The Poetic Meaning of End of Year Reports in Waldorf Schools May 16 2023

Children, students, everywhere strive for excellence. All children who have not been traumatized by extraordinary experiences or abused by adults one way or another, want to learn, to be smart, to understand this large and confusing world into which they have been born. Some children hide this yearning. If they find out early that those delivering education, in whatever form, have decided they are not excellent, or have not met invisible expectations, they might become seemingly insouciant, uncaring, indifferent to what is happening in a learning environment. Some children crumble and dissolve into confusion, striking out at whatever they can identify that might be “right.”

In American culture following the current imagination of education, students strive for good grades. Getting an “A” or a 100% on a test or a scored review means success, means one “knows” something, has achieved excellence. Once a student is in high school, or college, or graduate school, this striving for the “A,” the 4.0 grade point average (or higher, in some instances!), or as close as one can get to that average (4.0 = “A”), the competition for these high grades reaches an unnatural intensity. Students have been known to steal books from a university’s library, or to tear pages from books to prohibit other classmates from completing an assignment. This gives the thief or the book defacer an advantage at getting an “A.”

Waiting for a report card, at which time a student then knows, and her parents also know, how well she has done in striving to achieve the grand “A” grade. Students have been know to commit suicide over “B” scores or worse. Grades drive the whole educational experience in America and, to a large extent, the industrialized world.

Not so in Waldorf schools!

At the end of each year teachers write reports on how the child, the children, in their care have worked during the year. Teachers build for both the student and her parents, a picture of how the student has grown, learned, achieved, missed a mark, helped classmates, and overall accomplished the necessary steps for the individual in question to take steps toward becoming an adult.

Narratives in year-end reports create a picture of who a child, a student, is in her environment. (In some schools there are also mid-year reports, and in other there are end of three-to-four-week-block reports. And in some Waldorf schools, in the upper grades, actual grades are assigned, to ensure a college or university can decipher what the observational reports mean in terms of grade point average or scoring.) Year-end reports make recommendations for the student and the parents to help overcome barriers to learning well. Most importantly, year-end reports identify the capacities growing in a student: the capacity to love, to share, to help others, to think clearly, to play a musical instrument, to express oneself, to experience joy, to manage disappointment, to see “the big picture.

These capacities are important goals in Waldorf schools as academic prowess. Academic skills are assiduously pursued in every classroom, mind you, but these are skills used to assist a young human being to become more and more fully human; kind, moral, and joyful participants in the beautiful world into which each is born. This focus beyond the mere intellectual changes the view of success and removes destructive competition and fosters instead an appreciation for the truth about being human, which is that some are good at some things and others are good at others. Everyone contributes to a class community — teaching students how to participate in and build community — to find a place in how that community works and how it needs each student.

Once scores enter in, the tendency is for a youngster to focus on “how to get an ‘A’,” instead of unfolding the mysteries of algebra, or world history, or the glories of physics, chemistry, physiology, or the geography and geology that make the world and nature as they are.

These are, or course, lofty goals that cannot always be achieved.  The worry is that of subjectivity. If a teacher “doesn’t like me,” that teacher will write a “bad report.” The concern arises that the report writing makes a declaration of success, or lack thereof, “squishy” or ill-defined. This can and does happen. More often, however, the growing youth feels appreciated, seen, understood, and supported, instead of labeled, blamed, and identified early in life as unsuccessful, or stupid.  Therefore, though the concerns are real, so is the bald truth of the results of the current, grade-driven, competitive, labeling system of education that has been in place for  more than a millennium.

In this new millennium, trying a new and different way, as Waldorf education does, with all its foibles, might have merit, or even be a good idea, long overdue. To work to call from the young a wish to participate, to say, “Yes!” to learning,  to encourage the innate human curiosity about how things work and why the world is as it is, to remember that it’s a gift to be a human being in our world, however flawed, instead of only stating that good learning begets a competitive grade, identified by unknown sources, is a valuable idea. To strive for something broader than a good grade is worth a try!