The most important thing for which we can prepare a child is the experience of freedom, at the right moment in life, through the understanding of one's own being.


Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925)

Teaching Practice
Paul Hougham, Interview, Steiner Academy Hereford, England
By: Paul Hougham, December 2014,

Tending the Chrysalis - Interview with Paul Hougham

Paul Hougham, teaches citizenship, politics and history and is also the class eight teacher at Steiner Academy Hereford in England. This is a rural, single stream school which runs from kindergarten to class ten. It converted from independent to state funded in 2008. Paul had taught acupuncture to adults for over 15 years and started teaching at Hereford Steiner Academy three years ago. He graduated with an MSc in Educational Leadership and holds state qualifications as well as Waldorf certificates in education. His publications include “The Atlas of Mind Body and Spirit” (2006) and “Dialogues of Destiny: A Postmodern Appreciation of Waldorf Education” (2014).

Why are you a teacher?

I appreciate all that discovery, insight and connection hold, and find all three within teaching.

Why are you a Waldorf teacher?

My experience is that the Waldorf tradition of teaching demands a level of creativity in terms of curriculum design, collegiate relationships and pedagogical craft that is both rewarding in and of itself, but that also accords with broader social ethics. These are the assumption of individuality for each young person, the value of that individuality, and the co-operative methodology in supporting its flowering. The essential difference of Waldorf education in my eyes is that instead of a forced imprinting or tearing of a young person into adult society, it seeks to support their natural unfolding, as if a chrysalis of potential.

How do you include Steiner's work in your daily teaching practice?

I value the verses that Steiner wrote, and their inclusion in the life of our school. They prompt substantial discussions for the more secular upper school students which I attempt to meet with as much honesty and historiography as I can muster. More substantially and importantly, it is the holistic vision of child development in distinct phases as a basis for pedagogical practice, and the demand on my consciousness and presence, that I value in Steiner’s challenge.

What significance has Steiner’s work in your life?

Rudolf Steiner is, for me, one of the great navigators of the twentieth century. I am inspired by his exploration of consciousness but cautious of the institutionalisation of his charismatic vision and the lack of ongoing cultural criticality within the tradition.

What is special about your school?

Steiner Academy Hereford is the first state funded Steiner Waldorf school in the UK. We have beautiful buildings, and embrace a number of paradoxes, including the phenomenon of a rural school with cosmopolitan threads.

Are you a parent and how does this affect your teaching practice?

Yes, I am, with all the humility and pragmatism that goes with parenthood! So this affects my teaching in terms of the constant lightness that is asked of me, and the perspective of what is possible, and what is not.

Is there anything you'd like to change in your life as a teacher?

I would like to see a similar level of doctoral research in Waldorf education in the UK to that in Australia, and I would like to participate in that alongside my classroom teaching.

Which challenges is your school faced with?

We have been the pioneers of state funded Steiner Waldorf education in the UK, and are fortunate to have the challenges that this involves, including supporting both independent and newer state schools find a neighbourly coexistence, establishing a curriculum that meets the needs of the children, the school and the vision of the tradition, and managing the cultural changes that the transition to state funding has involved for the community.

What are your personal challenges?

I struggle with the debate around whether a Waldorf teacher should be a member of the Anthroposophical Society, a debate brought by both supporters and detractors of the movement. I find that the debate currently distracts from the qualities of social emancipation that most of both camps would argue for. I personally choose not to be a member of the society because I am more interested in promoting social dialogue rather than any one social institution. I also find that an acknowledgement of the angelic forces on world development, is more usefully expressed through the neo-realist terminology of social ecology and the dynamics of consciousness rather than that of the “spiritual world”. Nevertheless, I remain deeply appreciative of the aspirations of the society, and am happy to work with colleagues towards the social renewal it espouses.

Is the gender debate an issue at your school and in your day to day teaching?

Which gender debate? I am aware of a good number. Do you mean gender equality across professions and leadership positions? This is something we as a school have explored within Citizenship Studies recently, ably abetted by Emma Watson’s remarkable UN speech when she introduced the HeforShe campaign. We are a small school with a majority of women in both our leadership team and teaching body. In a broader context, there are more female teachers nationally in the UK, and wage inequality applies as much to comparisons between professions with a typical gender role as much as it does to individuals within those professions (plumbers get paid more than teachers in the UK). My experience at our school is that we work well as a team of men and women, offering support to colleagues when needing to guide the more sensitive aspects of adolescent development.

What is the particular strength of the culture in your country?

Courtesy. Australian friends rib me for our thank-you-please culture and American friends for the sleight of hand of Empire. With the gradual post-colonialism that is rising here, and the grass roots multiculturalism of music, art and people despite the sloganeering of Euro-scepticism, there is some truth to the chivalry of our culture, despite its iron-clad class system.

How do people react when you tell them that you teach at a Waldorf school?

With interest, generally, and some suspicion, depending upon whether they have had children go through education, and whether those children have either thrived or suffered at its hands. Much depends on people’s fundamental ethics and their experience of the social ladder.

What position do teachers have in your society?

Theoretically respected but with varying levels of trust from parents, the press and regulators. Recent Secretaries of State for Education have variously called teachers „enemies of promise“ (Gove) or „Heroes“ (Morgan), whilst dual qualified teachers (both state and Steiner Waldorf trained) are in the minority.

Do you feel you have enough to say about management and policy making at your school?

As a manager – yes, although I do work towards to illuminating the dynamics of both the hidden curriculum (what we have always done) and the hidden infrastructure (who has always done it).

How does your gender affect your teaching practice?

I am a male with postmodernist echoes and an eye for the UN’s HeforShe campaign*. My gender does affect my teaching practice, in terms of the social context that will place me in, just in the same way that every aspect of my biography, biology and social context affects it. It is of as much relevance that I am from Birmingham, and the quality of speech that this brings. (Have a look at the BBC’s „Peaky Blinders“. It has done much to rehabilitate the Birmingham accent from its bad reputation.)

Do you remember any „best“ or „worst“ teaching moments?

Probably the same one. After a number of years of constantly searching for a way to reach a particular young student in my class who had been consistently negative, I found myself introducing a project to the class to which this particular student responded incredibly positively. Their posture straightened and the quality of their gaze was both engaged and sated at the same time. The downside was that there was not the necessary support at home to enable them to take up the project, but that experience of engagement lived in that moment, and this is a beacon I am still working with.

How do you stay sane and healthy?

I appreciate the assumption that I am both! I appreciate more the increasing wisdom that we are all located upon a spectrum of health, and it is insight into this fact of our diversity, and compassion for the journey we are all on. This is helping to develop the existential ballast we need collectively in order to navigate the journey ahead, without needing a grand narrative of manifest destiny. I appreciate Steiner's notion that humanity's destiny is re-created.

What keeps you from not giving up?

Again, I appreciate the assumption that I have not! Globally, maybe not, but each day there are those small defeats that are very important for my illusions. Failure is an under-rated skill, I find, and through embracing it more, I find my humanity more. I wonder, actually, if this is why I am a teacher, that I want to share the capacity to put one foot in front of the other, whatever the circumstances, with the next generations.


Best wishes and thanks for your interview!

* HeForShe is a solidarity movement for gender equality.

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