Schooling through Steiner
Elaine, Martin, Olivia, Juliette, Jesse
One night in mid-2006, as I was tucking my five-year-old Juliette into bed she burst into tears. "What's wrong, princess?" I asked.
"It's the zaps," she sobbed. "Everybody at school is zapping each other. The kids are zapping each other. The teachers are zapping the kids. Mummy, please," she begged, "can you find me a patting school?"
I was pleased that the teachers view their role holistically in terms of children’s academic, social, emotional, ethical and spiritual wellbeing as well—“head, heart and hands.”
My family had immigrated to Perth when I was seven and my siblings and I were enrolled in a mainstream private school. I met my first husband at school so when it came time for us to enrol Juliette, we didn't think twice about what school she would attend.
In February 2005, on her first day of kindergarten (also known as pre-primary in some states), three-year-old Juliette asked me "How do you make new friends, mum?"
"Just be friendly," I replied. "Say hello, share your name, and invite them to play."
The advice I gave was naive. The children organised themselves into cliques according to which daycare/mother's group they had attended. When I volunteered as 'Mother's Help,' I watched Juliette hop from group to group being rejected and eventually curl up alone in the reading corner.
My child became clingy and competitive
She was not unique - many children were being marginalised in other ways. Juliette began to say negative things about herself that were at odds with the positive reinforcement she received at home. She was being verbally bullied. I approached the school psychologist who assessed Juliette as a confident sociable child. She ran anti-bullying sessions with the children. By pre-primary, Juliette was experiencing physical bullying. She tried everything our 'resilience training' had taught her: saying "no," moving away, soliciting protection from the teacher, to no avail. She even wrote her bullies a friendly letter, asking them gently to please stop hurting her.
In two years, my bouncy child had become withdrawn, clingy and competitive. She started comparing herself to others'a strategy common in schools focused on producing academic achievers. She was now five-years-old. I began to appreciate how tough the elite private school environment could be, and understood some of the competitiveness I had witnessed in school; The marginalisation of individuals who did not 'fit into the box,' and the maladaptive coping behaviours students adopted which often haunted them throughout their adult life. Eventually, the psychologist suggested that the anti-bullying policy was failing owing to the competitive culture of the school community. She advised that Juliette would be better off in a healthier environment.
We researched different educational philosophies
Juliette's father expressed an interest in Steiner and Montessori. I am a researcher, so I spent the following weeks researching curriculums and pedagogies of various educational methodologies. I visited several schools, including an Emilio Reggio school, a Montessori and a Waldorf school called West Coast Steiner.
Steiner stood out for its strong emphasis on an exceptionally healthy approach to childhood and learning. In contrast to the 'fit in or suffer' attitude, Steiner supports each child through his/her developmental stages and individual pace to discover a sense of purpose and connectedness with others, the environment and the global community. Rather than pushing children to acquire skills prematurely, it aims to cultivate literacy and numeracy skills through age-appropriate, meaningful activities focused on language, memory, concentration, creativity, fine and gross motor, rhythm and counting, in a setting connected to the natural world.
Computer and television are minimised until children have had the opportunity to develop their sensory, imaginative, conceptual, coordination and value judgement skills. Teachers have mainstream and Steiner certification, remaining faithful to the state curriculum while immersing children in core texts, physics, geology, astronomy, botany, zoology and geography, enlivened by weaving art into each subject.
One teacher for seven years
There are specialty subject teachers, as well as one teacher responsible for each year-group for seven years of primary school. This aims to enable a caring, stable connection between teacher and child, avoids annual adjustments for small children, and precludes the possibility of teachers ignoring 'problem' students for the duration of the year. Teachers aim to create a personal and individual relationship with each child.
I entered West Coast Steiner with a critical eye, acutely aware of how vital the schooling decision was. Juliette's teacher described how Dr. Rudolph Steiner's philosophy of the human being (Anthroposophy) influenced the educational philosophy underlying the Steiner methodology. I was pleased that the teachers view their role holistically in terms of children's academic, social, emotional, ethical and spiritual wellbeing as well as 'head, heart and hands.'
Accepting cultural diversity
We discussed Juliette's Jewish background and religious requirements. The teacher assured me that while Steiner education is non-denominational, Juliette's faith would be valued as it would enrich the environment and create learning opportunities. She invited me to run sessions with the children introducing them to our traditions. The school has preferred to call Juliette by her Hebrew name, Yehudit. The inclusive, tolerant attitude was incredibly refreshing and I have since seen it extend towards children of varied intellectual and physical abilities.
We felt utterly affirmed in our decision to move Juliette after receiving a letter from the other school stating "Thank you for informing us that you will be withdrawing your child and placing her in an environment more suited to her special needs." I was amazed that a school would view a nurturing, supportive and safe environment as a 'special need.'
My confident child returned
Juliette has now returned to her bubbly self, with an added sense of inner confidence. Steiner enabled her to emerge from her shell, form friendships with children from a wide range of backgrounds, learn to value her own identity within the context of a multi-cultural community, and become a non-competitive team-player.
She is a capable reader, mathematician, and scientists, as well as knitter, artist, sculptor, sewer, weaver, woodworker, string and wind musician, singer, dancer, cook, writer, story-teller, multi-linguist and gardener. Her thirst for knowledge and enthusiasm for learning is self-motivated and inspired by her own interests.
My younger children started at Steiner
My younger child Jesse joined the pre-kindy program last year at the age of three and blossomed from the start. He revels in the opportunity to be immersed in nature, and his imagination and self-expression is thriving. Jesse's teacher also has a background in psychology and she has brought out the best in his otherwise feisty personality.
Early childhood teachers display exceptional awareness of children's socio-emotional needs. I am impressed with their sensitivity towards the needs of boys, who in less understanding environments are pressured to suppress their emotions in accordance with mainstream western cultural notions of masculinity. In a mainstream environment, Jesse would have spent fruitless time in the 'naughty corner,' but will never be forced to endure that kind of labelling at Steiner.
My four-year-old is able to throw himself wholeheartedly into the joys of dramatic imaginative play, the world of paint, colour and texture and the universe of story, poetry and fantasy, without worrying about the abstract adult world of representational numbers and letters, news and Disney romance, bullies and power, having to fit in or be excluded, as his sister did at that age. I am confident that Jesse will benefit from the extra time Steiner gives young children to establish themselves in the world before they are ready for the years of formal learning that lie ahead.
Active participation by parents
Steiner school use varied governance models. West Coast Steiner's model is supported by an active parent body. Parents volunteer their services to the school to ensure that fees are a fraction of other private schools. This also creates an environment where parents take responsibility for the school. Parents are always on school grounds, whether in the gardening, craft or singing group, sharing specialised knowledge with students, participating in the parent education program, or organising festivals and open days.
In two-and-a-half years, I have yet to experience clique-ness or gossip. Since joining the school, I have experienced life-changes including divorce and remarriage, and the school community has been a source of support and stability for my family through our adjustments. Each morning when I see my children excited to face the school day, I am thankful that I can give them a joyful, empowering education. I know that one day these little people will create beauty and positive change for themselves and the world around them - less 'zaps', and more 'pats'.
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