By David Barham
In his closing remarks to the first circle of Waldorf teachers after two intensive weeks of preparatory lectures in August and September of 1919, Rudolf Steiner asks these brave pioneers to embrace four essential hygienic practices. All four remain vital today, but two speak especially to those working with adolescents.
. . .as teachers we must have an interest in everything that is going on in the world and that concerns humankind. It would be tragic to cut ourselves off from issues that could be meaningful from a human perspective. We must be interested in all the greater and smaller concerns of humanity and of each child. . . . The teacher must be interested in everything that concerns the world and the human being. . . .
The last point is more easily said than done, and yet it must be the golden rule for the teaching profession: Never turn stale and sour. You must remain alive and fresh in your soul. Not to turn stale or sour must be every teacher’s endeavor.
–– Rudolf Steiner, The First Teachers’ Course (Bangkok: Ratayakom, 2020), p.346
A century and more later, these words still reverberate, as does Steiner’s call, sounded at the beginning of this course: “Today, inspiration can only come from what we gain by showing interest in the great needs and the great tasks of our time, neither of which must be underestimated.” (Steiner, p.17)
Clearly, those of us who work with adolescents need to be in intimate connection with the world these students call home. Monastic isolation while working with teenagers is not a strategy for success!
And yet, we recognize there is a price to be paid for care and interest in the world, and we see it in our students, our colleagues, and ourselves. The world can be a sad and harsh place, and a natural response to the world’s pain and suffering is depression, grief, anxiety. These powerful and entirely natural reactions can overwhelm and make it difficult to find the mood of soul Steiner is calling for and the inspiration needed to feel fully alive.
An enormous part of being a teacher of adolescents is a commitment to meeting the students when the world threatens to overwhelm; to help guide them to the meaning, beauty, and potency that are also there if fear is not allowed to fully take hold. So much has been written about the mental health challenges facing adolescents that it seems there is little a caring educator or parent can do.
Yet, there are clues out there whispering that all is not doom and gloom; that we are not sentenced to a future devoid of true human care. Amidst the noise and bustle of modern society, we are receiving images of deep and true humanity that can inspire us. For those of us working with vulnerable adolescents, it is reassuring to be reminded of the power of compassion and grace.
In his popular 1977 book, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, author Richard Bach answers the question “You’re quoting Snoopy the Dog, I believe?” with “I’ll quote the truth wherever I find it, thank you.”
I would like to reference, not Snoopy the Dog, but the long-form television shows The Bear and Reservation Dogs. What is to be learned from these contemporary voices to help modern educators cope with the world and be helpful guides to the adolescents in their care?
That grief is real. That trauma, some of it multi-generational, can take a daily toll. That the past is never past. That the world can be a cold and hard place. And simultaneously, that it is possible to follow one’s dreams, to find grace and support from family and community, to be forgiven for one’s missteps, and to learn to forgive oneself (perhaps the hardest lesson of all). These shows, chaotic and noisy, overwhelming at times, profane and wild, offer profound images of true human care, of community and individual resilience, of second (and third and fourth) chances, and of essential human dignity in the face of life’s endless indignities.
Perhaps the two most important elements depicted in both of these shows are also key to the success of a Waldorf teacher seeking to work effectively with adolescents:
- Trust in the ever-present reality of the spiritual world
- Sense of humor, particularly when things are at their hardest
CfA’s Waldorf High School Teacher Education Program (WHiSTEP) and seminar series on “Starlight Rays in Darkened Times” seek to do the same for our teachers so that they can in turn indicate a path forward to their students. Practicing and future teachers in this program are invited here to live into an image of the human being as a spiritual “being in becoming” who has chosen purposefully to live in this time of turmoil and hard-won hope.
This is a teacher training for the Waldorf high school teacher. Not simply method or content, but a path toward a mood of soul that is fresh and healthy, never stale, never sour. This is what our students are asking of us, and what the world needs from us.
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From The Bear: Jeremy Allen White (left) plays Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, an award-winning New York City chef de cuisine who returns to his hometown of Chicago to run his deceased brother’s failing sandwich shop. Ayo Edebiri (right) appears as Sydney Adamu, a talented young chef who serves as its new sous chef under Carmy.
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Reservation Dogs is a deft comedy hiding inside a scrappy, in-your-face character study, focused on a group of Native American teenagers searching for their place in the world. Shown here (left to right):
- Paulina Alexis as Wilhelmina Jacqueline “Willie Jack” Sampson
- D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai as Bear Smallhill
- Lane Factor as Chester “Cheese” Williams
- Devery Jacobs as Elora Danan Postoak
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Faculty Updates in the Waldorf High School Teacher Education Program (WHiSTEP)
We are indeed fortunate to have so many extraordinarily talented and experienced Waldorf high school teachers on our WHiSTEP faculty sharing their insights and expertise. This past summer, in addition to three strong cohorts of students, we welcomed four new teachers into our faculty circle of ten high school instructors in all, including three graduates from this program:
- Cedar Oliver (WHISTEP Class of 2001) returned to take on both the Physics subject seminar and the Living Thinking course.
- Marisha Plotnik (from WHiSTEP’s first graduating Class of 1998) took over the Mathematics subject seminar as a teacher from the fellow graduate Jamie York. In the summer of 2024, she will also be teaching the Anthropological Foundations course (based on Steiner’s First Teachers’ Course of 1919 cited above).
- Michal Noer (WHiSTEP Class of 2014) returned to WHiSTEP as clay modeling instructor for all of the high school trainees as well as leader of the specialized Arts subject seminar.
- In my new role as Director of the program, I was also able to get back into the classroom (a delightful place to be) and taught the Human Development course to Year I students, the Professional Seminar III to our Year III students, and Adolescent Development to the third-year elementary school trainees in the Waldorf Teacher Education program at Antioch University New England.
These new faces (mine included!) replaced a number of long-time instructors who retired from the program last summer and whom we gratefully thank for their many years of brilliance and care:
- Jamie York ~ Mathematics subject seminar
- Patrick Stolfo ~ Arts and Arts History
- Michael D’Aleo ~ Physics subject seminar and Living Thinking course
- Douglas Gerwin ~ While still at the helm as CfA’s Executive Director, this was the first summer Douglas did not teach in the high school program he founded 28 years ago, though he graciously continued to mentor me throughout the past year and a half as I prepared for my first summer as Director of this program.
Our new instructors joined returning faculty Paul Gierlach (History), Michael Holdrege (Life Sciences), Jan Lyndes (Spacial Dynamics), Laura Radefeld (Eurythmy), David Sloan (English and Drama), and Debbie Spitulnik (Speech) for a rich and wonderful Summer 2023. We now stand ready to welcome the next cohort to join us in Wilton, NH, for the summer of 2024.