Self-discovery, Relationship Work and critical Reflection: Interview about the Student Experience at a “Waldorf University”

Fanny Stein and Tamara Bluhm from left to right
Photo: F. Stein and T. Bluhm f. l. t. r. / Alanus Hochschule

The Institute for Waldorf Education, Inclusion and Intercultural Studies in Mannheim has been preparing future teachers for careers in Waldorf schools for nearly 50 years. Various state-accredited degree programmes qualify its graduates for curative educational work with disabled people and youth, in therapeutic practice, and more. Even an academic career is open to students who successfully complete a Master’s degree at the Institute. It is linked to the Department of Education Science at the Alanus University of Arts and Social Sciences, which places particular emphasis on the dialogue between Waldorf education and traditional education science, as well as on the personal development of the students.

In this interview, former students Tamara Bluhm (28) and Fanny Stein (32) talk about this, the importance of relationship building for learning and teaching, as well as the future of Waldorf education and the Institute. They both completed the Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programmes in “Waldorf Education” before embarking on diverging career paths. While Tamara Bluhm is a classroom teacher at a Waldorf school, Fanny Stein is a research assistant at the Institute with a doctoral project at Göttingen University.

Ms Stein, after completing your studies at the Institute for Waldorf Education, Inclusion and Intercultural Studies, you became a lecturer at your alma mater. What do you think sets this place of education apart?
Fanny Stein: The people who study here are not just another student number – in contrast to what is often the case at a large university. Everyone here knows everyone else, and the atmosphere is very familiar and warm – and not only amongst the students. Our lecturers also pay special attention – starting with the application phase – to individualised learning support …

Tamara Bluhm: … and in the course of the five-year degree programme, they always took the time to do things with us. For instance, I remember the inter-year gardening day, where the entire university took time to weed, plant vegetables and create garden beds. We were able to experience our teachers in a completely different light.

Fanny Stein: This experience also makes teaching even more dynamic. At the Institute, teaching is characterised by few lectures. Instead, there are numerous varied theoretical seminars as well as practical exercises in which artistic aspects play a major role.

In what way?
Tamara Bluhm: Waldorf education aims to develop intellectual, practical, social and creative/artistic skills in equal measure in young people. This concept is clearly reflected in the Waldorf Education programme at the Institute – particularly in the Bachelor’s degree programme. In addition to the general education science content and the subject competency, which is especially the subject of the Master’s degree programme, it includes specific Waldorf educational methods and, of course, artistic elements as well – not only in theory but also more specifically in practice. You could say that everything I show the children now as a teacher, painting with watercolours, reciting hexameters or botany, I ‘learned’ myself during my studies.

Fanny Stein: Eurythmy and music, sculpting or speech formation also significantly contribute to students’ self-discovery and personal development, which are essential prerequisites for more than just the teaching profession. This way of opening my eyes has also decisively helped my work as a scientist. It has given me the courage to develop my own research intentions and to address topics that have not been the subject of much research to date.

For example, the autonomy experiences of pupils with movement opportunities in primary school, which you are investigating in the context of your doctorate…
Fanny Stein: I find that topic so exciting because, on the one hand, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child gives children the right to co-determination; however, current empirical findings show that there are hardly any co-determination opportunities for them in primary school. This is primarily because school epitomises a hierarchical educational system in which pupils perceive their teachers to be in a decision-making position – even when they are offered opportunities to participate. My academic work allows me to give these children a voice and be a proponent for their wonderful but also sad experiences in everyday school life.

Ms Bluhm, what is the situation with participation opportunities at Waldorf schools?
Tamara Bluhm: From my point of view, co-determination is rather something that can be found in Montessori education, for instance. Something I think of as characteristic of Waldorf education is the classroom teacher principle, which fosters the development of a connection with the parents and a stable learning community that pulls together and in which each individual pupil and their individual needs are perceived. This is something that, by the way, is also very pronounced at the Institute. Topics for assignments and forms of examination can be chosen very individually. Students with children receive special consideration, for example, in terms of deadlines.

Fanny Stein: In this way, our own experience during our studies allows us to learn that pedagogy is, first and foremost, about relationship building. Our lecturers have always seen themselves as learning guides for their students’ personal development. And one of my core concerns as a lecturer today is to convey that there is not just one educational biography but that everyone can follow their own path. To make this possible and not to remain in entrenched structures is the primary purpose of the distinctive approach of the teachers at our Institute and what sets it apart.

Tamara Bluhm: That’s true. Against this background, you might even say that the Institute itself is a bit like a Waldorf school – but for adults or prospective teachers. A “Waldorf University” so to speak.

Do you have to have been a Waldorf pupil yourself to attend this university?
Tamara Bluhm: Not at all. Neither of us has a Waldorf past, nor do some of our fellow students. What is important is an interest in an anthroposophic view of humanity and an openness to engage with that view.

Fanny Stein: Our degree programme also looks at other models of education, learning and development, which are explored in seminars or exercises with special consideration of the educational policy dimension and always with a differentiated consideration of the Waldorf approach to education.

Critical reflection: What would you wish for the Waldorf school of the future, Ms Bluhm, based on your university education and practical experience?
Tamara Bluhm: I very much enjoy being a Waldorf teacher and especially appreciate the close relationship that can be developed with the pupils, but also with the parents, as a classroom teacher. In my first school year, I spent the whole school day with my pupils, from eight to noon, sometimes until 3pm. I loved it, and it created a strong basis for the difficult times we endured during the coronavirus pandemic when the seasonal celebrations that are so important for Waldorf schools and classroom groups were not possible. I would also like to see this close rapport among the higher year groups, not only because it fosters the creation of a bond with the pupils but also because it relieves the subject teachers. Another element is that classes with more than 30 children are simply too big for real relationship building, which is becoming increasingly essential nowadays. In my opinion, team coaching or teaching in pairs are innovative approaches that are needed if individual support or inclusive learning is to be developed. The artistic impulses that come from Waldorf education are also helpful. There is something for everyone. Some children who have difficulties with arithmetic or writing, for example, can develop their strengths in arts or crafts. Their classmates in the class group see and acknowledge this.

Fanny Stein: In my opinion, inclusive pedagogy – which may be enriched by more group and partner work, for instance, instead of lecturing from the front of the classroom – is an absolute topic of the future, for which our Institute raises young peoples’ awareness during their studies with a corresponding focus in the Master’s degree programme. It lays the foundation for the Waldorf school of tomorrow actually being a school for every child – regardless of their educational background, social background or need for support. One place where this idea is already being implemented is the intercultural Waldorf school here in Mannheim, where I worked as a teacher after completing my Master’s degree and was able to experience how essential special education knowledge is not for teachers who are employed in corresponding curative educational institutions.

Looking to the future of the Institute, what are your hopes and expectations?
Tamara Bluhm: I hope that the special atmosphere that makes the Institute what it is and which made me, as well as many others, decide to study here, will remain – even if the Institute will and should continue to grow – both spatially and in terms of content. For example, through new study programmes such as the Master’s degree in Counselling and Leadership in the Inclusive and Therapeutic Field, which have been added in the few years since we graduated. I would like to see the Institute open up even more in other areas and, for instance, strive to collaborate with other educational institutions in Mannheim or Heidelberg. That could also increase the acceptance of our degree programmes. They are state-accredited; however, prejudices often exist, and we are frequently labelled as those who teach children and young people how to dance their name. Fortunately, a lot is happening to break down such stereotypes as more and more parents become convinced of age-based learning concepts and speak up about their children’s positive experiences.

And you, Ms Stein?
Fanny Stein: As a researcher and staff member at the Institute, I would also like to see more and more young people become increasingly interested in our educational visions and succeed in expanding and strengthening our international and national relations. My greatest wish, however, is that Waldorf education will find its way out of its niche, both in terms of school practice and in the field of science. I hope that my work contributes to this, and I would like for our research findings to become established in education science.