10 Ways in which Waldorf Education Shaped Me (And Why My Children Go, Too)

Written by: Jorinde Berben
Image credit: Jorinde Berben

To say I went to a Waldorf school (school based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner) is kind of an understatement. Not only did I spend 16 years there, my father has been a teacher there for my entire life and is currently principal at the school my children go to. My mother has worked at the same school for the past 20+ years and my sister is a kindergarten teacher at another Waldorf school.

So yes, these ideas and practices have shaped me big time, in many different ways. I’d like to illustrate 10 of them here. These are, at the same time, 10 reasons why our children go to a Waldorf school as well.

Before I go on, I’d like to make some important nuances. Education is only as good as the educators who carry it out. The human factor is paramount. I’ve seen teachers who were born to do their job and teachers who struggled with it. I’m certain that goes for every school.
Secondly, I am sure that some of the points I will list below also apply to other schools. There are institutions where art is valued more and some have strong internship programs. The reasons I list are ones that stood out to me personally, and they are, thankfully, not exclusive to Waldorf education.

And now, let’s dive in…

  1. Head, heart, hands
    For any (former) Waldorf student and teacher, these three words are vital in describing how Waldorf looks at education. It’s not only about what you know, but also about what you feel and what you will and can do about it. Young children are not told yet of the darker side of the world, in order to instill in them the feeling that the world is a good and kind place. When they grow older, they slowly discover that there’s shadow, too, but by then they know that this shadow isn’t how things should be, and they are inspired to change it to what they feel is ‘right’.
  2. Cultivating willpower
    Tying in with the previous point, willpower is a key element to succeeding in Waldorf education. From an early age onwards, the teachers look out for projects that take longer than a few hours to complete. The children work on craft projects, and later on get assignments that even cover a whole year and that they have to complete on their own (with support from a mentor teacher).
  3. Developing a sense of self
    I got the sense that in most schools here in Belgium, you were only really required to reproduce information and perhaps form an opinion on it. In the 8th, 10th and 12th grade, we were required to spend a year researching or creating something that inspired us (an annual project). It meant looking into yourself and finding out what really mattered to you at the time. In 8th grade, I built a crib with my grandfather which my daughter later slept in as a baby (the picture above); in the 10th I wrote a volume of poetry and in the 12th learned and taught Esperanto. All these projects taught me valuable lessons about who I was, what I struggled with and how I could overcome it.
  4. Hands on learning
    From Kindergarten onwards, children are shown how the world works by looking at that world up close. They go on excursions and in the 4 last years of High school, they go on internships in different fields to experience, hands-on, what working there means. I did internships at a dairy farm, a shop, a clothing factory and a refuge center for wounded birds. We had to find these places and contact the owners in person, learning how to navigate the world outside of school. I have a much clearer understanding of what these jobs entail now because of this.
    We also made a lot of stuff, like wooden toys, copper bowls or knitted sweaters.
  5. Music
    We sang a lot. And I mean, A LOT! Every festival was accompanied by specific songs. There was a school choir and my class performed Les Miserables at the end of our 12th grade. The joy of creating music together was so strong it led me to the small women’s choir I am still part of today. Singing in harmony together, feeling how your voice becomes part of something bigger, is a bliss all of its own.
  6. Showing yourself
    It’s perhaps not so surprising that our business now is called ‘Show Yourself’ as well, since that’s what I was raised to do. Drama is not an optional subject in most Waldorf schools. Instead, the whole class performs a play each year, usually about one the stories that are featured that year. Apart from that, there are also obligatory presentations and other moments in which you show what you are made of. Putting yourself out there can be incredibly scary for an introvert like me, but I’m not sure I would’ve had the balls to teach English in China for two years if I hadn’t had that exposure.
  7. The power of stories
    Each grade in Waldorf is drenched in storytelling, from fables and fairytales in the first grade, to Roman myths and history in the 6th. These stories are not picked at random, but made to coincide with stages in the child’s development. The 7th grade deals with the major explorers because at age 12-13 that’s what children want to do. In the 8th grade they get rebellious tendencies, and learn about the revolutions all over the world.
    The stories we hear and tell are the vessels that carry our culture. They can help us reflect and show us where to go next. They matter.
  8. Celebrating nature and values through festivals
    A Waldorf school year is dotted with many colourful festivals, celebrating saints who represent certain values and changes in the seasons. In Autumn, we celebrate Saint George and the dragon, a festival that demands courage. In February there’s the festival of light in which we light candles to welcome the new Spring.
    When I think of a year, I still use these different events as reference points. It reminds me of when it’s time to (metaphorically) jump over the fire or when to light a lantarn in the dark.
  9. Critical thinking
    Critics have said that Waldorf schools indoctrinate children. That has never been my experience, on the contrary. Though the school is based on Christian values (and humanist values), we were given glimpses of many origin stories and all of the major religions. If we dared ask ‘what’s the truth?’, the answer would be ‘find out for yourself.’
    I still value this in my children’s teaching today as well. They learn that it’s okay to believe what you do, and to change your believes when you are presented with new thoughts, facts or feelings.
  10. Human connection
    I’ve seen it time and time again: people who went to a Waldorf school together, were in the same class for many years, seem more likely to stay in touch with their old classmates. I’ve been fortunate enough to have 4 friends that I’m still very close to, and others I still see from time to time as well. I see these connections with my sister and brother as well. When you build things together, go on trips together (like a 10-day survival hike) or see so many of each other’s major moments, you form a deeper bond.
    The same goes for the teachers that often stay with a group for multiple grades. They get to know the students very well and build a foundation of trust (and yes, this can also have downsides when a teacher does not connect easily with a certain group or student).

This list is definitely not exclusive. I haven’t yet talked about the respect for nature, the parents’ involvement or the focus on making your own course books for quite a few subjects. And I should also mention that Waldorf schools are not a fit for every single student out there, either. Whether it’s a fit, depends on many factors.

Yet, by writing the list above, I can also connect to the deep gratitude I feel to my parents and my teachers, for giving me this wonderful start in life. It was the right fit for me, and for now, it’s still a perfect fit for my children, too.

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