by Chip Romer
On March 4, several hundred people gathered at Rudolf Steiner College to honor Betty Staley on the occasion of her retirement after fifty years as a Waldorf educator. Betty shared an autobiographical sketch, available (here). Now, in her “retirement,” Betty is working on a new book about middle school that addresses the subject of nurturing the civilized mind—and exploring ways to develop training programs for Waldorf high school teachers.
Chip Romer: You are highly regarded in the worldwide Waldorf community, but best known as a leader of Waldorf high schools. In your autobiographical piece, you spoke about someone referring to Waldorf schools without high schools a “chickens with their heads cut off.” Could you talk about this?
Betty Staley: The reason I think high schools are particularly important is because the young people are coming into their thinking. They are trying to find their way into their individuality, idealism and somehow maneuver through all of the temptations that surround them. With the situations of society today, Waldorf high schools are even more important than ever, not only because they offer a curriculum that is wonderful, and a deep connection between teachers and students, which is very important to community, but because of the larger view of what it means to be a human being. In the lower school this is implicit, but in the high school it’s explicit. High school consciously addresses the larger view of what it means to be a human being. There are so many very serious questions for teens, and troubling issues that can cause melancholy or cynicism. I think what Waldorf education brings in the high school, which is different than a lot of other schools, is that it enables students to retain their idealism and keep it grounded in reality and connected with their will.
CR: Is the maintenance of idealism embedded in the curriculum itself?
BS: Everything depends on who the teachers are and how clear they are about their own feelings about things. Teachers’ relationships to the importance of human life, and of nature, are going to infuse everything they say and do. I think that it is very important that a high school faculty is serious in working with the insights offered out of anthroposophy. The curriculum is like a guidepost that takes you through the different steps, but without a depth of understanding of human development the curriculum can be empty. It’s not a fixed curriculum—Steiner was very clear about that. He wanted it to be discussed and changed according to where one lives and the times in which one lives. I find it very exciting to go to teachers’ conferences and see how flexible things are becoming. The curriculum wasn’t meant to be orthodox. It’s a dance we’re doing all the time in Waldorf education, and particularly in the high school.
A third important part, in addition to the teachers and the curriculum, is the community. The teenagers must feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves. They need a place where they can trust and rest that their needs are being met—even when they’re fighting such a place. This is a really important part of Waldorf high school education.
CR: I agree. Students are able to trust that their needs are being met almost wholly because of the quality of the teachers surrounding them.
BS: You have good teachers in many schools, but what’s different in Waldorf schools is a common purpose. I think Waldorf teachers are carrying the awareness that they are doing something for the future of humanity. This gives perspective to the heavy workload. High school teaching can be exhausting, but teachers can be replenished by their own feeling of community, by the awareness that they working as a group for the betterment of humanity.
CR: Do you think high school teachers have a greater awareness of this because their students are older and therefor closer to effecting change in the world?
BS: Steiner taught about the pedagogical law, where the teachers must teach out of the next higher body from their students. So when you are working with teenagers—who are centered in their astral body—you are working out of your own Ego and sense of higher self. High school teachers have to be really clear about where they are and not play on the whims of the teenagers. As a Waldorf high school teacher, you always have to connect to your inner faith and compassion, to express yourself though your own higher self.
High school teachers must love adolescents. They must also love their subject—but they cannot love their subject more than they love their students. You have to be a scholar, but not just a scholar—a scholar for the benefit of the students in front of you.
CR: At your recent retirement party you saw many of your former high school students, who are now in their 50’s. Do they seem extraordinary?
BS: Well, they’ve all had their joys and sorrows. And I think they have met what’s come in their lives with a kind of dignity. Waldorf education does not make your life easier, but it does give you a kind of inner backbone, it helps you get through challenges with a certain kind of positive attitude. One student told me that doing the main lesson books, while she didn’t always like it, gave her a real sense of process, of beginning, middle and end—and that really prepared her well for a life of projects. Another student, who is a tech executive, said that projective geometry helps him visualize things that other people cannot visualize. A third student, who is a doctor, developed a traveling emergency room in a van, and he serviced hotels that hosted dance groups, and symphonies. No one had thought of that before. Waldorf graduates share a quality that I recognize—they are problem solvers with flexibility in their thinking. They think of new ways to do things. Waldorf students have a quality where something has been nurtured and something has not been allowed to die.
So many years later they still care for each other, and the feelings are very strong. They realize that they are part of a world community of Waldorf students. They can go anywhere in the world and find someone who is connected to them in a very deep way. That’s very special. I’d love to see a world organization of Waldorf students.
CR: Maybe you can take that up in your retirement?
BS: Ha! Maybe you can!
Betty Staley, MA, has been a Waldorf educator for fifty years at the kindergarten, elementary, high school and teacher training levels. She is a founder of the Sacramento Waldorf High School, where she taught history and literature for nineteen years, and an advisory to Waldorf and Public Waldorf high schools throughout the West. She is a founder and served recently as interim president of Rudolf Steiner College.
Chip Romer is the Editor of Confluence, a founder of the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education, and a developer of Public Waldorf schools, including Credo High School, where he currently serves as Executive Director.