Interview with Betty Staley, author of "Tending the Spark" May 02 2019

Betty Staley’s new book, Tending the Spark, Lighting the Future for Middle Schools Students, has generated a spark! Betty’s life long career as a Waldorf class teacher, a high school teacher and a teacher of teachers shines through her wisdom in her new book offering help to parents and teachers of youngsters in Middle school. Clearly, all of us responsible for this vulnerable age need help in our understanding.

Meg Gorman, a lifetime Waldorf teacher, and parent, interviewed Betty for Waldorf Publications to find out more about Betty’s motives in writing this book.
Meg: Why did you write this book?

Betty: Well, this is not a short story. After many visits to various Waldorf schools, both public and private, and speaking to parents and teachers, I realized that the upper-grade schools had issues that needed to be addressed. There seemed to be a misconception about what a class teacher is. Some teachers could take a grades class all eight years and do so well, but there were others who were not up to the task. Many kept on going because they felt they had to be a good Waldorf teacher. They felt Waldorf teachers had to do it or die. Some teachers simply did not have an understanding of the upper grades, had trouble relating to them, and did not have the skills or the academics required. It was a difficult situation for teachers, parents, and students.

For many years, I had an inner feeling that someone had to look at this and see this age as a radically important time which needed teachers who had compassion for the students. They are not just little teenagers who are out of control. Some years ago, I gave a talk at Sunbridge College on these concerns, and there was a huge turnout. One hundred fifty people showed up! So, I knew this area needed to be addressed. As I researched, I realized that Steiner had only had five years to bring his ideas into Waldorf education, and he changed his mind about things as he worked with the children. This is an important area of research, too. At the same time, new research has become available.

About 15 years ago, I read a book by Joseph Chilton Pearce, The Biology of Transcendence where he wrote about the work of Elkhonon Goldberg on brain changes that spoke of “brain spurts,” “the civilizing mind,” and the “vulnerability gap“ in which youngsters move from instincts into idealism. These ideas stuck with me as I researched.  

More and more, I felt there was a serious lack in our teacher training. There needed to be more flexibility in the teachers’ thinking, and there needed to be a balance between the two poles of teacher flexibility and teacher rigidity. I feel something is missing in today’s millennials. Millennials love their parents and don’t want to leave home; they want the cocoon.

Meg: What are you hoping people will get out of the book?

Betty: Well, building on what I’ve answered already, I’m hoping that teachers and parents will regain a sense of inner authority coupled with more trust in themselves. At the same time, they have to be flexible in their thinking concerning other parents, students, and curriculum. For instance, did you know that the course we teach called, “Wish, Wonder and Surprise,” in grade seven was not about the poetic expression we teach in this course in America? It was about having the students recognize the important differences in the German subjunctive case – a case we do not have in America. I feel we are on restart in understanding the curriculum, both as Steiner presented it and in the context of our time. I’m hoping this book is a beginning

Meg: Why do you feel the book is important now?

Betty: It’s important now because we have children — children not being met, with income to spend, but feel entitled and profoundly influenced by advertising and technology. They are being used. They are led by Kim Kardashian’s latest trend and by the latest video games when they need real role models – inspiration, not exploitation.

We need to help our young people into the world, and gently into technology. There’s also an inequity economically in technology. There’s an interesting new trend among those who are economically comfortable to avoid technology and not use computers because they are seeking real experience, like crafts, but the poor and disadvantaged are left with computers — a new kind of “technology gap.” These [lower-income] parents want the little iPads for children because they think it will help their children [left with the original “hype” from the technology industry]. They think they are doing the right thing.

The book is important now because I hope it is a “wake-up” book aimed at addressing middle school. We need to nourish these young minds to help civilization transform through study, through an inspiring middle school experience, through service projects and the arts. It all has to go through the heart. 

Library Lady: Having read Betty’s book, I would add that Betty addresses well the need for compassion for the extraordinary changes youngsters face at this vulnerable age of middle school. She points to a sense of humor and extreme patience as well as a more objective coping with the (occasionally ridiculous) things middle schoolers will sometimes do. The book has many answers for all of us dealing with youngsters at this age. As one reader wrote, “Every parent and teacher of children this age should read this book!”

Tending the Spark