‘Overcoming Resistance – Courage for an independent spiritual life’

10th World Teachers’ Conference, 28 March – 2 April 2016, Goetheanum

Those who have had the opportunity to walk up the Dornach hill towards the Goetheanum can imagine it in early spring as the first blossoms open. The teachers’ conference is always well attended; teachers arrive from around the world from 140 countries, to find their way to the main auditorium for the opening. The building breathes between lectures, workshops, artistic events and social meetings especially around coffee and meals. There is an electronic hub around the Wi-Fi, colourful, lively with most concentrating on their devices! The mornings’ singing brought life to the day, a choir with hundreds of voices.

As the conference closed I reflected that this conference had brought a new impulse. While a wealth of experience and knowledge was shared through the varied and well sculptured lectures, prior to the lectures, young teachers inspired the day by sharing observations and reflections from the classroom.

Six presentations full of the warmth and enthusiasm for the education and the children, ranged from portrayals of two Belgium children to the struggles of a young Chinese teacher, who had us all laughing with her wonderful descriptions of so called ‘failures’ that ultimately led to success! A class of children in Israel sent their teacher to the conference with the following thoughts:

  1. We like it when a lesson begins somewhere and ends somewhere else. We experience the teacher has flexibility, a capacity for openness.
  2. Is the teacher really interested in their subject?
  3. Our wish is that the teacher has responsibility for the well-being and social life of their students. The students appreciated that at school they had 5-7 hours screen-free time.
  4. While we students often take ourselves seriously, the teacher has the ability to laugh at her/himself and help the student to do this.

Instead of a final lecture, it was left to this group of young teachers to form a panel where they shared not only their reflections of the conference but what they would take with them. A challenging task and one that could be developed further.

A new idea were the afternoon presentations from speakers on civil engagement. Well known professionals in their own area, each speaker spoke to issues and world events that affect us all but are not necessarily, on first glance, seen as relevant to teaching. Each one of them reflected on the importance of Waldorf Education in building a future society.

Rolf Soiron, an engineer and presently Chairman of the Board of the LafargeHolcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction, drew us into the acceleration that has come with the advance of technology. His graphs and diagrams demonstrated that we are not on a gradual incline but are being catapulted forward into an unknown world. While the realities in his presentation were disturbing, he left us with a clear message, it is possible to work in ways that sustain human habitat. Waldorf education he saw as a constant, a counterpoint to the breath-taking acceleration he described, and an important anchor of the values of humanity.

Daniele Ganser, an historian, wrote his dissertation on secret armies run by NATO in Europe and has since done research questioning the authenticity of the official US report on the September 11 attacks. With great energy and conviction, he shared his research on events related to the September 11 attacks. Reflecting on his own Waldorf education, Ganser spoke with appreciation for the way it supported him to become an individual, able to think and act independently. At one point in his education when he considered leaving the school, an open and frank conversation shared with a teacher changed his mind. He felt he had been met. 

Inspiring was Nesreen Barwari and I’d like to share something of her life. A Kurd, born in Iraq under the regime of Saddam Hussain, at 14 years she, with members of her family, became for a time, political prisoners. Her life was interrupted again when in 1991 she became a refugee in the mountains of Turkey. A woman in a male dominated society, she became an architectural engineer and gained her Masters degree in public policy and management. Working with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, she assisted refugees and internally displaced persons to return to their homes in the Kurdistan Region destroyed during the 1991 war in Iraq. The relief efforts were primarily in reconstruction and resettlement, but they also included health and education, water and sanitation, agriculture, and landmine activities.

Nesreen was appointed Minister of Reconstruction and Development in the Kurdistan Regional Government. Following the April 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein, she served in three interim national governments in Baghdad as Minister of Municipalities & Public Works, a lone woman in a male dominated assembly.

Nesreen was honored by the Arab League with ‘Distinction in Public Participation’ as one of ten distinguished women from the Arab world and received the 2003 United Nations Scroll of Honour for “outstanding commitment to the welfare of displaced and vulnerable persons in Northern Iraq”.

While she will always work to empower women, today high on Nesreen’s list is education. Having experienced the limitations of the state education, she was inspired by the work of the Emergency Pedagogic aid mission, a taskforce sponsored by Friends of Waldorf Education. Emergency Pedagogic has been active in Iraq since 2014 helping around 1,500 Yazidi and Christian children in the Dohuk region. Today Nesreen, with the help of Friends, is initiating an independent school based on Waldorf principles. Along with this she has a greater goal, a ‘mission impossible’, she would like to see Waldorf education integrated into the state system. She is under no illusion that this is a mammoth task but like much in her life, she is not deterred from striving. Hers is a remarkable story and a living example of overcoming resistance.

The performing arts are central activities in the Waldorf movement and we experienced some outstanding performances. First up we were given a taste of Goethe’s ‘Faust’, with the closing acts of Faust I. Gretchen in the prison cell awaits her death for the murder of her child and though Faust tries to entice her to escape with him, she cannot run from her destiny. On one level she has been condemned but on another she is redeemed. The greater truth behind any destiny cannot so easily be deciphered.

‘Theatre Israel’ was in fact a group of young Arab-Israeli students who for two years come together to work on drama. Their adaption of Antigone was brilliant, from a modern war scene it moved to the ancient Greece. Each character was portrayed by two actors who moved fluidly between the two languages. To assist those of us who spoke neither language, a visual translation was projected in German and English. We learned that when they first came together they did not speak the others language but through the work real bonds of friendship grew. This was an experience of the power that art can have in healing and strengthening the social life. The two directors, one Arab and one Israeli, in their work with these young people demonstrated how it is possible to work from their hearts building hope for the future.

‘Servants of Pan’ from Brazil is a dynamic group working with eurythmy but much more. Again young and not so young people come together to work creatively and find a sense of self. Through drama, dance, eurythmy, song and pantomime they brought their story to life with the electric energy of a Brazilian performance.

Europe brought us classical music, drawing young people together from several schools In Switzerland, we experienced what a combined high school choir can accomplish while the Waldorf Youth Orchestra, made up of students from around Europe, gave a performance that was truly of a professional level.

As the 2016 conference closed, and teachers returned to their countries, all 140 of them, I had the sense that many would return nourished and their classrooms would be enlivened for the experience. Whether the aims of the conference were achieved ‘Overcoming Resistance – Courage for an independent spiritual life’ each will have to reflect for her/himself. Personally I was left with the thought that Waldorf education has a major role to play in and for the World’s future.