In 2018, our educational system in the United States ranked 38th in the world on Math Scores and 24th in Science. (Source) If better or more rigorous testing is the solution to our problems in education, why does this situation of such low test performance on a national level persist? We have plenty of evidence to suggest that new solutions are needed.
I began my teaching career in the late 1990’s in Texas, during a time when standardized testing and accountability greatly increased in our state. After about three years of teaching in public schools in Dallas, I realized there had to be a better way to improve schools than increased testing. I decided to look for more holistic alternatives that would help keep kids motivated and engaged in learning.
For several years following, I read all the works of education innovators that I could find. Teachers in mainstream teacher training programs are often given plenty of exposure to B.F. Skinner, Jean Piaget, and Abraham Maslow to name a few, but little or no attention is paid to the innovators. If I wanted to learn about them, I had to do my own research.
My older sister became a certified Montessori teacher while I was still studying to become an elementary teacher. We had many discussions about child development and parenting. I spent time observing in the Montessori schools where she taught and worked in a Montessori summer camp. The more I read and observed, the more I found the ideas of Maria Montessori fascinating. I began to realize, if Montessori could create an alternative in her time, so could others in ours. I got inspired to do more.
I postponed my teaching work to start my family, but was able to keep these questions about education alive, researching as much as I could in my spare time. In the hours that I had when my first child napped, I learned about the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, a democratically-governed school with completely student-led learning. I became engrossed. Sudbury model schools had been replicated all over the world, but the model was still largely unknown by most people at that time and is still not well known today. Why hadn’t this idea taken root and spread more rapidly?
In 2001-2002, following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, I helped initiate a founding group to create a Sudbury-Model School west of Houston. We called it Brazos Valley Sudbury School, for the nearby Brazos River. I was hopeful for our school to grow, and yet I soon learned through jumping in with a team of founders with our “feet in the fire,” that there were limits and realities to establishing a not-for-profit school.
Our initiative was granted seed money, yet even with that financial boost, starting such a progressive model in a very conservative part of our country proved difficult. The school struggled to get a foothold. The challenges aside, after the first two years I also began to recognize that for the youngest children, something was still lacking in this model but I could not put my finger on it. I loved the freedom, the practice of self-governance and the interest-driven learning for the older children, but was concerned that the approach somehow left the youngest students too unsupported. I knew from observing Montessori schools how essential order, routine, and structure were for young children’s well-being. Young children thrive with a predictable routine and close, loving adult contact. There was more to it than just giving kids freedom.
After two years, I left behind the Sudbury model in search of new possibilities. Brazos Valley Sudbury School lasted for several more years but morphed and eventually was discontinued. I still held onto a deep respect for Sudbury Schools in general as a model with great potential for teaching self-governance and interest-driven learning. For me, educational freedom was also a question of developmental readiness. Though our Brazos Valley initiative did not survive, a new Sudbury model school was eventually established by others in the Houston area. This newer Houston Sudbury School is still going, which is encouraging to see. Perhaps this newer generation will be more successful where we failed.
After these experiences, I took a break and became a homeschool teacher for a time, reflecting on and reformulating my views. A short time later a friend introduced me to Waldorf education. I thought I died and went to teacher heaven. Children in Waldorf schools were painting, cooking, listening to stories, singing, gardening, doing light carpentry, playing music on all kinds of instruments, doing crafts, and playing outside. They were doing real, joyful activities, not pencil and paper worksheets or fill in the bubble scantron tests for the sake granting adults accountability. The children and teachers looked happy. Even the youngest ones were engaged in meaningful activities: making things with their hands, gardening, cooking and eating meals together. I was excited to enroll my own children in a local Waldorf initiative school called The Harvest, and couldn’t wait to get hired there as a teacher. I learned to knit and play the recorder and taught these and other skills to students. I learned how to tell oral stories, to paint and draw. We also taught traditional academics: reading, writing, arithmetic, but everything which was taught was introduced through the integration of the arts. We took incredible weekly nature walks and field trips to so many places. Teaching became rich, joyful, wonderful, and alive and the learning was much more enjoyable and authentic. Sciences were taught through hands on experiences and observations and all of this was done for far less than per pupil spending in public schools.
Waldorf pedagogy provided me a new picture about what was possible. It was during my first teaching job in a Waldorf School that I was exposed to the philosophical underpinnings. But the transformation to this way of thinking and teaching was not an easy one. I often felt like a fish out of water as I questioned whether this was a “cult” or a “religious” approach. I came to realize it was in fact something else, but I truly had to find my own authentic relationship with this cosmic view of the human being.
In faculty meetings at Waldorf schools, the teachers read lectures and writings of Rudolf Steiner, its founder. Steiner’s material is dense, philosophic and esoteric and often hard to penetrate without the help of a study group. The first Steiner book I read sounded like complete gibberish to me. I learned a whole new vocabulary which was quite foreign. Mastering it required an expensive three year certification/training and years of practice. I had to go through a period of unlearning what my mainstream education and teacher training had given me, and reframe how to think about the role of a teacher and a student in a whole new way. We discussed what a human being is and what a human being needs in order to grow optimally into a free thinker. At times, sitting in deeply philosophical faculty study sessions, I could get frustrated and wondered if I would ever get to the bottom of this approach, let alone learn how to effectively apply it and communicate about it to others to improve our failing public education system.
Ultimately, I pushed past my doubts about Waldorf education because I saw that the children in Waldorf schools were thriving. I taught for three different developing Waldorf Schools for the following eleven years in both Texas and Arizona. In 2009, I helped initiate a Waldorf school called Great Oak School in Tomball, Texas. I learned so much from my years in Waldorf Education, from some very talented, dedicated teachers, many of whom I was humbled to work with. I also learned from the insightful pedagogy itself. With almost no help at all from AWSNA during the school’s start up phase, and very little funding, Great Oak School has survived into its tenth year of operation.
After becoming a Waldorf teacher, I began to believe that teaching is an art, not a science. This artistic view of the teacher represented that “missing piece” which I could not put my finger on many years before. Seeing the teacher as an artist changes the nature of the student-teacher relationship and it changes the work of teaching itself, but our public education system is built on the opposite kind of thinking. Our current system views teaching as a science, as formulaic. If you just apply the right formula, then students will show results.
It turns out what Montessori, Sudbury and Waldorf have in common is that all three approaches place a high value on the freedom of the learner, especially from ages 0 to 7, but these approaches differed greatly from each other when it came to what they do with a child from the age 7-14. Where Sudbury and Montessori offer some freedom, Waldorf shifts to a traditional and compulsory approach for the age 7-14 child but gives so many opportunities for artistic expression that the child does not usually feel stifled or bored. Children who remained in Waldorf Schools all the way through to Eighth Grade were blessed with a rich flowering of creative capacities by age 14 and showed a deep sense of purpose, groundedness, and a quality of being self-possessed that I had never seen before in children that age. It seemed so contradictory to me that Waldorf schools embraced human freedom but still operated under a “compulsory schooling” model. This was explained through a deeper look at Steiner’s view of the 7-year stages of human development. I believe much of why Waldorf Education works is due to this difference, an insight which Steiner took from his cosmic studies.
Even after almost 25 years of teaching and learning about being a teacher, I am still as perplexed as ever at how to fix our nation’s educational system. In 2019, I left private school and returned to public school teaching in Klein ISD, hoping to find some meaningful avenues to apply what I have learned. I still struggle greatly to find adequate expression for what I have learned. Our educational system is entrenched with a scientific, materialistic view of learning, dominated largely by standardized tests and checklists of proficiencies by age/grade level, all neatly arranged and catelouged, enabling teachers and administrartors to quickly categorize a student as low performing or not. The virtual world has captured our fascination and giving students real life experiences and character education seems to take a backseat to the proficiencies of the digital world.
It’s my opinion that the short-term benefits of a materialistic view of the human being have not outweighed the long term de-humanization. The effects are entrenched, global and far beyond what we can even comprehend in our educational system. A more complete view of the human being needs to take the place of a strictly materialistic view.
A human child is more than just a future worker, citizen, consumer, or producer. We are not merely to be rated on our proficiencies, categorized, quantified and graphed. The sooner we temper that tendency to quantify our humanity, the sooner we can create more inspiring places of learning that meet a complete picture of our humanness. When we truly understand and answer the question of what human beings are, then what we choose to do to educate future generations will move in a positive direction.