Harlan, please tell us about your school.
Green Meadow Waldorf School is located in Chestnut Ridge, NY, a village once part of the neighbouring small town, Spring Valley. The school and its sister institutions—a Waldorf teacher training college, eurythmy school, model biodynamic garden, anthroposophic home for the aged with associated biodynamic farm, and natural food store—constitute a protected pocket of land that includes open space, streams, and woodlands, all surrounded by the suburban sprawl of New York City, 30 miles south of us.
The school has about 300 students in grades 1-12 as well as a substantial kindergarten and early childhood program. Class sizes vary; our largest classes usually have about 28, our smallest around 18 students.
There are about sixty full-time staff. A full-time teaching position is the equivalent of 20 lessons per week. Class teachers in the elementary school and class advisors in the high school are given lesson credit for their extensive work with students and parents. One of our challenges in recent years has been high class teacher turnover. We are currently exploring how the middle school (classes 6-8) would best be held in future.
And what do you do at Green Meadow?
I currently teach high school mathematics, physics, computer science, and philosophy (ethics), chair the mathematics and science department, and contribute to several adult education programs in the area. I have been teaching in the high school for thirteen years; before this I was a class teacher.
Why did you become a Waldorf teacher?
I became a Waldorf teacher out of a joint interest in teaching—I had previously explored other educational approaches and found these lacking—and anthroposophy, whose unusual capacity to transform practical aspects of life through a spiritual perspective impressed me early on.
What fascinates you about teaching?
Teaching is for me an opportunity to jointly explore themes in a context that fosters the development of young people. Though the purpose of my work is to enable others to grow, I am increasingly aware that this is most likely to succeed when I am also growing, or more precisely, when everyone in the interaction—whether student or teacher—is in an open, exploratory mode. This has been perhaps my most active direction of growth over the years.
What keeps you from not giving up?
My interests outside the school world definitely help keep my teaching alive. Over the years, I have written a book on child development and pedagogy, At the Source, and numerous articles on anthroposophical and pedagogical themes. Most recently, I have completed a doctoral program in philosophy and written a dissertation, now under final review, on a theme that interests me, how identity expands to encompass others. Over the years, these activities have nourished my being and my teaching, often in surprising ways.
How has teaching, in your experience, changed in recent years?
Much at our school has changed over the years. When I first came, many classes employed largely frontal instruction, the parents were quite strongly supportive of the Waldorf philosophy, and the children were expected not to view media. Now, most school parents are simply looking for a good education for their children, with no previous commitment to the Waldorf philosophy. Every year, younger and younger students are caught up in the distracting whirl of television, videos, social media, and texting. The success of classes often depends upon the students being actively engaged. These factors create a stimulating and also challenging environment.
Which further challenges are you faced with?
The biggest challenge I see on a school-wide level is the increased level of critical evaluation coming from all sides: the administration, school parents, pupils, and colleagues. I feel that we are all faced with the task of learning how to both convey and receive criticism in productive ways. This could be translated into the question: how do we ensure that we grow as teachers and as a teaching body, fostering our strengths and overcoming our weaknesses, while nurturing a positive and collegial atmosphere?
You seem to be a busy person! But you somehow find the time to host an online forum, too. How did this start?
The Waldorf Mathematics and Science Teachers Forum had its beginnings in an exchange that, Jamie York, a friend and colleague, fostered in the early years of the Internet, conducted through email posts using the “Reply All” feature. As new technologies for hosting such discussions became available in the mid-2000s, we moved this forum into the current Google Group format, of which I became the host.
What are the benefits and who gets involved?
The forum has proven to be a very useful place to share ideas, ask questions (this always stimulates productive discussion), and pass around information. Topics range widely: they include curricular and methodological questions, puzzles, notices about new advances in a field, and announcements of teaching positions opening up at a school. Since the start of the forum, an average of 4 new conversational threads have begun each month. While purely informational notices will usually not receive replies, thematic questions generally lead to very productive conversations.
The majority of the forum members are high school teachers of mathematics and/or science, along with some elementary school teachers and a few friends who are not teachers but are active in mathematical or scientific fields. We very much welcome new members!
Thank your for this interview and all the best for your many tasks!
Waldorf Math and Science Forum: An online forum for teachers of maths and science. If you are interested in joining the group, please contact the forum host, Harlan Gilbert here (please mention your name and school).