Frailties and Limitations

Bullying, Karma and Parental Involvement

Steiner/Waldorf schools are designed to be very attractive places to parents who seek a gentler, possibly more artistic and less stressful education for their children, away from all the cram learning and constant tests that seem to only satisfy government statisticians. Though it's not to say that science isn't taught there, as Thomas Südhof, the Waldorf-educated neuroscientist and 2013 Nobel Prize in Medicine winner can testify.

If those enamoured parents happen to hear about unsettling things going on in these schools, staff are only too keen to encourage them to come and see for themselves, and once they've experienced those lovely grounds and beautiful classrooms, many are persuaded that those rumours are just that. Rumours. And if some problem were to arise, however unlikely, it'll no doubt be easily sorted. After all, Steiner schools teach the "whole child". How could bullying survive there for long?

Rebecca Coleman was one such parent who fell in love with the idea of Steiner and she sent her son to a preschool in the Maryland area, USA. “He was only there for the spring semester,” she explains. “I had the impression from the types of play they encouraged, their respect for imagination, etc that the early childhood experience was "child-led" in some respects. At least in my son's classroom, that was not the case. There was constant friction with the teacher because my son was enthusiastic about his own ideas, and the teacher was *not* enthusiastic about my son's ideas. Yet she wouldn't tell him that directly because she held that the Waldorf approach was to redirect the child, not to give him a direct instruction, even though that method didn't work for him and he didn't understand it.”

Rebecca's own attraction to this alternative education started as a teenager: “when I was 14, a coworker of my mother's brought me as a guest to her young son's Christmas hymn sing at his Waldorf school, and I was enchanted by it,” she reveals. “It reminded me of the schools I had attended the year we lived in Germany when I was a child. Now that I was a parent, I felt the environment was incredibly beautiful and contributed something very valuable to young children in a screen-filled world that seemed far detached from nature. To be honest, my husband and I were young and broke, and Waldorf-- at least in the United States-- is a school system for the wealthy or nearly wealthy. But I was so in love with what it could offer, and I felt fortunate that my son's school offered us financial aid when we applied. That was good of them, and it makes me feel more conflicted about my overall experience.”

Despite the fact that this school turned out not to be right for her son, Rebecca still sees value in what Steiner education advertises itself to be: “putting children more closely in touch with nature, giving them meaningful experiences of art and imaginative play, immersing them in a world that is, by any accounting, visually beautiful,” she admits. “The painful twist is that, even as it caters to the way a child plays, a child must play along with *it*. The child's imagination must fit into the boundaries set by the philosophy. If your son runs around the playground playing St. Michael or Jack the Giant-slayer, that's wonderful-- but Superman? You're going to get a talking-to from the teacher about that one. Those rules help give the environment its cultivated beauty, but cause a lot of trouble for kids whose inner lives won't be confined that way.” As a result, her son's experience ended up being very stressful and frustrating.

One particular event succinctly described her family's Waldorf experience: “One day I picked up my son from school and, as usual, his teacher said, "We had a little problem with him today",” she recalls. “She told me he had thrown a rock and hit another child in the eye. I was embarrassed-- because he knew better, and because I heard reports from her so often-- and I apologised and told her I'd talk to him. She suggested that his supposed level of aggression was because I still let him watch TV, and she suggested, not for the first time, that I read ‘The Plug-in Drug’. This kid watched 30 minutes to an hour of educational TV a day. It wasn't like I was putting him in front of Roadrunner cartoons, but this teacher was bound and determined that he had behavioural problems because he watched TV.

”Driving my son home, I was fed up and again, embarrassed, and I accused him of throwing a rock at another child on the playground” she continues. “He looked frightened and insisted he hadn't thrown a rock on the playground. Then I got really angry because he was lying, so I warned him I'd punish him for the lie as well as for hurting the other child. He kept insisting he had not thrown a rock on the playground, and I ended up putting him on an unprecedented number of restrictions for the next several days, until he had class again (it was twice a week). I really put my foot down. When we returned to school the next Tuesday, I assured the teacher I had made a strong impression on him about the playground behaviour.

“That is when she told me, "Oh, it wasn't on the playground." No, she had given the children a basket of rocks to play with in the free-play area of the classroom. My son had thrown one in the air, and it had hit the other child in the eye. I was just in disbelief. This teacher gave a bunch of four-year-old boys a basket of rocks-- indoors-- the very items I always tell my child NOT to pick up on the playground because they become dangerous projectiles-- and invited them to come play with them? What did she expect them to do, build gnome houses? And then when my barely-four-year-old son inevitably threw one, she had the nerve to tell me it's because he watched "Blue's Clues"? It was such an off-base understanding of little-boy behaviour, and such an immediate reaction to blame my parenting, that it was hard for me to trust her criticisms of my son after that. And I felt terrible for punishing him for something he hadn't done. He never picked up rocks on the playground because he knew he wasn't allowed, but what is he supposed to think when a teacher brings out a basketful and calls them toys?”

There were obviously other incidents, and trying to resolve them wasn't straightforward: “there was nothing I could do short of pulling him out of her class,” Rebecca reveals, “and I knew that in a school that small, asking to move him to a different class would create its own resentments and problems that wouldn't solve anything. Around that same time, another parent pulled her son out of that class because, as she told me, she didn't think the teacher was handling her son's "boy energy" well and it was causing him a lot of stress. I would like to believe this isn't true of every Waldorf teacher, and that some have positive ways of working with boys.”

Rebecca found testimonials online written by parents, and former students, when doing research for her book, ‘The Kingdom of Childhood’, a fictional tale which takes place within the confines of a Waldorf school: “I don't want to co-opt anyone's story without their permission,” she confides, “but in most cases they were stories of a bullied child who could not get help because the schools blamed the child's "karma" for their victimisation which is a way for a school or teacher to shirk responsibility and make it the parents' problem. Let me say, I'm not a parent who thinks that when a child has problems in school, it must be the school's fault or the teacher's fault rather than the child's or family's. I have four kids, and I know better than that.”

This notion of karma was very important to Rudolf Steiner, as he said himself in the essay ‘Reincarnation and Karma’: “what I do today will be one of the causes of my finding myself in a later life within certain definite circumstances. — Thus man indeed creates his destiny for himself. This remains incomprehensible only as long as one considers the separate life as such and does not regard it as a link in the chain of successive lives.

“Thus we may say that nothing can happen to the human being in life for which he has not himself created the conditions. Only through insight into the law of destiny - karma - does it become comprehensible why “the good man has often to suffer, while the evil one may experience happiness.” This seeming disharmony of the one life disappears when the view is extended upon many lives.”

Further, karma and its link to bullying was mentioned in a document written in May 1999 by Cynthia Kennedy and Betty Robertson for the Alan Howard Waldorf School, in which is discussed various, mostly reasonable, ways of dealing with bullying but also includes this passage:

“Can a child's karma or destiny be that of a victim or bully? Is it a child's destiny to seek certain experiences to build his or her self-esteem and inner self? Should a potentially abusive situation be stopped, and if so, at what point? We do not know the answers; however, when dealing with bullying behaviour we thought that caution is necessary. If intervention can change the experiences that our children encounter then conceivably it is not entirely destiny we are dealing with. And perhaps all the children are better served if they are given tools to better handle aggression, be it their own, or their peers.

“For a child who is being victimised, it must be the teacher's role and responsibility to determine how much victimisation is healthy to enable the child to be strengthened through the experience and at what point the exposure is excessive and detrimental. This situation is something that all teachers must struggle with, and the obligation becomes that much more onerous given that, in all likelihood, most of what a child is subjected to will be unknown to the teacher.”

“After my novel came out,” Rebecca continues, “I quickly got a number of emails from members of the Waldorf community who wanted to tell me about experiences eerily similar to those in my book. The fictional story I wrote is about a middle-aged Waldorf kindergarten teacher who has a sexual affair-- though "affair" is too kind a term-- with a sixteen-year-old male student. Suddenly I got multiple emails from people involved in that case and another that apparently never made it to the media, expressing quite a bit of bitterness at the schools' responses and the long-term effects on their, or their child's, psyche. That was pretty alarming to me, because I had thought I was telling a story that was fairly outrageous. In fact, a memoir recently came out - ‘Blue Plate Special’ by Kate Christensen - in which she describes an assault she experienced by a predatory Waldorf School teacher. It isn't acceptable for a private school system that sells itself on elevating and protecting childhood to stonewall parents when they ask for exactly that.”

This is the odd thing about Steiner education: why would a system that has a reputation for offering a kinder, gentler alternative education appear to be so unwilling to keep some children safe, and then if the issue is pressed, make families feel as if the whole problem is their fault? Rebecca believes the way those schools are organised plays a part in this: “I think the fact that schools are run by a College of Teachers rather than a single accountable individual can cause diffusion of responsibility. It can divide parents and school leadership into opposing teams in a way that isn't as pronounced in a system where one leader is ultimately accountable. But I also think they do it because, like many philosophical or religious groups, they get defensive when they feel challenged about whether they're living out their ideals the way they claim to. Waldorf culture very much operates on an insider/outsider system, with very strong cultural boundaries, and the concepts of purity and light and beauty are a big part of their self-concept-- aesthetically and philosophically. So when someone approaches them and accuses them of being shadowy-- a cover-up, ulterior motives, an ugly attitude-- that flies in the face of their sense of group identity, and they have a very difficult time acknowledging the truth of such a claim. We're talking about a belief system that actually renovates classrooms to plaster over shadowy corners. A system where the black crayon is removed before the box is given to a child. When your self-concept and identity are constructed around the idea that there is no black crayon in your box, having a parent tell you that there is becomes a major challenge, and a lot of times the gut reaction is denial. That denial pushes the problem back onto the parent, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly.”

As Alicia Hamberg, a former Steiner student, confirmed while discussing Rebecca's book, Steiner schools have a “tendency to ignore problems instead of dealing with them. Hoping they’ll just go away. Or that nobody will notice. Or that you can bluff yourself out of a crisis. Waldorf schools have these fantastic communities that everyone has to believe are fantastic, or the image crumbles. Bad things happening detracts from the feeling of being blessed.”

“When ‘The Kingdom of Childhood’ came out, I got a number of reader reviews that accused me of being anti-Waldorf, and that actually isn't true at all,” Rebecca added. “There are many things I love about Waldorf philosophy and practice, and some aspects I love quite deeply. I simply think the system is not above criticism, and in Waldorf-world that seems to be the equivalent of being "anti." Any system taken to an extreme, in that it won't acknowledge its own frailties and limitations and adapt around them, loses some of its soul in the process. I absolutely think that children would be better off if the educational system - I'm speaking here of the United States - adopted many Waldorf values and approaches. But Steiner schools themselves have got to be more responsive to parental concerns and make the philosophy work well for a broader range of children. I want to see it adapt specifically because I think it is valuable.”

As discussed before on this site (here and here), how children's welfare and discipline are dealt with appear to be an intricate part of the Steiner pedagogy: a document from The Hague Circle (the international conference of the Waldorf education movement) signed by many school representatives worldwide in November 2009, states that one of the marked characteristics of a Waldorf school is that pedagogical methods [will be] used in dealing with discipline.

Until we know what those pedagogical methods are, what role karma plays in this, and how the issue of bullying could be so ridiculed by Eugene Schwartz, a prominent Steiner advocate, in a video he made in December 2012 which essentially revealed that upset parents are merely mistaking harmless play for bullying, it may not be possible to extract what's good about Steiner from this supposed obsession of letting children work out their karma on their own, while teachers apparently look on with kindness.

The photos on this page were taken from Rebecca Coleman’s site.

The image of Rudolf Steiner was taken from the Sophia Institute’s page.

1861-2011 : 150 years of Rudolf Steiner

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