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The Arts in Waldorf Teacher Education

Waldorf schools are filled with art. Children make their own textbooks, full of drawings and colorful, hand-written texts. Stories they hear in class are reflected in their watercolor paintings, feelings swimming across the page of color. Singing and flute music float from the classrooms, mingling in the hallways. In eurythmy class, poems or music inspire movement. Stone carving, woodwork, metalwork; orchestra practice, recitations, and theater plays… The question that visitors pose is: “How do they do all that, and still have time to learn?” 


The role of art in Waldorf schools differs from the place it has as an “extra-curricular activity” in many other school systems. Waldorf schools aim to educate children holistically, not only in their cognitive/intellectual faculties, but also in the realm of their feelings and social abilities, as well as in their ability to implement their impulses in productive and fruitful actions. By involving the arts in classroom activities, teachers vastly enrich the pupil’s experience of lesson content: in a fourth-grade geography class which has involved landscape painting, the sculpting of a topographic map, regional folk-songs and legends, and descriptions which vividly illustrate polarities within the landscape, pupils will come away with a far more intense experience of the geographical region than if they had focused on memorizing names on a map and lists of abstract features. 


What is true in working with children is also true in the education of Waldorf teachers themselves. Art courses in teacher education programs are important for helping future teachers to develop the technical skills and artistic abilities they will need to work in different artistic mediums with children. Yet just as important – or perhaps even more so - are the rich experiences which students can have when working artistically in a Waldorf teacher education program, which further their personal development. These experiences hone skills of sensitive perception, of creative problem solving, and of self-motivated learning. They allow students to come in touch with their own creative potential – which will become their greatest resource for inspiration when working with children. Moreover, artistic experiences can be reflected upon, forming a rich basis from which to understand the human being in a full and comprehensive manner: an understanding which lays the groundwork for helping children to develop fully and comprehensively, to the greatest of their individual potentials. 


Visual Arts in Waldorf Teacher Education


While drawing and painting play an important part in Waldorf teacher education, preparing for painting lessons and chalkboard drawings and helping to bring sensitivity and clarity into the student teacher’s relationship with the world of color, Rudolf Steiner also put particular emphasis on sculptural modeling as an integral part of teacher education (Steiner 1924/1997, p. 57). He went as far as to say that “One should hold as a basic principle: a teacher who never learned sculptural modeling doesn’t really understand anything about child development” (Steiner 20124/2004, p. 153). What made Steiner see sculptural modeling so important, and as so apt for helping to teach future teachers to reach beyond the content of what they needed to transmit, and to achieve a substantive grasp of child development?


Clay is the material most commonly used in modeling courses, so thinking about the quality of this medium can serve as an example to help formulate an answer to this question. When clay is fired in a kiln, it becomes hard, solid, and brittle, as we know it in the form of ceramic plates and cups. Unfired, as found naturally in the earth, it can be mixed with water indeterminately, to the point of becoming fluid. The clay in an art studio is just the right midpoint between these two extremes: fluid enough to be easily moved from one form to the next, but firm enough to stay put in the form in which it is modeled. This quality of clay finds close correlation in the quality of living forms: living forms are solid, but in a fluid state of transformation over time. 


Sculpture is a study of forms. Organic, living beings, be they plants, humans, or animals, all have a different relationship to form than do non-living materials. If an inorganic form is solid, it maintains its form unless acted upon; fluids take the form of the vessel holding them. In the case of organic beings, on the other hand, form changes over time, in a dynamic interplay between forces from within and forces acting from the outside over the course of the being’s life span. When a plant, animal, or human being dies, the form dissolves. This simple fact reveals the intimacy of the relationship between life-giving forces and form: in living beings, form is a direct expression of life force, an interplay between fluid and solid. A study of organic forms, as they metamorphose over time, is perhaps the most direct way to reach an understanding of life forces. 


Waldorf education is not about transmitting dry, lifeless knowledge content. It is about conveying content in a way which resonates with the life forces in the child: with the child’s current state of development, with the child’s fantasy and imagination, and with the kind of thinking that can grow, develop, and ripen with time into abilities and actions. By working with clay, future Waldorf teachers can learn to harness their own life forces: if they over-work the clay, it becomes dry, brittle, and the form may fall apart. Too little inner engagement leaves a limp and lifeless blob of material. The teacher-student needs to find his or her own uprightness, if the form is to stand upright; his or her own inner balance, if the form is to be balanced; and an inner sense of wholeness, if the parts are to work as an organic whole rather than an agglomeration of individual parts. What student teachers do, think, and feel works through their hands and becomes directly visible in their work, helping to develop an experiential understanding of the life forces that regulate patterns of development and transformation in living beings, including the development of the child. 


Performing Arts in Waldorf Teacher Education 

In breathing, grace may two-fold be.

We breathe air in, we set it free.

The in-breath binds, the out unwinds

And thus marvelously, life entwines.

So send thanks to God when you are pressed

And thank Him when He gives you a rest.


Im Atemholen sind zweierlei Gnaden:

Die Luft einziehn, sich ihrer entladen.

Jenes bedrängt, dieses erfrischt:

So wunderbar ist das Leben gemischt.

Du danke Gott, wenn er dich preßt,

Und dank ihm, wenn er dich wieder entläßt.

J. W. von Goethe


A group of students in a teacher education program stands in a circle, facing each other. It is eurythmy class, and they are working on a poem by Goethe, in which the poet describes the pendulum of breath, inhaled and exhaled in a steady rhythm that is echoed in the verse. The students are instructed to first move inward toward the center of the circle, then back to the circumference. Their rhythm corresponds to the pendulum of the spoken words. First, the movements are disjointed. But with practice, the movement begins to flow, until the impression arises not of a group of individuals, but rather of a common circle, expanding and contracting in taut rhythm, without falter. It is the circle that is breathing; the students simply make that motion visible.


This first step of a eurythmy exercise can illustrate one of the central skill-building roles of performing arts coursework within Waldorf teacher education: practicing forming social processes. Be it simple exercises like this one, or far more elaborate processes - like the orchestra and theater performances which the students of Waldorf education will later, as teachers, guide in a school setting - the performing arts often involve the coordination of a group of people. The cooperation between members of the group needs to be formed and refined until the timing is just right. This quality of artistic performances can be carried over to classroom dynamics as well. Success, be it in the classroom or in the school play, is the magic moment when - to use the example above - “the circle begins to breathe”: the moment when the whole is greater than the sum of all the individual contributions. 


In the second phase of the eurythmy exercise described above, the students work on the third and fourth lines of Goethe’s poem, where breath is compared with soul gestures of “distress” (or “binding”) and “release” (“unwinding”). It quickly becomes clear that the gestures of sadness, distress, and pain lead to contraction, and, therefore, corresponds to the contracting of the circle; joy and happiness release pressure, allowing for expansion. Students only succeed in differentiating their movement to express these lines artistically if they have both developed enough skills and a sufficient repertoire of movements to do so, and if they are also able to inwardly conjure an experience of the respective emotional gestures.


This second phase illustrates two further qualities that performing arts work help students to develop – and this holds true both for students of teacher education, as well as for pupils in schools. First: artistic expression cannot take place unless the artist has developed a set of skills with which to express himself. Such skills – be it playing a musical instrument, dancing, acting, or singing – require work to develop. The more practice a person has had building up such skills, the greater the richness in the vocabulary of artistic expression. Practicing an art form not only trains the will necessary to stick to the task, but also enables the joy of accomplishment when developed abilities allow for increasingly rich expression. Second: artistic work involves emotions. To work with feelings artistically, a person is challenged to be in touch with their emotions, and this can lead to skills (such as empathy and compassion) that are indispensable for a future teacher.


In the third phase that the students work on in the above example, the class takes on the final two lines of the poem. Here, Goethe challenges his readers/listeners not to let themselves be carried away by their emotions, but to work consciously with emotions and to see them from a higher perspective. Rather than simply giving oneself up to joy, and hoping that troubles be quickly forgotten, he suggests that both joy and bitterness can be embraced as necessary polarities marking the swing of a pendulum in a course of biographical development. Learning to maintain equanimity in emotional storms is part of growing up - and continues to be a challenge, even in adulthood. Expressing these lines of the poem in eurythmy requires a two-fold gesture: joy makes the heart expand, and one can forget oneself in happiness; but thankfulness for the joy brings a solid inner core of depth to the emotion. Under “distress” a person stiffens, contracts, or wants to hide within themselves, but a gesture of thankfulness brings forth uprightness and grace in carrying one’s load. It usually requires a good bit of eurythmy practice to have the inner agility to express such seemingly disparate emotions simultaneously and yet distinctly. 


The work on such a task can stand as an example of a further value which performing arts have in teacher education: that of encouraging self-education. A pupil in a Waldorf school should feel like they are seen and understood by their teacher, both in abilities and in shortcomings, and that they are both challenged and supported to develop to their highest potential. This calls for teachers who are conscious of their own strengths and weaknesses, and who take an active hand in working on their own self-development. Performing arts always place the artist at the center of artistic expression, be it in the artist’s breath and movement (in instrumental music), voice, intonation and modulation (recitation and singing), movement (dance) or all-around presence (acting). As such, working with the performing arts is an ideal way to become self-aware, and to take action in transforming or further developing existing dispositions, be it in on the level of body language and speech, on an inward emotional level, or on the level of conscious self-formation.


Jennifer Kleinfercher-Irwin

Vienna, Austria



Matthias Jeuken

Stuttgart, Germany

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