Reflections On High School Teaching

In the course of a life’s journey as a Waldorf teacher, my path has led through three grade school classes and then into high school. Each new age and grade level demands an inner adjustment from the teacher; this demand is intensified for the class teacher at the nodal points of child development—the nine-year change and the twelve-year change. The transformation of puberty presents an even greater challenge. High school opens new outer landscapes of study and new inner vistas of soul development. Subject matter expertise is essential but not sufficient for effective teaching; the students must be met and helped to grow inwardly by each subject, each presentation, each assignment.

As I was contemplating leaving the grade school, I recall saying to a colleague, “Oh, the little ones are so sweet!” She replied, “You’ll see—teenagers are sweet too.” This is a kind of quest for teachers and parents—to sense the precious inner core of vulnerable self that longs to emerge, to become, and to grow toward adulthood. Rudolf Steiner refers to the transformation of puberty as a complete metamorphosis, using the analogy of the caterpillar, the chrysalis and the butterfly. A kind of destruction occurs in the chrysalis—of habits, assumptions, and even of knowledge. Everything must be created anew, during a time of tremendous growth and change.

The newly emerging self sometimes is dimly felt by the student; it is mysterious and shadowy, best kept hidden, perhaps not fully to be trusted. It is also individual, powerful, and exuberant, wanting to be seen and recognized. The sensing of this self must be done quietly, for teenagers cannot cheerfully and trustingly reveal their state of soul as first graders do. They are not sure what this new self is, and it does not help to prod it or expose it fully to the light of day. Taking an interest in their lives, if not intrusive, can establish a relationship of trust. Subtle cues can be of great importance—an encouragement, a commendation, or a question, even about life outside the realm of school.

Steiner refers to puberty as a readiness to experience the whole life of the earth, and life expands in high school. Students are juggling friendships, likes and loves, dates, sports, parties, dances, parents, and the freedoms and temptations of the wider world in addition to schoolwork. Helping with time-management is also critical and forbearance is often required, despite the time spent in grade school on these matters. As life expands, the world rushes in. One cannot expect to complete a presentation in class without taking up any number of seemingly random, irrelevant questions. Their urgency is a clue that the students are making inner connections—to other subjects, and to things they had encountered or heard about in the wide new world. In history and literature, parallels and connections to contemporary events, situations and experiences became vital.

Happily, the students’ thinking grows to encompass this need to understand. Contrast, comparison, synthesis and analysis are all exciting new tools for learning and for relating the world to the self. Rather than simply presenting material, the teacher can use Socratic questioning, gentle enough to allow students to find their own epiphanies. The difference is one of standing before the student, as in grade school, representing the world to her, or standing beside the student, mutually contemplating the phenomenon and exchanging thoughts about it. 

Care must also be taken with the subject content. After learning about European intrusion and the slave trade, one girl moaned, “Didn’t anything good ever happen in US history?” This touches on the delicate matter of idealism, which Steiner asks us to cherish as a lodestone for this age. Teenage idealism cannot be naïve; it must be rooted in real-world experience. The crucial question in this 11th grade course is: How are we living up to our ideals as a nation? Biographies, writings and great deeds can present ideals in action, and encourage hope for the future. So also, in the culminating 12th grade block of Symptomatology, the students investigate and present symptoms of health and illness in the modern world. The confirmation that they can understand the world helps them form the resolve to create meaning in life for themselves. 

The students’ creative processes also change in high school. Practice of the arts in grade school cultivates the child’s sensibilities of beauty in the realm of feeling; it also nurtures the inner picture-forming capacity and promotes brain development. Steiner makes the startling statement that teaching through the image is even more important in adolescence. The fine sense of what is beautiful becomes a sense for what is true, and truth is not found in the dead thinking of materialism. Creative work gives wings of imagination to the mind. It works on the thinking as the sun’s forces on the plant, lifting it above the earth and bringing it to blossom. Artistic work becomes freer and more self-directed, allowing for self-expression and thereby self-discovery, confirming the individuality. The sense of who I am, as a unique person with particular gifts (and a particular destiny) will be the inner touchstone for a life in freedom out in the world.

A last guiding star must be mentioned: humor. It may be the most important capacity for a teacher to develop at any level; it is truly essential in high school. In grade school, mostly things are funny, and we try not to laugh at each other. In high school the subjects of humor are broader—we are funny, we human beings with our foibles, pretensions, and goofs, and situations are ironic. We laugh, and in an instant we can rise above the situation together, sharing the perspective that to be human is to be amusing, that life is often comical, that it need not be too serious or dull and can be enjoyed at every moment.

The process of discovery is mutual for students and teachers in the wonderful world of adolescence. Are high school students sweet? Sometimes they are. They are also intriguing, complex, curious, unexpected, capable, and awe-inspiring. And in the words of a student at the end of a block, “Thanks, Mr. Weber; it was real.”  It is that, indeed.

- David Weber, High School Humanities