“Special Educators Need to be Bridge-Builders”

The four discussion participants sitting around a table
From left: H. van Woudenberg, M. Trautwein, B. Schmalenbach, D. Randoll, Photo: Alanus University

Anthroposophically-oriented special education schools find that their work receives considerable recognition, yet the theoretical foundations of that work are often controversial. A recent empirical study examined, for the first time, special education Waldorf schools from the perspective of their teachers. The results are discussed here in an interview with study authors Dirk Randoll and Bernhard Schmalenbach, professors at the Alanus University of Arts and Social Sciences, together with Manfred Trautwein, Director of the Anthropoi Bundesverband anthroposophisches Sozialwesen e.V. and Hendrik van Woudenberg, Director of the Ziegelhütte youth welfare association. They also shed light on the profession of special educators at Waldorf schools and talk about steps that will be needed to develop such schools in the future.

How did the study come about?

Dirk Randoll: I was always interested - both as a parent of school-aged children as well as an educational researcher - in the quality of schools from the perspective of those concerned. That's why I carried out so many surveys of students at various types of schools. In 2011 I had the idea to carry out a survey of Waldorf teachers. The central questions were: What are the conditions that Waldorf teachers work under? What motivates them to work at a Waldorf school? What is their professional background? The result of this interest was a larger study with over 1,800 respondents, which was published in 2013. The sample also included teachers at Waldorf schools for special education, and Bernhard Schmalenbach thankfully indicated his willingness to look more closely at this part of the data and to evaluate it.

Bernhard Schmalenbach: And that's how the first empirical study of teachers at Waldorf special education schools came about. The study has been received with special interest by the schools themselves.

That means that the results are being considered by the schools, and will have an impact on instruction?

Manfred Trautwein: Exactly right. We're very grateful that this study was carried out. We presented the study and discussed the results at the plenary session of the working group for special education. It definitely encouraged some self-reflection.

DR: We're very pleased to hear that. 15 years ago, people were very reserved about the idea of empirical research with respect to Waldorf education. But today, it's very widely accepted.

At the very beginning of the study you indicate that there is a high demand for Waldorf teachers - and also for special education Waldorf teachers. What can aspiring teachers expect in this field, and what are the major differences to a teaching job at a classic Waldorf school?

Hendrik van Woudenberg: The teachers at special education schools need a very wide spectrum of abilities and knowledge. Special education, therapeutic educational approaches, medical and psychiatric knowledge and skills - all are in demand here. This is related to the fact that teachers must be able to deal with extreme forms of behaviour. This requires a larger repertoire of responses from the teacher. Another difference is that special education Waldorf schools work with children who need to be reached and engaged in their particular specialness. It is a differentiated approach.

BS: Class size is another factor. At a Waldorf school the class size can be between 28 and 40 students, at a special education school it's about 10. In special education, teachers need to builder a stronger and more intense connection with the child.

HvW: It's also important for teachers at special education Waldorf schools to form stronger networks in their environment. They develop contacts with therapists, youth welfare services, and social services.

MT: This networking is also necessary internally. As a special education teacher I am used to working in a team. For a Waldorf teacher that is not per se the case; there it is rather a matter of one person being able to lead and guide a large class. As a special education teacher I work together with, for example, class helpers, integration specialists, volunteers and therapists.

Inclusion and integration are playing an increasingly important role, especially since the UN Convention concerning the rights of people with disabilities came into effect. Will there someday no longer be a difference between special education schools and mainstream schools?

DR: The overlap between special education schools and mainstream schools have become more flexible. According to the most recent ikidS study at Mainz University, for example, around a quarter of all kids at a mainstream school are affected by chronic conditions such as physical, psychiatric or psycho-social impairments.

MT: It's true that the line between mainstream and special schools is getting thinner, and there is an ever-increasing diversity of schools on offer; as a result, the demands placed on Waldorf teachers are also changing. They, too, must take a more individual approach and need considerably more therapeutic knowledge and competence for their work. However, from today's perspective there are clearly also limits to what inclusive education can offer. Despite great efforts, it has not to my knowledge been possible to integrate all students, including those with a great need for support in the areas of emotional and social development, in inclusive schools. For that reason I assume that specialized education will continue to be offered, although we should also continue to make strides towards as much reasonable inclusion as possible.

BS: I can imagine that more and more students will be inclusively educated with a focus on “learning.” And that the structure of students at special schools will change.

That would mean that only students who cannot be integrated would attend special education schools. Are there any possible and practical alternatives?

MT: The schools themselves are tying to develop alternatives. And we, as a federal association, support this. One example is the Bettina‐von‐Arnim school, a special education school in Marburg. There they have developed a concept for a Waldorf school at the elementary level in which students learn inclusively in the first four years, and then can take separate educational paths. The idea is that this Waldorf-based inclusive elementary school, in the same location and the same building complex, will become a part of the Bettina‐von‐Arnim school, with an educational emphasis on learning, emotional, social, and psychological development, and with a broad diversity of students, including those in a waking coma.

BS: The principles of Waldorf education are well suited for this purpose. It is “inclusive” by nature, both in terms of understanding students, as well as in its methods and didactic approach. In light of this, one can easily imagine places of education where children learn together and form one class, but where they are not together all the time and for all subjects, but learn in a differentiated way - with special emphases on arts, craftsmanship, and nature-related activities, including options to complete a training.

The expectations placed on teachers at special education schools are becoming more and more complex. The study indicated that the teachers feel that they are best prepared to face these increasing expectations if they have a university degree in education, plus a training period in a school, plus a Waldorf training program. What conclusions do you draw here about training and qualifications?

MT: The result you just described was confirmed for us, and the working group for special education schools has been very intensively focused on training and education in recent years. We are currently working together with Alanus University to develop a degree program that is equivalent to the state's program in special and inclusive education, but that also integrates anthroposophical and Waldorf principles. But the study also made clear that we need to improve the framework for the students, and that includes also salaries for colleagues. Of course, there are other attractive aspects to the job, such as the independent, self-directed work.

The study revealed exactly this tension. On the one hand, teachers are dissatisfied with their financial situation, yet they indicate a high degree of satisfaction with their jobs. How do these things fit together?

DR: Job satisfaction has a lot to do with the opportunity to act independently. I think that this is an essential element of special education - teachers can help to shape and influence their schools in a very broad way. In terms of job satisfaction, salary plays a subordinate role - which does not mean that it is unimportant.

Does a spiritual outlook play a role in job satisfaction? Put another way: Does a teacher need to be personally interested in anthroposophy in order to be happy as a teacher in a special education Waldorf school?

DR: One must certainly have an affinity to the concept of the person that Waldorf education is based on. I also wouldn't work in a Catholic school if I had problems with Christianity.

BS: I see anthroposophy as a field of orientation for acting and thinking. The study showed that teachers have very individual approaches to anthroposophy. There are colleagues who tend to emphasize an artistic approach, while others place a high priority on self-development; many consider the basic understanding of the human being to be a good foundation and an opportunity to understand and guide children in an individual way. We observed a high degree of diversity.

You just mentioned something that is special about the organisation of Waldorf schools: self-management. This is an issue that is often appreciated, but that also often appears at the top of the "frustration scale" of Waldorf teachers. The current study also showed that about a third of teachers wished for a dean or principal to whom one could hand over some responsibility. How is it possible that teachers treasure their individual responsibility and collective responsibility, but at the same time wish they had a principal to take the lead?

MT: Yes, that is ambivalent. But at the same time there are just as many who prefer the classic self-management, and that pleasantly surprised me. The study shows at various points that the existing freedom for creativity and development, even if it is sometimes perceived as a burden, is ultimately something positive. On the subject of stress: you suggest that health management should become an important focus of self-management. Mr. Randoll, from a scientific perspective, what possibilities do you see for creating a more health-promoting environment?

DR: One important aspect is: what is my relationship with my job? How large is the field that I am trying to influence? When one approaches one's profession with the expectation of being able to change the whole world with one's actions, then failure is inevitable. It must be clear, what I'm doing; it must be feasible. One could work in this direction: What are teachers' expectations of their work, what do they need for this, what skills, what competencies must be developed, and what forms of assistance do they need? We must take the issue of exhaustion seriously, and we must establish health management and make sure teachers know about it. Teachers demand a lot of from themselves, in order to shape and develop their teaching and their school.

HvW: I think it is very important that teachers set boundaries and treat themselves well. This also benefits the lessons. It also has something to do with resilience.

MT: That is an important keyword. Educational work and self-management require enormous demands on a person. The question is, how can I develop the qualities of resistance in this context, so that I can deal well with the challenges at hand?  How can I grow stronger, develop greater optimism and acceptance, and become more solution-oriented? How can I organize teamwork with colleagues so that I am supported and feel secured? But it is also necessary for teachers to be provided with adequate resources for their work, so that they are able to carry out the duties that are imposed on them. This ranges from hiring an adequate number of employees, to offering continuing education opportunities. Unfortunately we have to admit that the legal and financial context of schools, connected to the introduction of inclusive education, has rather diminished than improved. Here I see an important tasks for us, the Anthropoi Bundesverband, in connection with the association of free Waldorf schools, and the schools, secondary schools and teaching seminars we are associated with.

In that spirit we wish for a continued successful cooperation between Alanus University and Anthropoi Bundesverband. Thank you for the interview!