Whenever I meet people for the first time there is one question that I always dread, “Where did you go to school?” Even though I have answered it countless times I still trip up trying to word my response. I recall watching as a puzzled look crossed their face at the terms ‘Steiner Waldorf School’ and ‘alternative education’. They would study me intently as if they expected to discover I had pointed ears or a forked tongue – anything to prove I was different. I would try to explain that although it was a private school I did not come from some elitist or privileged background at all. In fact the only way my single mother could afford the school fees was to teach at the school, earning a major subsidy to the cost. But I could see however they had already reached their conclusion: forked tongue or not, I was different and not to be trusted. Overly dramatic maybe, but this is not a million miles away from what happens most times I am confronted with the question.
With over a thousand schools located in sixty countries, Steiner Waldorf Education is the largest independent alternative education movement in the world. Despite this, I have only ever crossed paths with a small handful of people who have even heard of it. It gets the first half of its name from Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian philosopher who developed anthroposophy, the spiritual philosophy that Waldorf education is derived from. The second half comes from the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, where the first school was founded in 1919 to provide an education for the factory workers’ children.
The curriculum is tailored to cater to the needs of the pupils, be they intellectual, cultural or emotional and to provide a balanced education that has a large focus on creativity and imagination. Because of this, the traditional lessons such as maths, English or science are interspersed with more non-traditional ones such as woodwork, gardening and Bothmer (an anthroposophical hybrid of PE and yoga).
Anthroposophy states that the development of a child is comprised of three, seven year-long phases and so the education process is also broken up into three phases: Kindergarten, where there is an emphasis on play and imitation; lower school, where formal education begins; upper school, which brings the curriculum to a close and is designed to create independence.
Of course I knew none of this when in 1998 my mother and I moved to the small town of Heanor in Derbyshire and I began to attend the Kindergarten at Michael House School, aged three years old. In fact this was the sole reason we had moved to Heanor, as the school was in the middle of the local country park that was in easy walking distance of our home. For the next four years I spent my days playing in the Kindergarten garden, drawing pictures with bee’s wax crayons and baking bread once a week. It was a carefree, tie-dye coloured existence and I was very happy and yet little did I know that most children my age were beginning to take their first steps into the world of letters and numbers.
When I was seven years old I graduated from the small outbuilding that housed the Kindergarten to the bottom floor of the main school with the rest of my class. This is when Waldorf pupils first start to learn how to read and write and is a major point of controversy for those who say this is too late. I remember at the time similarly aged children of my mother’s friends clumsily reading out road signs while I stared in bemusement at the alien symbols. Despite this, I would not say that this delayed start had any impact on my reading ability; in fact it may even have been beneficial as I have always been an avid reader.
Once we entered the main school every school day for the next eight years begun with a two hour lesson that focused on a specific subject or topic. This is called the ‘main lesson’ and can cover anything from mathematics to ancient history and mythology with the subject typically changing every 3-4 weeks. This main lesson is taught by the same teacher, known as the ‘class teacher’, ideally for the whole of the eight years of lower school, allowing a strong understanding to form between teacher and pupil.
During my education at Michael House School I had two such class teachers. The first was an elderly woman who retired at the end of class five, leaving us in the hands of a stern yet fair (and we eventually learned very kind and caring) woman who also happened to teach German.Class eight finished with the traditional grand trip abroad for the class and class teacher. Ours was a two week long biking and hiking trip to the south of Germany and Switzerland in the summer of 2010. These two weeks of walking through the Black Forest and cycling along the beautiful shoreline of Lake Constance marked the end of our time in the lower school and the parting of ways for class and teacher. When we returned, the dark clouds that were our GCSEs were rolling in off the horizon.
However the move into the upper school was not all bad. Good behaviour and punctual homework was rewarded with the privilege of being able to leave the school grounds when not in lessons. We would spend many a lunch time at the local garden centre or walking around the country park when the weather was good. Then came revising and mock exams and more revising and then actual exams and then it was suddenly all over.
It was a strange feeling leaving the school after fourteen years, after more than ten years of walking down the same corridors and sitting in the same classrooms and seeing the same faces. On the one hand, I felt sad to be leaving such a major part of my life behind, but on the other, I was more than ready for a change. I would say that the school’s biggest strength was also its biggest weakness for me – it very much felt like its own self-contained world. This enabled the school to have a very communal and tranquil atmosphere which was emphasised by the small number of staff and pupils. However, this also leads to feeling somewhat segregated and cut off from the outside world, especially when with the same people day in day out.
Despite this, it is impossible to think back on my time at Michael House School without recalling many, many happy memories. How every Christmas each class room would have its own Christmas tree decorated with candles that would cause the whole school to be filled with the aroma of pine needles; or how at the end of each term every class would put on a performance displaying what they’d been up to for the rest of the school to watch. I feel like the school had a very positive effect on my upbringing and although at the time some aspects of it frustrated me, I can definitely, in hindsight, appreciate the Steiner Waldorf Education System.
Micha Davis (X Pupil)