By Douglas Gerwin, Karen Atkinson, David Barham, Carla Beebe Comey
It began with a deep throaty blast from a ten-foot-long alpine horn at the opening assembly and ended with instructions on how to clean a podium without rubbing in the grime. In between, just under 1,000 Waldorf teachers from over 60 countries representing all continents engaged in a week of human encounters and a rich palette of seminars, workshops, lectures, discussion groups, and cutting-edge performances. Taken together, they constituted the 2023 World Teachers Conference, which was held at the Goetheanum in Dornach during Easter Week under the thematic banner of “Affirming—Nurturing—Trusting”.
Seven faculty members from the Center for Anthroposophy and the Waldorf Program at Antioch University New England attended this week-long conference, part of a contingent of some 45 participants from North America. For most of the time, we dispersed ourselves among a selection of 30 discussion groups after the daily morning lecture and a similar number of subject-specific workshops during the afternoon. Only once did we all come together for a wind-swept group photograph on the steps outside the West Entrance to the Goetheanum building.
The Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum, in collaboration with leaders of the Hague Circle (now renamed the International Council for Steiner Waldorf Education), prepared and hosted this conference and will eventually publish a full account of the major presentations. We have therefore opted to share an album of more personal and offbeat observations arising from this international gathering.
The Morning Verse
Each day the conference began in the Great Hall of the Goetheanum with a different line-up of teachers from around the globe, reciting in their own language the Morning Verse that Rudolf Steiner wrote for the upper elementary grades at the original Waldorf school in Stuttgart. (Most schools use this same verse in the high school grades, too, though that was not Steiner’s original intention.) Every morning we got to hear a new selection of voices – from Africa, South America, Indochina, Australasia, the Middle East, and Europe. In one of the more poignant moments, two teachers recited this verse in Russian, followed by a Ukrainian standing next to them and speaking the same verse in her own tongue.
How do you teach a hall of some thousand teachers––who speak a dozen and more languages––to sing a new musical round they may not know in a language they may not recognize? This was the daily task facing Annemiek van der Ven, a Waldorf music teacher from Holland. Her solution was to speak not a single a word but instead simply to sing and then move to-and-fro across the expanse of the wide stage with a series of exceptionally clear and economic gestures instructing the group when to join the round and when to end it. The audience was invited to imitate some of these gestures, which proved to be an excellent aide memoire to learning the songs. On some days we had the advantage of having the words to the song projected behind Annemiek on a giant screen. But the key lesson was: Music and gesture are their own language that can transcend all others.
Veteran participants attending this World Teachers Conference––the 11th over the past four decades––will recall straining in former years to catch the voice of un-amplified lecturers at the front of the cavernous Great Hall. Not so any more. Each lecturer wore a pinned microphone hooked up to discrete slender loudspeakers on either side of the stage as well as to sound-proofed booths in the balcony at the back of the hall, where sat a bank of translators. With the aid of ear buds and “remotes” freely distributed each morning, audience members could either dial in to the lecturer directly or choose from a selection of translations.
And it all worked, with the exception of the opening night, when Josep Maria Esquirol, the keynote speaker from Spain who at the last minute (for reasons of infirmity, we were told) had to address us via the Internet, began to speak while still muted on a huge screen erected onstage. Constanza Kaliks, the host for this evening who had introduced Prof. Esquirol, leaped in as spontaneous translator while Goetheanum techies scrambled to unmute the speaker. For the rest of the week, this system of aural and visual amplification worked flawlessly.
Each evening the conference was graced with artistic performances: Bothmer gymnastics from a Waldorf school in Solymar, Hungary; “Traces” –– an evening of speech and tone eurythmy on the theme of walking, performed by the Goetheanum Eurythmy Ensemble; “Our World Is On Fire” –– a multi-media concert with the choir and orchestra of the Rudolf Steiner School from the Viennese suburb of Mauer; an evening of Armenian folk music (see separate description below). To close the conference at lunchtime on Saturday, we were treated to a colorful rendition in eurythmy and full orchestra of “The Moldau” from Bedrich Smetena’s symphonic poem Ma Vlast. One had to keep reminding oneself that these were mostly students performing, rather than professional artistic groups.
New Leadership Team of the Pedagogical Section
In one sense they could not be more opposite. Constanza Kaliks––a tall Chilean-born high school science and math teacher from Brazil––and Philippe Reubke––a stocky kindergarten teacher from France though born in Stuttgart, Germany––were selected last year as the new leaders of the Pedagogical Section, succeeding Florian Osswald and Claus-Peter Röh. All four leaders were present at this year’s World Teachers Conference, as was Christof Wiechert, who preceded them all as Leader of the Pedagogical Section from 2000-2010.
On the final morning of the conference, both Constanza and Philippe offered brief but mighty pictures of the tasks of teachers today. Constanza, pointing to a series of parabolas drawn on a chalk board, used the two foci of each parabola to illustrate the shifting relationship––now closer, now further apart––of teacher to student. As the two foci drew closer to each other, the ellipse approached a perfect circle. She left her audience free to draw forth from these changing shapes the metaphoric implications of the gradually shifting relationship between teacher and student.
By contrast, Philippe offered a rollicking romp through the story of Parzival and the legend of the Holy Grail, starting with Parzival’s obliviousness to the destructive consequences of his rash and thoughtless deeds and ending with his recognition of the task before him: to heal the wounded Grail King Amfortas by touching him with the sacred spear that long before had pierced him. Philippe, too, left the audience free to relate this story to the overarching themes of the conference: namely, the healing power in the pedagogical relationship between educator and student of “affirming—nurturing—trusting”.
Participants who arrived a day early for the teachers conference––and who were lucky enough to procure a prized ticket––would have seen this story played out on the stage of the Great Hall in Richard Wagner’s five-hour opera Parsifal. This performance (to be repeated at the Goetheanum at Easter of next year) was remarkable for weaving eurythmy into a professional opera company production. Both Grail Chalice and Sacred Spear were rendered in shafts of light and the swirling veils of the eurythmy ensemble, rather than in the more conventional use of material props – or in some operatic productions, nothing at all.
How to Clean Your House or Your Classroom
On the final morning, we heard from Linda Thomas, who for the past 30 years has spearheaded the cleaning of the Goetheanum as well as the Lukas Clinic in the neighboring village of Arlesheim. As she describes in her autobiography, Linda has developed a different perspective concerning everyday chores. She is guided by the question: If one can work spiritually anywhere in the world and in any occupation, it must also be possible to clean and care for a home or a workplace in this same way. In 2004 she initiated the first international conference on a new cleaning culture at the Goetheanum, followed in 2009 by a conference about creating order for so-called “Messies”. Her first book on this subject has been translated into English, Italian, and Mandarin.
Though now retired, Linda still gives inspirational talks on the spiritual values of cleaning and, at this conference of Waldorf teachers, demonstrated how to polish wooden furniture with a light and rhythmically loving touch, rather than grinding dust and grime into the varnish in a mood of weary routine. Dusting off the podium while speaking behind it, she invited teachers to ask of their school furniture or classroom, “What do you need in order to do your work worthily?”
“Ask,” she added with a twinkle in her eye, “and they will answer!”
Linda Williams Raises the Roof of the Great Hall
During the talk given by Linda Williams (her first at the Goetheanum), you could feel the rowdy Americans in the audience, particularly Linda’s Detroit colleagues, ready to jump up and give shout outs for her truly American approach under the lofty ceiling of the Goetheanum! Linda told the teachers: “The next phase of Waldorf education is open-hearted, idealistic, social, community-oriented and inclusive.” It will be beautifully contextualized resilience as a flow, as a family/group/community quality –– a social resilience where the individual’s capacity to thrive is heightened by the rituals of belonging. She called a Waldorf approach to education “the pedagogy of belonging”. Resilience is not just an individual trait, she added, but also a collective trait.
“I am because we are –– and because we are, I am.”
Getting Children––and Teachers––(Back) into Nature
From around the world the need was voiced that Waldorf education needs renewal. Keynote speakers encouraged teachers to lead their students outdoors into nature, for example, at the start of each day. This practice would serve as a healing remedy for the many ailments we recognize in today’s children, who suffer from what we have come to know as “nature deficit disorder”. Further, this activity would introduce flexibility into the morning schedule lesson in that the main lesson could begin later in the day. In this way Waldorf educators would be consciously creating the conditions in which children could more easily thrive.
Speaking of the outdoors, it is remarkable how generously the Goetheanum is surrounded by animals. Sheep graze on the lawns surrounding the building, while cows chew the cud after enjoying a rich morning meal. It was suggested that participants at the conference might benefit from a similar exercise of quiet rumination outdoors after a rich morning of lectures and forums, rather than immediately pulling out their smartphones or rushing off to a meeting.
The Paradox of “Ethical Individualism”
The late afternoon workshop with Martyn Rawson on “Teacher Learning in Practice” was filled with countless gems about the generative principles of Waldorf education that can be derived from Steiner’s pedagogical anthropology and which lead to meaningful practice.
The primary role of the teacher is to shape and attune the learning community so all can feel seen, felt, and recognized; in this way a transformation of the self through an encounter with the world and others can occur.
Implication: Rudolf Steiner’s characterization of “ethical individualism” is a paradox because one can be ethical only in the context of relationships, and one comes to selfhood only through interactions with others and with the Earth.
Weaving Students’ Individual Threads into a Tapestry of Waldorf Education
In her opening address Monday evening, Constanza Kaliks, as the new Co-Leader of the Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum along with Philippe Reubke, sounded the question that young people today are asking, “Will my own ‘thread of being’ be accepted and honored as a part of the texture we weave together as a part of the ever-becoming world?”
Michael Zech, a high school teacher of history from Germany, followed up on this theme, urging us to “cast light on the past out of the future” and adapt the original indications for Waldorf education to our present times. He encouraged teachers to lead their children into the world of today so that they have the feeling they can form their own narrative.
This theme––holding true to the original indications of Waldorf education while finding a way for every child to feel honored and welcomed, to feel their thread contributes meaningfully to the tapestry of humanity––was woven through conversations with teachers from multiple countries throughout the conference.
What better place to consider the truly world-wide relevance of Waldorf education in our times than at a gathering of nearly a thousand teachers from more than 60 countries?
Back to Essentials
In several workshops the value was stressed of reviewing what is essential in Waldorf education by clarifying the central themes of each year, based on an anthroposophical view of human development. This exercise needs to be accompanied by a renewal of subject matter that is relevant to both the time and place in which the school lives.
Armenian Folk Band Rocks the Goetheanum
Tsayg, an Armenian folk band from the only Waldorf school in Armenia (Aregnazan Waldorf School of Armenia/Արեգնազան» կրթահամալիր) rocked the Grosser Saal of the Goetheanum with an evening of folk music. Every single song––no matter how sepulchral or raging in character––was announced as being a love song!
Juxtaposition of Contemporary and Original
Plans for the current Goetheanum, a monumental edifice overlooking the village of Dornach, began to be sketched exactly a century ago after an act of arson destroyed the first building, constructed mostly out of wood, on New Year’s Eve 1922/23. Today the Goetheanum, the first major building in the world to be sculpted out of reinforced poured concrete, is complemented by a contemporary piece of outdoor sculpture that echoes the outline and sweeping forms of this ground-breaking piece of architecture. Motifs old and new, modern and original, permeated this anthroposophical campus – even as they reverberated through the halls of this conference.
Post Scriptum: From Mighty Pulpit to Modest Podium
A sign of the times: that giant carved lecturer’s pulpit, which for decades dominated center stage of the Great Hall during conferences of this kind, was gone. In its place stood a simple slatted wooden lectern. At the end of the final lecture, to rippling laughter and a scattered round of applause, this modest podium was unceremoniously upended on its two rollers and, like a piece of luggage on wheelies, was steered to the side by a single stagehand to make way for the closing performance of eurythmy.