Waldorf Schools and the challenge of values-based organizations

One of the many mailing lists in which I participate is one discussing Waldorf Education and, sporadically, Rudolf Steiner. Our children attend a Waldorf school and we are very happy with the program and curriculum and find that the underlying precepts of the pedagogy to be quite aligned with our own beliefs and views. However, as with any values-based organization, the Waldorf community has a tendency to sometimes split into an “us versus them” mentality, and a recent discussion on the list about dress codes in Waldorf schools exhibited the very same devolution.

Responding to it, Waldorf teacher Rose Sheehan had this warm, thoughtful message that she’s generously let me reprint here for everyone else to enjoy…

I am going to venture into this conversation because I find it very relevant to the health and growth of schools. This thread, to my way of seeing things, is not at all about dress codes. One could easily substitute other topics – “mandated” volunteerism, family media use, lunch box contents, etc. This thread is about how to be wakeful to the places where we can slip into “us” vs. “them”, or “insiders” vs. “outsiders”.Waldorf schools are value-based organizations, very much dependent on the social strength, or health, of the community. And while health can be maintained, it cannot be enforced.

If individuals within the community feel forced to comply with expectations and/or codes, there is a possibility that resentment, frustration, and or other anti-social forces will be fostered.

And indeed, people can be compelled to do many things. But when the head and heart are not also aligned with the action, then an internal divisiveness is at work which can manifest in a social or community divisiveness as well. >From this stems the seeds of conflict. If one looks around, it is the sign of our times that we are surrounded by many such conflicts, particularly our national culture wars.

A Waldorf school is primarily born out of the enthusiasm, interest and warmth of individuals. As the school grows, others enter the community without the direct connection to that founding source. To assist newcomers in understanding how, why, and what things must be done for the school, then it is deemed expedient and desirable to codify various mores into a school handbook. Eventually the founders move on and/or their once obvious central role in the life of the school has been diluted. Or perhaps those old-timers are still there, confused as to why all these new-comers don’t get it.

What I am trying to convey is that it is not enough to have a code-book, no matter how succinct, clear and comprehensive. Please understand that a code-book is necessary and desirable, but it cannot stand alone and should not be seen as the true foundation for the ongoing development of school life. It is only through open, active, judgment-free engagement with the other that we will find the opportunity to bring our thoughts, feelings and actions into unity.

I would suggest that engagement begins very simply with the act of recognition. Make eye contact with those you pass in the school hall. Acknowledge their presence with a nod or a “hello”. It is easy to cling to those with whom we are familiar. It is also easy to make assumptions about those whom we do not “see”.

I believe that in a healthy school, there will be questions about how and why things are done as well as, concerns raised about the on-going validity and appropriateness of certain policies, and the enthusiasm to bring new ideas or suggestions. A school that is striving to maintain itself will ensure that it reviews itself on a regular basis and provides a venue of encouragement to keep those questions, concerns and ideas flowing.

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