Waldorf News

Eugene Schwartz: Online Teacher Training, The Challenges of China and Anthroposophy for Teachers

David Kennedy from Waldorf Today interviewed Eugene Schwartz recently. The conversation touched on the challenges and opportunities of the internet and online teacher training, the inner path of the teacher and the exploding Waldorf movement in China among other topics.

Can Waldorf education, can Anthroposophy be conveyed online?

A decade or two ago, the answer would have been a firm “Absolutely not!” but times have changed, and human beings (even those employed by Waldorf schools) have changed as well. Rather than place everything anthroposophical or “Waldorf” on one side, and everything technological on the other, there is a growing recognition that we may now be empowered to transform or even begin redeeming technology by using it for spiritual purposes. There are, of course, great hurdles raised when you try to squeeze the living, pulsing spirit of Waldorf education into the micro-circuitry of the Internet, but with good will and consciousness on both ends of the broadband, it can be done.

From the moment I began recording my lectures in the 1980s I was told that “Neither Anthroposophy nor Waldorf education can be disseminated without the live presence of a human being standing before you.” We must realize, however, that the people who tend to say that sort of thing were not on earth when Rudolf Steiner was a “live presence.” They learned about Anthroposophy from Rudolf Steiner’s
books. And Steiner was clear that it is possible for a spiritual teacher in our time to be embodied in a book, so that he becomes “mobile” and people can encounter him or her in freedom and when the time is ripe.

Most Waldorf teachers under age 30 have no problem with online learning, and I am interested in how many teachers in their 50s tell me that the most exciting thing about my online conference is that it helped them overcome their fear of computers and the Internet. It is likely that within the next decades far more people will encounter Anthroposophy through the radiant light of computer screens and devices rather than via the reflected light of the page of a book.

You recently started the online conferences. Why do so many people come to an online conference, when it’s brand new and untried?

There is no question that the economy has played a role. Schools cannot subsidize summer trainings as generously as they did in the past, and teachers’ funds are very limited right now. Our online conferences charge a moderate registration fee (our overhead costs are low) and there are no airfares, accommodations, or meal plans – a teacher may save many hundreds of dollars by going online.
Schools have longer academic years nowadays, and there is so much to fit into a short summer vacation – a fixed six-day conference doesn’t work for everyone. We run the conferences from early June through late August and a teacher can choose fourteen days out of those many weeks in which to take part. We have had mothers nursing newborns, teachers looking after aging parents, or teachers who were traveling abroad during the July conferences “peak” – for all them, the online conference was the only conference that they could attend.

I also think that younger teachers, in particular, are looking for something new. We have not tried to create online “substitutes” for the “real thing,” i.e. the live conference. Rather, each online conference represents an entirely new departure in the way in which content is organized and presented. For example, in the hundreds of live conference lectures that I have given over the years, I only had an hour and a quarter to present most subjects; some were worthy of two lectures. On the other hand, my online lectures on a subject like Grade Four Child Development, Grade Five Ancient Cultures or Grade Six Astronomy may go on for three or four hours (divided into 15 – 20 minute segments to make listening easier). The freedom that online recording gives a lecturer makes it possible to fit far more valuable content into a conference than could be done in a weeklong live conference.

And teachers appreciate the fact that, at any moment, they can “pause” a lecture, leave the room, and turn it back on later. Rather than take endless notes while a lecturer speaks, the listener can return to segments several times until the content is mastered. (If notes are needed, a word processor can be available in one window while the audio file plays in another). The hours of student work slide shows and instructional videos that are part of each online conference allow teachers to experience the rich visual components of Waldorf education again and again.

And one more thing! Every Waldorf conference has an audience member who raises her hand or calls out repeatedly, interrupting the lecturer’s train of thought to ask questions that are personal and irrelevant to the subject. Serious teachers hate this, but they are too polite to stop her, and so she tyrannizes everyone else all week long. I can’t tell you how many participants in the online conferences have expressed their gratitude that such a thing can’t happen online, where lectures are recorded without an audience, months in advance. Some say that this alone is worth the price of the conference.

So what’s the downside? What’s missing?

There are three downsides.

The first is that we do not offer eurythmy. Of course, very few class teachers will ever teach eurythmy to their class – we rely on instructors who are trained to do that – so it is not a necessity for a teacher to have five or six eurythmy sessions in a weeklong conference. However, the therapeutic and vitalizing aspects of doing eurythmy during a conference are undeniable. Until the eurythmy world finds its own Jane Fonda to create video sessions that can be followed at home, we will not be offering it as one of our online segments.

Number two is the social aspect of the “live” conference. Since most Waldorf schools only have one class teacher per grade, it is easy to feel quite alone. At a big conference, you meet others who have been through similar experiences all year long, and you can socialize and commiserate as you prepare for the year to come. (It is poignant that Waldorf teachers, of all people, have to leave their schools and attend conferences to feel part of a “community.”) If that social aspect of the conference is all-important to you, then an online conference may not be fulfilling.

The third factor that draws people to live conferences is quite basic, even primal. As many women teachers have told me, “The ‘Art of Teaching Grade X’ conference is the one week all year long in which I don’t have to cook any meals or wash any dishes!” Until we get our Online Catering Service up and running, I don’t think that we can be of too much help there, though I would be willing to talk to some husbands about changing their expectations.

But I would have to say that those are the only downsides. When it comes to content, depth, integration of subjects, and time to digest it all, the online conferences are unique.

If online training is one picture of future teacher training, then aren’t we all just drifting apart into our own little cyber worlds, when we should really be coming together socially and spiritually?

Yes, there is that danger! Of course, this issue has been with us since people began experiencing life through books, rather than through other people, and it is actually part and parcel of the Consciousness Soul experience. Everything in our time is held guilty of being the cause of this alienation, when more than likely everything is just symptomatic of the “anti-social impulses” of which Steiner spoke time and again.

For my own part, I do everything possible to “humanize” the online experience. I have given thousands of lectures to live audiences over four decades, and when recording the online lectures I strive to imagine an audience around me, and I try to direct my words to human beings, and not to computer chips. Anyone old enough to remember the “Golden Age of Radio” knows that an auditory experience can be a stimulant to the listener’s imagination, and even Rudolf Steiner was open to considering how his lectures might be broadcast to receivers. A number of online participants have reported that they felt the audio portions of the conferences conveyed more warmth and personal connection than did lectures that they had heard in “live” gatherings. If we’re going to be online and using the Internet in this way, we all have to work that much harder to meet each other spiritually.

I pour a great deal of myself into the recordings, and I can certainly feel that aspects of my being are being drawn upon when the conferences are in session. For many weeks four or more online conferences are in session, simultaneously, 24/7, and I know that a part of me is present in every one.

Another “social” aspect of the online conferences is that they are international in nature. This summer we will not only have participants from North America, but we will be joined by colleagues in the UK and Ireland, China and the Mideast, and a number of other nations. In our winter, the conferences serve the summer preparation needs of teachers in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. In this respect, online conferences can meet the realities of our global society in a way that live conferences do not – and what is more global in scope than Waldorf education?

You mentioned “colleagues from China.” Are you involved with Chinese schools?

Let me begin my answer by discussing at some history. If you look at a graph illustrating the growth of Waldorf education in the United States, from the late 1920s through the late 1960s it is basically a flat line. Then it shoots up, and grows almost exponentially though the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s.
There were many contributing factors, but one that Waldorf educators never mention is the fact that commercial jet aircraft travel became widely available in the 1960s. That made it possible for people like Frances Edmunds from England, Else Gottgens from Holland, and Hagen Biesantz from the Goetheanum to become “jet setters.” They could fly to the United States two or three times a year, and then fly across the continent. They could share their wisdom and experience with older schools, younger schools, and initiative groups alike. The commercial jet was the “high tech” of the 1960s, and it changed the face of Waldorf education in the United States.

I mention all of this because I would contend that what the commercial jet did for the US Waldorf movement in the 20th century, the Internet will do for the Chinese Waldorf schools in the 21st century. Although the remarkable school in Chengdu is the best-known endeavor, there has been an explosion of Waldorf initiatives in and around Beijing and other urban areas. When the Sunbridge-trained teacher Ning Yuan Yu first asked me to work online with him only one school was trying to form in Beijing. Three months later he told me that six schools were underway. A few weeks later, twenty little kindergartens desperately wanted to start first grades, and a few months after that over 100 schools were clamoring to begin!

Certainly, there is a place for “live” conferences in China, and mentors and lecturers from Europe and North America are already lining up to cross the Pacific and be of help. But really, you could fill up a fleet of Boeing 767s with every qualified Waldorf teacher in the US and you still would not be able to meet the needs of China’s aspiring Waldorf pedagogues – not now, and certainly not five or ten years from now. The only way that Chinese teachers and parents will be able to receive the steady and on-demand help that they need will be through online conferences, training videos, and telecommunications. Ning and I have been at this for a year, and we’ve developed a number of introductory slide shows and a training video that are being distributed in the Beijing area, and we transmit lectures and Q & A sessions via Skype conference calls.

China is a very different nation from where Waldorf schools have flourished so far. What are some of the special challenges in developing Waldorf education there?

Well, here is an example: While preparing to translate a lecture of mine on second grade form drawing Ning came upon the word “metamorphosis” and he asked, “What is that word?” I asked him if he had ever heard the word in his Waldorf teacher training and he said that he had not. We had a long conversation and he said there was no word, no sentence in Chinese that could really convey what metamorphosis is.

Metamorphosis is a foundational concept of Waldorf education, but Steiner has said that China’s strength is its fixity and rigidity. For eons everything was hierarchical. Everything was constant. Now everything is changing profoundly. Are the Chinese going to become “pseudo-Western” or is China going to be able to metamorphose? Will China be able to take the best of its own culture and find a way, like the butterfly, to alight and fly into a whole new world? That’s where Waldorf education will be really critical.

We also have to proceed very carefully. My translator told me that some Europeans were in China recently and were speaking about the four temperaments, the four seasons, and the four elements.

Someone in the audience raised her hand and said that there were five elements in China. So what happened? The teacher from Germany said that was wrong, there are only four elements — and that was that!

We’re going to have to call on faster and deeper approaches to Waldorf education. Anthroposophy is new to China, and it has decidedly Western roots. We’re going to have to re-look and re-think Western culture in order to see what part of it you must have to have a Waldorf school. What do Chinese schools need to receive from us, and what do they need to discover for themselves?

What’s one thing that’s on teachers’ minds at the moment?

The big question most teachers ask is, “How do I get everything done in my classroom and still have a life?” People feel they have less time, less energy, less of a personal space, than ever before. It is interesting that the Archangel Michael, the “patron” of Waldorf schools, is an extremely energetic being who is also becoming a Time Spirit; we can certainly use his inspiration today!

What would you say is the most important thing that could strengthen their teaching?

I know that it sounds sententious, but the most important thing – really, the only thing – is to make a genuine connection to Anthroposophy, particularly the path of inner development. Steiner’s path fits the needs of a Waldorf teacher like a tailored suit. Unfortunately, there is less of an anthroposophical impulse living in the Waldorf movement than ever before, which accounts in part for the energy and time deficits I mentioned above. However, if anyone would like to approach Steiner’s work in an entirely new way, I just happened to have created an online course to make that possible . . . .

Any advice for parents?

The “Economy” is compelling Waldorf institutions to do more fund-raising than ever, and parents are increasingly relegated to the position of glorified panhandlers on behalf of their children’s schools. Parents should not accept this! They should demand parent evenings that involve more than planning bake sales and scheduling class trips, and school newsletters that publish articles of substance about Waldorf education, not just charts that compare how much each class gave to the Annual Fund. In the end, it is the parents who come to understand the Waldorf philosophy and make their connection to it who will carry today’s schools into tomorrow – the teachers are too tired to do that.

Watch a 30-minute sample video from the Online Grade Five Conference: https://vimeo.com/36988759

Eugene Schwartz served as a class teacher at Green Meadow Waldorf School in Chestnut Ridge, NY for over twenty years. He has also been Director of Teacher Training at the Sunbridge Institute, and led teacher conferences at Rudolf Steiner College. An international educational lecturer and consultant, he was recently invited by the Ministry of Education to introduce Waldorf methods to public school teachers in Ecuador. This summer he will be leading seven teacher conferences – three live in Kimberton, PA, and four online. For more information, visit www.millennialchild.com.

The photos of main lesson book pages from students in grades five to seven that accompany the article are from www.millennialchild.com.