There is a great deal that can be said about the changes through which the child - young person - passes between the ages of twelve and eighteen. In Waldorf schools, the transition from the Class Teacher period into the Upper School happens traditionally at the age of fourteen or fifteen. However, more schools across Europe are feeling it necessary, or even preferable, to separate Classes 6, 7 and 8 from the Lower School and from their Class Teacher, and to hand them over to ‘Middle School’ specialists.
There is no question that this is a time of transition. The twelfth year of life is a kind of limbo; twelve-year-olds are no longer really children, but they are not yet teenagers, and adulthood is still a long way off, although they do not recognise that. After the challenge of the tenth year came the struggle to establish some balance and order, which was more or less achieved during Class 5.
Then comes puberty, bringing another onslaught of emotions and physical changes that are difficult to deal with, both for the children themselves and the adults around them. What the children have learned from their earlier experience is that they need to control the situation, so, in Class 6, this is again their response.
As always, this finds its reflection in the curriculum. In the “traditional” Waldorf curriculum, the Romans (i) march in step across the known world, everywhere encountering resistant tribes with their varied and colourful cultures, not engaging with them, but offering a choice: surrender and join us or be crushed. There you have a picture of the situation in the child’s soul life at this time. Each one is a Roman emperor trying to maintain control of the realm of his own feelings by laying down the law. The world, other people, himself, everything is judged, categorised and labeled: ‘Things I like’, ‘Things I don’t like’, ‘Things that are cool’, ‘Things that are rubbish’, ‘Things I will never do’, ‘Things I must do’, ‘Things I am good at’, ‘Things I can’t do’, etc. Once the categories are fixed (and at this point he sees no reason why they would ever change) he compares his list with those of his peers, for reassurance, and adjusts it as necessary. Belonging to the group matters, and there is no room for variation in the group; its judgements are absolute. In this way, the twelve-year-old secures a place for himself in the world. He makes a statement: ‘This is who we are’; the question,‘Who am I?’ has not yet arisen. Although this is uncomfortable for us - from our adult perspective, our children are submitting to peer pressure - it is just as it should be and we have to resist the temptation to interfere with it.
Once the twelve-year-old has found where she fits, she believes that she has grown up - that she understands how the adult world works and has learned how to operate in it - and that she will get older, but otherwise life will go on just as it is now. For some, and at times for all, this brings reassuring stability. Confidence comes from knowing what the rules are. But for all of them, I think - I hope - there is an underlying feeling of disappointment - a feeling of ‘Is this all there is?’
At this moment, we take a file of something boring and familiar off the shelf (they groan as we do it), blow off the dust and open it up. They get ready to add some dull facts to their collection, resigned to the prospect of spending their remaining school days accumulating more and more dry information. But instead we take them into a completely dark room, turn on a torch and they can’t see the light. There is only a circle of light on the ceiling and they don’t notice it at first. How is that possible? They find that they can hear the difference between cold water and hot water (but temperature is something you feel, not hear!); that a small piece of wire can ring like a church bell, as long as the sound has something better to travel through than air (so everything we hear is muffled??). We show them that everything they thought they knew is a signpost to something greater and more fascinating than they could ever have imagined. We start to open up the familiar world so that it fills again with the wonder it held for them when they were very small and everything was new; to plant the seed of a thought in their minds: ‘There is no end to what I can discover!’
But this is not simply a circus act; appealing to the legionaries in them, we train them to discipline their powers of perception - to really listen and observe, to become aware of what they experience, to articulate their observations and experiences clearly and accurately and, perhaps most of all, in the age of Google, to trust their own senses.
As the faculties of judgement, objectivity and thinking develop through Classes 7 and 8 and into the Upper School, they balance the emotional turmoil which, in turn, brings enthusiasm to the process of learning. If we help the students to activate their will through this renewed enthusiasm and curiosity, they can observe with increasing clarity the beauty of form and order in the natural world, the struggle to achieve these things in the human world, the world of ideas, philosophy and reason that arises from striving to understand it, the inner path of the developing individual looking for his place in it all. Through examples, experiences and biographies, we bring before the students the infinitely various ways in which the world can be, and has been, interpreted, and the conjuring tricks of Class 6 deepen and become embedded in the widening and ever more meaningful context of the world as a whole.
Such is the nourishing feast we are expected to lay before our adolescent students; no wonder then that many Class Teachers - and their colleagues - hesitate on the threshold. As if the increasingly daunting content of the curriculum and the need to become something of a magician as the students get older were not enough, there are then the students themselves.
The problem is, they haven’t read this, so they don’t know how wonderful it all is and how much good it will do them. They live in a world of instant gratification, without process or struggle, where they can fill their time and thoughts with things they enjoy and which amuse and entertain them. Sometimes being able to do this for more of the time is the extent of their ambition for the future. This is what they think adult life is.
Of course, I am being glib, but the influence of social and entertainment media on these young people means that they are exposed to and have access to things that develop a habit of passive consumption; things that are desensitising and incomprehensible for them; things that give them a disorientating and unwholesome picture of the world that works against what we are trying to do. Many teachers believe that our students need to be free of screens and smartphones so that they can receive what we want to give them, a belief that springs, at least partly, from our own inability to keep up with and monitor them. At the same time, there is the realisation that this is a battle we cannot win, and the consequent feelings of powerlessness and despondency contribute to the thought that we should perhaps give up. The world in which these children aregrowing up did not exist twenty - even ten - years ago; it is new for all of us, but whereas we approach it with suspicion, our students are comfortable in it and relish the constant change. This is the reality of the situation, and our job as teachers cannot be other than to engage with it, negotiate it and try to understand it - in the same way that we expect our students to engage with what we want to teach them - so that it becomes another aspect of the world for us, just as it is for them. If we look hard enough, we can find meaningful connections everywhere; after all, the virtual world is as much a product of human culture as a Medieval cathedral or a Renaissance painting, and if we approach it with interest, it will yield its wonders and we can use them with conviction in our teaching.
The main reason for the institution of a separate Middle School for classes 6, 7 & 8 seems to be that Class Teachers either don’t have sufficient knowledge of all the subjects that need to be included in the Main Lesson programme for these classes, or they struggle to adapt their style of teaching and their relationship to the children as they become adolescents. On the other hand, there is an awareness that a relationship of trust and love exists between the student and his Class Teacher and that this provides a unique opportunity to offer the necessary support for the child entering adolescence. The question of whether Class Teachers should continue to hold their classes beyond Class 5 arises in conversations around these three issues.
Perhaps I have only succeeded in demonstrating that Classes 6, 7 and 8 have more in common with the Upper School than with the Lower School, but the transition from childhood towards adolescence and adulthood does not begin in Class 6; it would be just as easy to make a case for Middle School beginning in Class 4, and there are significant changes in Class 3.
In reality, the evolution of consciousness is a gradual and continual process that takes place throughout our lives. The children change, but so do we. There is no period in a teacher’s life when he does not need to change and develop what he does and the way he does it. The decision to hand over a class to someone else when it becomes more challenging is understandable in view of what has been outlined above, but part of the decision is perhaps also the idea that someone else will not struggle with these issues. The truth is we are often only handing them to someone else who is willing to struggle with them. The struggle is an unavoidable part of the task for everyone, and the question we should be asking is not so much ‘Can I do it?’ as ’Do I want to do it?’ And of course, the answer is sometimes no, but it can also be yes.
Amanda Bell was a Class Teacher for 17 years before moving into the High School to teach History and Art at The St Michael Steiner School in London. She has been co-director of the London Waldorf Teacher Training Seminar since 2010.
(i) In the “traditional” Waldorf curriculum, based on European culture and history, the Romans are the example of a conquering people. However, in other cultures a different people might be chosen as an example. (Ed.)