By David Barham
Years ago, when I was a class teacher and was trying to bring my class an authentic African experience as part of the grade eight African geography block, I contacted Kibibi Ajanku and the Sankofa Dance Theater of Baltimore, Maryland, and invited them to come to work with my class for a full week. We cleared the schedule of all classes and the students spent five entire days learning African drumming and dancing and putting together a performance of Why the Sun and the Moon Live in the Sky for the entire school community.
The word “Sankofa,” from the Twi language of Ghana, is a symbol that has been adopted by African Americans and the African diaspora to represent the need to reflect on the past in order to build a successful future. One of the physical symbols for Sankofa is a bird with its head turned around to capture an egg depicted above its back. It symbolizes taking from the past what is good and bringing it into the present in order to make progress through the benevolent use of knowledge. Some say Sankofa means, “Go back and fetch it!”
The gesture of Sankofa is akin to the image of Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings, entrances and exits, transition and gateways; both serve as the perfect being to watch over the emerging Waldorf high school teacher. Usually, Janus is depicted as a two-faced god, one looking to the past and one looking boldly and unwaveringly into the future. Of course, the name of the first month of our own Gregorian calendar intentionally references Janus as we look back on the year we have just come through (sometimes in grand celebration, sometimes just barely on hands and knees!) while simultaneously looking ahead with a heart and head full of hope and good wishes.
The Waldorf approach to adolescents requires a Sankofa or Janus-like willingness to look to the past, specifically to the rich inspiration we can take from Rudolf Steiner’s teachings on adolescence. Here we can learn that adolescence is a transitory stage––like a river flowing between the banks of childhood and adulthood. Puberty marks an end to the beautiful and idyllic paradise of childhood, while adolescence signals the start of a long, slow path toward physical, emotional, social, intellectual, and spiritual maturity.
But for those of us teaching the oldest students in our Waldorf schools, we would be failing miserably in our mission if we were to look only to the past (not to mention being laughed out the classroom door). The Waldorf teacher who works with adolescents must look as keenly to the present and the future as to the past. The adolescents in our care want to know we find meaning, joy, and grace in the world into which they have chosen to incarnate.
Like Janus and Sankofa looking at the old and new year, the Waldorf high school teacher needs to create a bridge between anthroposophical anthropology and the practical life of teaching today: put differently, to bring together a reading of the child and a reading of the world.
And that is precisely what the re-envisioned model of the Waldorf High School Teacher Education Program (WHiSTEP) at the Center for Anthroposophy (CfA) does. Now moving into our 29th year, we still accompany the teacher trainees on a deep and powerful journey through the core texts of anthroposophy, as well as through a process of initiation into the arts of eurythmy, sculpture, singing, drama, spacial dynamics, and dynamic speech. We treat each teacher-to-be as a specialist, since there is no such thing as a generic Waldorf high school teacher––there are teachers of biology, earth science, physics, chemistry, mathematics, English, history, and the arts, each needing a specialized approach to teaching specific subjects to today’s adolescent. We truly believe this approach is best suited to meet the real needs of today’s Waldorf high school teachers, and therefore, we devote great time and energy to these subject seminars.
At the same time, CfA’s low-residency program looks ahead to what practicing and prospective high school teachers need as they engage the next generation of teenagers. As of this coming year, a new aspect of this program will be the incorporation of our successful online “Starlight Rays” seminars into our high school training, with virtual mentoring sessions following about half of the seminars. In this way, we will be offering a greatly expanded international lineup of guest presenters for those seminars starting next fall, including Carol Bärtges, Neil Boland, Douglas Gerwin, Jon McAlice, Martyn Rawson, Sven Saar, Betty Staley, Linda Williams, among others. In addition, then, to our seasoned WHiSTEP “home team” faculty of 10 specialist instructors, our students will now interact with some of the leading thinkers in Waldorf education from all over the globe.
It is this same spirit––looking to the past to inform the future, expressed in the images of Sankofa and of the two-faced god Janus––that gives shape to the work of WHiSTEP. We look to what Steiner offered in 1919 so as to be imbued with the power of imagination needed to anticipate the true demands of a young person in 2024 struggling over contemporary issues of equity, power, gender, climate, authoritarianism, artificial intelligence, and the ever-present search for meaning.
A work this big, this powerful, this important––reading the developing needs of young adults and the changing world they are about to enter––requires of us to radically re-till the soil of the past to prepare it for the seeding of an unknowable future.
For details of WHiSTEP and its new format of streamlined courses and online seminars during the school year, click here.