Approaching the inner nature of a Waldorf / Rudolf Steiner school

By Michael Harslem


Translator’s note: In this article “Annäherungen an das Wesen einer Waldorfschule”, Michael Harslem approaches the challenge of school leadership by comparing the individual human being with the being of the Waldorf school. Personal leadership thus becomes the key to organisational leadership. I have tried as far as possible to keep to the conversational style of the original article. The German word “Wesen” is sometimes translated as “being” or “inner nature”. The term Waldorf school is equivalent to Steiner school. For ease of readability the masculine is used and applies equally to the feminine gender. Bernard Thomson – 9 February 2015


After 16 years and following on from my article, “Leadership and Self-Governance – are they compatible?” (Führung und Selbstverwaltung – ein Widerspruch?) in The Art of Education 1+2/ 1994, I now want to explore further the questions about leadership in a Waldorf school. What I did not address directly at the time is the question about the inner nature of that social organism which is to be led. In Waldorf schools one sometimes speaks about the “spirit of the school”. On some occasions this spirit is directly “invoked”. What then is this? What is the inner being of a Waldorf school? What has this being got to do with leadership? It is not my intention here to cite any quotations which describe this. Rather would I attempt from my own experience to briefly characterise some phenomena, setting them in a context by which they may be interpreted and understood. Thus they may help us approach this dimension of the Waldorf school. At the same time I want to suggest a path that anyone can pursue in order to acquire their own experiences in this area.

As in my underlying article of 1994 I take as the starting point myself as a human being with my inner autonomy, and will attempt to apply to the social organism the experiences acquired in this way.

I can experience my own “I” as a direct instance of my inner autonomy. With more exact observation I can discover that my “I” as the core of my soul (see Rudolf Steiner: “Theosophy”) is able to guide (lead) my thinking, feeling and willing. The development of the inner capacities for leadership in myself are supported by the so-called subsidiary or basic exercises given by Rudolf Steiner. Furthermore, the 12 senses give me the means to perceive and orientate myself in relation to my inner being and the world around. I described this more fully in the above mentioned article of 1994.

When I face the question about my individuality, about my essential inner being, I am initially left groping in the dark. When I look at my biography I can get the first clues as to what makes up my unique identity. Beyond that I can also experience a further aspect of myself which has to do with my conscience, my motives, my life impulses. From this source I acquire the strength which I need to take hold of my life, to lead myself in the way indicated by the exercises mentioned above, to engage creatively with the challenges posed by my destiny.

Rudolf Steiner calls this aspect of myself the “higher ego”. This higher ego is my spiritual core which remains intact through the different incarnations and which can continue to develop itself. In the practice book “Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment” Rudolf Steiner describes the path by which every human being can find this strength within himself. By these means I can learn to guide and direct the members of my being, my physical body, my life forces, my life of soul and my ego from that higher aspect in myself. This inner development is for me a prerequisite for being active as a Waldorf teacher.

If I am to apply these experiences to the Waldorf school as a social organism I may now ask myself what parallels can be drawn.

The external shell, the school buildings, the grounds etc. comprise just the outer setting, but are not the ”physical body” of the Waldorf school, as is often falsely assumed. For me the social organism manifests itself, in contrast to the human being who is incarnated in the physical body, not in physical matter, but on the level of the behaviour of those people working within it. The mission of the school is fulfilled in the first place through the personal encounters between the students and between the teachers, but also through the encounters between everyone who participates directly in the daily life of the school. These encounters set up a unique resonance between each individual. If the resonance is positive, learning can take place. Negative resonances bring about barriers to learning, blockages which interfere with the learning of everyone involved.

I consider the social organism to be a “place or being of social encounter”. It is active when human beings meet and engage with each other. Always when human encounters take place, before, during and after the lessons, in meetings etc. I can experience in that human encounter and especially in the relationship with the children, the presence and activity of the being of this school. When the school is empty, because everyone has gone home or during the term breaks, I experience the being of the school as though not “incarnated”, but as if waiting, expectant for the human beings to arrive.

In order to describe the different dimensions of this being more accurately we must consider the elements which belong to a social organism. Here I will attempt a brief outline of what I see in the organism of a Waldorf school. Besides the concrete behaviours, and the associated human encounters, through which the being of the Waldorf school can be experienced in its activity, I can identify elements which exist at a higher level or rest upon and are supported by this activity:

  • processes which are firmly anchored in the social organism, primarily the lesson timetable, recess breaks, rhythms, play rules …,
  • the distribution of roles to accomplish the common task, especially the individual responsibility for each task and process, mutual agreements and collaboration…,
  • the people involved, their relationships and the social climate amongst them, especially the manner of engaging with the children and how they are with each other, the qualities of personal meetings, comments made about each other, the social tone…,
  • the structures which give the organism form, (how transparent is the organisation, are there clear forms?)…,
  • the future orientated strategies, especially the awareness of learning needs and the further development of teaching and learning methods… and
  • at the highest level, the overarching goals and mission of the social organism, what the school has especially committed to as its own unique impulse.

I try to perceive how the special qualities of the Waldorf school manifest themselves within these different dimensions, e.g. respect for the human individuality and its personal destiny, love for the developing human being, an understanding of development, mutual respect and support.

I experience again and again the truth and power of the Christ words: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them”. In this way an inner space can be created, in which forces of love are at work. And so a light and warming soul relationship comes about between human beings.

However, in the encounters between people other beings can also be drawn in. It goes mostly unnoticed what happens when people moan to each other about their misfortunes, complain about others, distance themselves from others by being judgmental, build resentment, and share their resignation, envy, anxieties, fears, hate etc. with each other. Here also certain beings are invoked or allowed to enter into the human encounter within which they can unfold their activity. Hence in the encounters between people in a Waldorf school I can experience the “shadow”, the ”double” of individual human beings, but also of the whole social organism. The sensitive observer can directly perceive, how derogatory judgments, poor habits, chaotic processes, unclear allocation of responsibilities, a negative atmosphere, apathy, loss of energy, exhaustion, destructive energies …. are active forces in an organisation.

Through my many years of working with over 80 Waldorf schools in Germany and other countries and visiting and getting to know well over 100 Waldorf schools in conferences etc. I have been able to experience something else. Every time I come into a Waldorf school I feel myself in a certain sense “at home”. All Waldorf schools have something in common which unites them worldwide; something which is alive within them, sometimes more, sometimes less, but always clearly visible. For me this does not have anything to do in the first instance with the outer forms and the colours which of course also have an effect. An atmosphere surrounds every Waldorf school and every kindergarten which is influenced by the spiritual impulse of Waldorf pedagogy. This impulse, which expresses itself in the respect for the human individuality and its personal destiny, love for the developing human being, and in the most comprehensive understanding of human evolution, forms a connection amongst all Waldorf schools and Waldorf kindergartens within all continents across the globe.

What does all this mean for the leadership of the social organism of the Waldorf school? How does the Waldorf school govern itself?

As already described in 1994 this can only be achieved through human beings who are themselves capable of self-governance (self leadership). What additional demands must these people satisfy? They should have cultivated a perception for the above mentioned dimensions of the being of the Waldorf school and learnt to work consciously with them. They should continually attempt to include the spiritual beings connected with the Waldorf school in their daily work. Above all they should consider the effect on the children and young people, the developing human beings, of all that they do and bring about. As people responsible for the leadership in the school they should work together on these qualities. They should work selflessly to serve the leadership of the school organism, because all egotistical tendencies, especially in this task, have a negative effect on the whole.

They should be asking how the positive being of the school can be cared for and nurtured. To do this the people working here have to develop a shared awareness of this being. That means they need to become aware of the way the social organism expresses itself, aware especially of the quality of the meetings between people. A consciousness for the mission, the overarching goals of the Waldorf school and Waldorf pedagogy must be cultivated in such a way, that these qualities work right down into individual actions. The practices and rituals within the school, which includes those taken hold of consciously and positively as well as the unconscious habits, need to be penetrated, clarified and given form from the inside out.

This includes that they become conscious of the wider task of the Waldorf school as well as cultivating mutual exchange and support with other Waldorf schools. And not just an engagement with other Waldorf schools, but with all people and initiatives who are working to protect childhood and develop a human centred education.