Vilifying Parents

Te Ra Waldorf School

Events at the Te Ra Waldorf School in New Zealand have made headlines recently, and centre around the revelations of racist underpinnings within the Waldorf/Steiner pedagogy.

Helena Barwick's report stated that “the racism is seen as both overt and covert. The covert racism is a paternalistic, condescending racism based on Steiner’s belief that everyone is on a journey to becoming white. It is a very ingrained, racist theology. Once parents became concerned about the racism, they tried to find out more about what the teachers actually believe. It was difficult to find out, but what did become clear was that if you are in any way different – left-handed, Maori, differently shaped head – it marks you out.”

Yet despite this, the school “has been cleared of teaching racist theories after an investigation by the Ministry of Education [...] An independent investigation has ruled out any racist elements within the curriculum or in the teaching of it, ministry head sector enablement Katrina Casey said.”

Nevertheless, these discoveries were troubling enough for the Federation of Rudolf Steiner Waldorf Schools in New Zealand to issue a press statement on the matter, just like the British Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship did a few years ago. In it, the Federation “acknowledges that a number of statements made by the philosopher Rudolf Steiner during the early part of the 1900s, express ideas about race that are unacceptable. The Federation categorically rejects these ideas and asserts that they have no place in the pedagogy or the underpinning philosophy of NZ member schools which emphasise equality, individuality and the shared humanity of all people regardless of race, gender or ethnic origin.”

Catherine Woulfe wrote a detailed essay for the New Zealand Listener of what took place in that school on the Kapiti Coast, and reveals another troubling aspect of Steiner school communities. One that comes up time and again in anecdotal accounts worldwide, and that we experienced first hand ourselves at the Titirangi Rudolf Steiner School.

Catherine did talk about our outcome in the article: “a similar issue arose at West Auckland’s Titirangi Rudolf Steiner School, when parents of an eight-year-old girl complained she was tormented by bullies – one threatened her with an axe. After a complaint to the Human Rights Commission, the school agreed to pay the parents $9000 and make an admission of failure.”

But before we got to that point, we had to endure years of what she describes as “the way the school “vilified” those who spoke out against it.”

The perceived benefits of living in a Steiner community are clearly laid out in this article, like: “parents are heavily involved with the school and are encouraged to form tight friendships and help each other out; for example, by organising meal rosters for families with newborns. Teachers take it upon themselves to love and nurture their students as a parent would.”

Such close and unusual bond between teachers and pupils has being shown to increase the potential for sinister forms of abuse, as was recently exposed at the Green Meadow Steiner School.

But in any case, what happens when concerns are brought forward in such an evironment? “Kym Murden describes herself as “quite a ballsy woman” but says she found the “veneer” of Te Ra impossible to break through. Her questions and complaints were always brushed aside.

“It’s like you walk in there and you get a tin of treacle chucked over you … It’s a very closed system and they feel very defensive and very threatened if anyone questions anything.”

And if you don't heed the treacly warnings?

“After the racism claims surfaced, there were fraught meetings and shouting matches, sides were taken and friendships abruptly cut off. The tight school community tore itself apart. The investigator’s report later found that, initially, “the problem was denied [by Te Ra] and those raising it were vilified to the point where their continued involvement with the school became untenable for them and for many others.”

We experienced this ourselves once our three young girls had been expelled following the precipitating "axe-incident", in spite of the school having falsely persuaded us to keep our eldest in the class until then on the promise of sorting out the bullying at a meeting with staff, trustees and an anti-bullying advocate. Instead, on the day the meeting was supposed to happen, the children were expelled, and when we turned up to confront them we were handed trespass notices.

This is where the more sinister aspect of these close knit communities reared its terrifyingly ugly head; Mark Thornton, the school manager, and Susan Cole, our eldest child's teacher, set up a meeting with the other parents of her class to discuss the issues of those expulsions.

That meeting, to which we were not invited, was an exercise in character assassination where all the blame was laid on us with gusto. Everything was done to push the problem away from the school and onto the family: the parents were labelled as unbalanced, possibly dangerous, and the child had either asked to be bullied or made it all up to impress her mum and dad. The parents who reported what took place that evening also told us of a ritualistic-like moment, when Mark Thornton reminded the group of a similar occurrence when a teacher was once asked to leave the school despite protestations from some families, and how the community stuck together and was better as a result.

A parent of Te Ra Waldorf school revealed to us that “one of the teachers had the same experience as you, where he was not invited to a meeting, he was then talked about badly to his class and the wrong reason for him resigning was given. This is obviously a tactic! One with very painful repercussions for those involved.”

As Catherine wrote, “One parent told Barwick they had investigated the characteristics of a cult and were distressed to find that anthroposophy met many of the criteria, including having an iconic, charismatic leader, a prescription about the afterlife, rituals to enforce membership, secrecy, exclusivity of membership and being ostracised if you leave.”

Trying to deal with concerns while at the school had turned out to be impossible. As Chatherine describes, “Dussler [a former staff member] believes those who have trained in anthroposophy are convinced they have a privileged understanding of children and education. “There is a very strong belief of ‘Rudolf knows best’ that is very pervasive. I thought that as well … You feel that you are obviously wiser than the parents who come with their higgledy-piggledy ideas.”

“As Barwick put it: “The school promotes the idea that they have a special and secret knowledge of child development, and that if you take your child anywhere else you will be exposing them to risk. This is powerful for many parents and plays on parents’ insecurities.””

Link this to the realisation that “Steiner believed children who were being bullied effectively deserved it – again, it was put down to karma”, and you have a school system that doesn't look safe for the children in their care, as one parent told us, “we left Te Ra School [...] after a terrible time in which [our child's] class teacher assaulted students, students assaulted each other and bullied each other silly. All unchecked.”

1861-2011 : 150 years of Rudolf Steiner

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