The Waldorf Classroom and the Cycle of Eight Elementary Years with the Same Teacher June 03 2015

One characteristic of Waldorf schools in elementary grades is to keep one “Class Teacher” with a class from first through eighth grades. This practice has been adopted by public and private schools and is known as looping. In Waldorf schools this eight-year cycle could be called “giant looping.” Of course, this eight-year cycle is an ideal that is not always possible. Life, marriage, health, age, can all get in the way of completing this commitment. In some Waldorf schools it is even policy to have the looping go from grades one through four or five, and another teacher take a class from five or six through eight.

Lately eight years in one job is a very long time. It is an enormous commitment not requested or required in any other part of a Waldorf school –– kindergarten or high school, or from specialty subject teachers, for example. So we can fairly call the commitment to being a class teacher of a class for eight years an enormous one!

“Eight years with the same teacher?
What if the teacher and my child don’t get along?”

The nervousness parents feel about this commitment as they decide on placing their child in a Waldorf school for the elementary grades is equally enormous. It calls for an equal commitment from families as well as from teachers.

A Waldorf teacher with his class - The Lakota Waldorf School;
 from the Waldorf Publications archives

Beyond the worries, beyond the scrutiny teachers undergo when they meet the families placing their children into the care of a teacher, beyond the scrutiny the teachers apply to accepting children into their class, lives a commitment to stay in the class for both parties. Commitment takes love, or better said, love means commitment. Remarkable things come from this commitment over the years of grades one through eight. Perhaps the most profound is that the child learns of love and commitment. Through deep imitation on a soul level, on a heart level, the children comprehend the teacher’s striving, the teacher’s love for all in the class, the teacher’s commitment. There is a relationship that builds between the teacher and the children which deepens with each year. The children relax on every level, knowing the teacher’s ways and not having to rediscover new ways each year. In this state of relief from concern about the relationship with the teacher lasting learning can take place. The students in the class learn that their teacher will fulfill the commitment. Trust arises and thus the students can then discover, especially as they grow from children into adolescence, that their teacher sees them in an absolute way. There are not fleeting impressions after such a long time. Each individual can test a personality as it develops against a steady rock of commitment… someone who will not go away.

This last point is much misunderstood in Waldorf classes. Often when monumental changes begin happening in young people, those enduring the changes from within (i.e., the student) increasingly duck adults to discover who they might really be. The growth in young people that begins around the twelfth year, and the dawning new capacities of discernment, judgment, and observation are both thrilling and frightening. Young people often feel betrayed by parents and teachers at this age because they cannot manage the changes that so rapidly occur and so feel it must be the grownups, not they who are changing so rapidly. They feel their childhood slipping away and their new capacities rising like fire within them.

During this time of what Rudolf Steiner named “the Grand Metamorphosis,” it is essential that grownups remain focused on both the love they bear for the child and the tasks for which the child is responsible. It might be clear then, what a help it is to the youngster to have an unflappable, guiding adult in the classroom, working steadily to polish skills, develop capacities and unwaveringly stand for the child. In this strict warmth, a young person can experiment fearlessly, knowing that one who knows and loves her/him calls her/him to the highest and best. To have a respected someone, who is not a parent who automatically grants unconditional love, is invaluable at this time of great growth and experimentation. This might even free the pre-adolescent from feeling the need to experiment with truly dangerous shenanigans as teenagers often are drawn to do!

In a class which has kept a class teacher for all eight years, graduation is a moving event. By the time an eighth grade group of maturing young people get to mid-year, a strong anticipation happens. This is expressed in some impatience. They know all their teacher’s jokes, quirks, strengths and flaws and are really wishing for something new. They want to test their mettle with high school teachers, which makes eighth grade challenging at times. This is part of necessary consolidation of learning and skills development, a phenomenon also much misunderstood. While thirteen and fourteen year olds are inclined to think that everything they are being “put through” is “so yesterday,” it actually signals a chance for the students to practice what they know and yearn for the next step in their lives. Anticipation actually strengthens a child's life forces and builds an inner practice of enthusiasm.

Most eighth grades in Waldorf schools do a class play, go on a special class trip and plan their graduation with gusto. By the time these accomplishments are complete, an inevitable realization dawns on everyone. Bets are taken among the students as to whether or not their teacher will cry. Some realize all that their teacher has done for them, how much love has been poured in their direction, and how much they have learned. Some realize that they might actually love the teacher as well, might even miss the teacher. The culmination of all years together has the chance to bloom in full. It takes great patience to “wait for it” properly and to let the process play out unfettered by adult agendas. This is all part of the process of eighth grade.

Cincinnati Waldorf School 8th grade class during the New Orleans Waldorf Inspired Service Weekend 2011;
from the Waldorf Publications archives

In conclusion, the eight-year journey of a teacher with a class in a Waldorf school is the best and most ingenious part about the whole plan. Where else on earth is practicing love and commitment an integral part of the educational plan? Where else does a child get to see a teacher show up every day for eight years for them? The self worth this establishes is profound. I have heard many graduates articulate that they remember that their teacher saw them especially and it was long into adulthood before they realized that the teacher made each student feel this way: seen, appreciated, understood. Is the system flawed? Well, sure it is. Striving stumbling human beings are involved. However, even that is instructive. It’s not if you make a mistake, it’s how you deal with the mistake that proves the most important in life, after all. To be able to experience this and practice the best ways to correct wrong turns with people of commitment is a rare and strongly instructive opportunity. It might not always work, but it sure is worth a try!