. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Waldorf Veterans Teach New Teachers

In a small studio on the fifth floor of Moscow's first Waldorf school, the veil of silence was impenetrable on a recent weekday. Carefully giving shape and detail to a crowd of clay heads, a group of teachers-in-training were taking a class from Gotthilf Michael P--tz, 70, a teacher from Germany whose mission is to train Russian teachers to become more creative educators.


"Making a sculpture teaches you to look more carefully at human faces," P--tz said. "It gives you insight into the absolute uniqueness of a person."


Waldorf education, first developed by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner at the beginning of the century, emphasizes creativity as the most important element of education.


Along with the school's core curriculum of standard subjects like literature, math and science, it has a few mandatory subjects that are not common in public schools. For example, all students take violin lessons and choose from the flute, xylophone, or harp as their second instrument.


This holistic, somewhat unorthodox approach -- which is a radical departure from the basic Russian education -- has caught on quickly in the former Soviet Union because it allows each student to get a more personalized education, government education officials and Russian Waldorf instructors say.


Today, 600 Waldorf schools exist around the world. But the private Waldorf school in Moscow's southern suburbs is unique in that besides teaching 220 students from ages 6 to 11, it also serves as an academy for future Russian Waldorf teachers.


Each year, about 25 student teachers come from as far as Yerevan and Siberia to take part in a two-year training course with veteran Waldorf teachers from around the world, most of whom have been teaching for more than 15 years and are considered by the Waldorf Association to be masters of the profession.


One of these veterans is Mariana Gorg, 75, of England. Demonstrating careful stitching and stuffing, Gorg recently gave a class on doll-making to future teachers. Gorg, who grew up in Vienna during the 1930s, said she hopes these teachers will take what they learn to the borders of the former Soviet Union and teach children to think creatively.


"The idea is that the school should stand on its own in its own country," she said.


With a suitcase stuffed with bright yarn and felt, a few Russian words and patient, nimble hands, she made sure her students' dolls all have legs and arms, eyes and ears -- but perfection isn't necessarily the object.


"We do the work with arts and crafts to get students to think creatively," Gorg said. "It is essential that lessons be presented in an artistic, creative way so that they call up enthusiasm. The important thing is for children to be able to relate the information. What use is it to store facts?"


There are currently Waldorf schools in Vladimir, Yerevan and Samara, and there are plans to build new schools in Kiev, among other places. Katya Popova, director of the Russian Education Ministry's Section for Non-Government Institutions, attributed the popularity of Waldorf education to the choice it offers Russian parents.


"The Waldorf system differs from public schools because it focuses more on the child and developing his or her individual talents," Popova said.


Marina Givert, herself a product of Moscow's public school system, is today a Waldorf teacher.


"Education these days tries to be very pragmatic by throwing everything overboard that isn't connected to the intellect.


"But there are also other subjects that are indispensable for children to cope with the challenges that await them in adult life," she said echoing comments from parents and teachers describing the popularity of Waldorf education in Russia.


But expansion is expensive and money is always a problem, Waldorf officials said.


The Russian government gives the Moscow school 160,000 rubles ($32) a month for each student. Parents pay $60 a month tuition for each student. And the school depends on Waldorf sponsors in Europe for additional funding.


P--tz, who now instructs teachers about sculpture, has been traveling between Germany and Russia since 1991 as an instructor's educator. In 1990, P--tz received the first Russian delegation at a Waldorf conference in Germany. The Russians came as representatives of the Socrates Club, which had been formed in the late 1980s by 10 Moscow teachers and parents devoted to exploring Steiner's ideas.


With help from P--tz, the donation of an extremely dilapidated building by the local school district, an initial budget of $20,000 and hundreds of hours of painting and plastering, the Moscow school welcomed its first 120 students in 1992, Givert said.


Hans Rohrwadier of Sweden is currently giving a month-long seminar to Russian teachers that explores the mysteries of physics as well as the subtler principles of how to teach the subject successfully. This is his 14th trip to Moscow sponsored by the international Waldorf Association located in Germany.


"Words and theory are only a skeleton," he told his class of 25 Russian teachers.


"Children learn through their senses, so you need to add flesh to your subject to make it interesting."


Rohrwadier, who has been teaching for 20 years, learned about Waldorf education when he was working as an engineer and looking for a school for his children. When the school informed him that they were short a science teacher and needed him, Rohrwadier said he ended his engineering career and has been teaching ever since.


To demonstrate the idea of optics to his class of future teachers, Rohrwadier, 70, suggested the use of parabolic mirrors and magnifying glasses, but he said the teacher's imagination is the key to inspiring pupils. Rohrwadier writes a formula on the chalkboard and quickly crosses it out.


"It's not enough to explain a theory or equation," he shouted. "You have to show them!"