concluded the evening with an articulation of what, in his view, today’s young people are in search of:

* Finding meaning in the world (cognitive knowledge)
* Finding true love (self-revelation and emotional connection)
* Finding their purpose for being on earth (strength and moral intelligence)

Noticeably absent from his list were temporal things such as perfect SAT scores or a job at Microsoft. As my three oldest children make their way in the post-college world, I concur with Douglas – my conversations with them are increasingly focused on how they can find their calling in life.

A final takeaway from my week was Douglas’ simple yet profound distinction that as Waldorf educators we do not force children into that all too common mindset of “perpetual preparation,” whether it be for 1st grade, high school, college, or a job. Rather, we are attentive to the present moment, and support our students to be so as well. A kindergartner should delight in being a six-year old, playing freely in a world of imagination. A tenth grader pushing boundaries and questioning authority is to be celebrated for being the 16-year old they are. In a world all too focused on what comes next, Waldorf education compels us, literally, to stop and smell the roses.

Mr. Dahm, you had a good run of it, as my most memorable teacher for 40 years. I suspect that as I continue on my journey of learning about Waldorf education, someone will soon be on Douglas’ coat tails, given our aspiration for ongoing renewal and development. For now, I am grateful for my experience of awe and wonder, and for the opportunity to be a student once again.



P.S. You might be interested in reading these articles on the art of Waldorf teaching by two renowned educators:
Jack Petrash, The Waldorf Teacher
Dorit Winter, The Waldorf Teacher: Someone You Can Steal Horses With

Published in the Connection from 1/23/15