Well on the Waldorf Way

The twenty people who registered for the anthroposophic seminar for high school teachers in Hakfar Hayarok, are enjoying the challenge.

It is not easy to purse your lips into a circle "like an owl" and produce muted rising and falling sounds, as though from inside a barrel. When Mor Goldschmidt, a music teacher at the anthroposophic seminar for high school teachers at Kfar Hayarok in Tel Aviv, who is both gentle and firm, instructs her students to ascend to even higher tones, one of them, Aviva Paz, a history teacher from Rosh Ha'ayin, looks discouraged for a moment. She takes a time out, breathes deeply and joins in the next exercise. "We're terribly off-key," comments Paz with a smile. But the strange throaty sounds that she and her friends produce happen to be pleasant to listen to.

When she began her teacher training this year, she says, it didn't even occur to her that the program would include singing, movement and dancing lessons, or painting or theater. "I didn't know what I was getting into. But I'm enjoying the challenge," she says. Zafrir Lazer, a biology teacher from the Ein Kerem youth village in Jerusalem, sounds genuinely enthusiastic about the fact that he is singing and dancing in order to be a better teacher.

"It's a little like returning to childhood," says Lazer. "The studies are substantially different from what I do in the school, from what I've been familiar with until now," he says. "This is another way to look at things: If until now we looked at the world realistically, now we are being exposed to anthroposophy, the science of the spirit."

But the main innovation, Lazer believes, is the attitude toward the child in the anthroposophic educational method. "I've been a teacher in the school system for years, but they never taught me or spoke to me about how I'm supposed to behave toward the students," he says. "And in general, who has time to think about them, about their needs? In anthroposophy, that's the main thing."

"We are harried about learning the material. That's what they demand of us. We're in a state of hysteria all the time," says Paz. Lazer considers himself and his colleagues who share the circle with him on Mondays and Wednesdays in one of the classrooms of the anthroposophic elementary school Urim, in Kfar Hayarok, refugees from the school system. He feels that they share the same fate, even though the process that each one is experiencing is entirely personal. "We are fleeing from burnout and from ongoing frustration," he says of himself and his colleagues, all of them about 50 years old.

Almost inevitably, the discussion about being fed up with teaching and longing for a connection with the students includes a discussion about the Dovrat Committee report (which proposed major reforms in the Israeli educational system) in this classroom of three veteran biology teachers, one math teacher and one history teacher. One of them, a biology teacher in a high school in Shoham, says she came because of her ongoing disgust with the school system. She complains about an alienating system, about the frequent changes in curricula, about the decline in the level of the bagrut matriculation exams. Her colleagues nod understandingly. The Dovrat report is like the last straw, as is the threat of dismissal.

"They decided to dismiss teachers," says Paz. "But they didn't address discipline problems or class size at all. Out of a one-hour lesson, I teach for maybe 25 minutes," she protests.

Lazer says that for him, studies in the seminar are a change in concept. "Here the emphasis is not on acquiring new knowledge, but on a profound process of change in our ability to observe, to think and to pay attention to things around us." Paying attention to the students and the relationship with them is important to him. In studying singing, one of the basic arts in the anthroposophic educational system, they examine the source of the note or the speech as part of developing the senses. Lazer feels that choral singing develops listening. "There is an implicit underlying concept here of what teamwork means."

Child at the center

Anthroposophy is a world view developed by the philosopher Rudolf Steiner, a native of Hungary, at the end of the 19th century. This philosophy attempts to develop an investigative and independent personality, and to reinforce spiritual awareness in everyday life as a path to inner development. Anthroposophy relates to several areas in life, including agriculture, healing and education. It offers an educational alternative that places the child at the center, and devotes a great deal of thought to the stages of his or her development. The curriculum and the approach of the educator are adapted to the changes undergone by children while they are growing up.

In 1919 the first anthroposophic school opened, with Steiner as principal, in the Waldorf-Astoria factory in Stuttgart. That's why the anthroposophic schools are also known as "Waldorf education." Today there are several hundred such schools worldwide. In Israel there are five schools that are run in the Waldorf spirit: the veteran schools include the one in the anthroposophic Kibbutz Harduf in the north, which is considered the center of the movement, the elementary school in Tivon and the Adam elementary and high school in Jerusalem. In recent years, in the wake of parental initiative, schools have also opened in the center of the country, as have anthroposophic classes (grades 1-4) inside a regular school, Zomer in Ramat Gan. In Hakfar Hayarok, near Ramat Hasharon, is the Urim school, which has classes up to seventh grade.

The founding of a framework for training high school teachers is the initiative of the parents of Ramat Gan children, who are concerned about the future. So far, such training has been available only in Harduf. But the parents felt the urban character and the living environment in the center of the country are factors that require a different type of training and a different type of teacher. Moreover, the establishment of the teaching seminar in the center signals a transition to a stage of becoming established and mature, and of self confidence on part of the anthroposophic educational stream, which suffered at first from serious difficulties, mainly because of the cool reception in the Education Ministry.

`Running too fast'

Alice Slepter, whose daughter studies in the fourth grade and whose son is beginning first grade, is one of the mothers who initiated the seminar. She says she chose Waldorf education at first "out of intuition and a sense that this is a place that respects the children and enables them to develop in their true image." "Education is not only an assembly line for good citizens," she adds.

Slepter, who until the birth of her son was an analyst for a market research company, says knowledge is not the main thing in schools. Even though Waldorf education sometimes has the image of a school designed for children who are somewhat dreamy, who are deterred by competition and pressure to achieve, the opposite seems to be the case. These parents are convinced their children are tough, and would withstand even conditions detrimental to their development. They simply wanted a better place for them, and a greater variety of areas of interest.

"I felt my daughter was running too fast. She says words whose meaning she doesn't really understand. I want my daughter to grow not because of pressure or competition, but out of her own free choice. Out of what she really is," she says. Ronen Hahn, the head of the seminar and the father of a son in second grade, nods: "If my son were in the regular educational stream, who would be swept up entirely, he is smart and he would race ahead." Although the population of the anthroposophic schools is homogeneous - these schools are private - they reject the criticism to the effect that anthroposophic education is living in a bubble. "There is something protective about this education, but it isn't uninvolved," says Slepter. "In high school, the part of social and community involvement will gradually increase."

But on the other hand, the establishment of the school also seems to be an answer to the need of the parents for a corrective experience. "My son has an excellent knowledge of math," says Hahn. "But here he also sings, knits and develops things that are not of immediate importance to him. "These are things that I could only have dreamed about," says Slepter. What's so good about knitting? "I only did things that were easy for me. Here they learn to work hard. And they also learn to play outdoor games in a lesson devoted to that. Their childhood is preserved." They say that although their children do spend time in front of the computer and watch television, these devices, to which strict anthroposophists object, take up a less substantial part of their time in comparison with other children, because they know how to occupy themselves in free play or in the arts.

Now, when the children are on the threshold of adolescence, the parents want to prepare for that. Hahn and Slepter say that before the establishment of the first high school in the center of the country, they intend to form a think tank that will include psychologists, doctors, high-tech people and of course parents and teachers, which will try to get an up-to-date picture of the youth. "We will try to understand what it means to be a young person in 21st-century Tel Aviv, what history or Bible lesson is relevant to such youth, and what kind of teacher will be right for him. The future teachers come with the necessary professional knowledge, but they have to learn Waldorf education, says Hahn.

It was only natural to ask Hahn, whose wife is the head of the anthroposophic track in Zomer, to run the training program for teachers. Hahn, 42, a mechanical engineer, had just ended a job in a start-up company, and was trying to decide what to do. He was exposed to anthroposophy when he was in the army, and was engaged in another branch of it, a method of guidance therapy called biographical guidance. Hahn took up the challenge. In the seminar he teaches this method of therapy, which speaks of the stages of human development, and adapts its to the concept of the development of the student. Hahn also teaches another subject that developed in anthroposophy, Goethe's Theory of Color (developed by the German poet).

The other teachers are mainly from Harduf. The weekly introduction to anthroposophy lesson is given by Uri Ben David, a musician, the head of the academy of music in the Jezreel Valley, and an anthroposophist who teaches the philosophy. This week, at the end of the lesson, he takes out his flute and plays a few notes, in preparation for a small concert this evening for the candidates for the coming school year.

The introduction is not conducted as a lecture, but as a beit midrash (study hall). They read the writings of the father of the system, Rudolf Steiner, they discuss issues that arise from the text and continue by practicing what was said. Lazer says that anyone who is open to it will undergo a "mystical personal experience."

Anthroposophy is not a religion, but there is mention of a divine universe, of the soul, of the spirit and of culture that developed surrounding these concepts. Lazer says that anyone who comes with pure scientific views deals for the first time with a view that includes a divine entity, in the sense that there are no random things, but rather things to which attention must be paid, and for which one must take responsibility.

The seminar is not cheap - NIS 7,500. But the 20 students who registered for the first year of the course, most of them people in midlife, are looking for new meaning in their lives, as well as a connection with the younger generation, their students. And that is priceless.