Special Character within a Steiner School

A personal essay by Kelly Sutton, Class Teacher

Our Special Character permeates and is a leading principle in everything we do: how we support learning, how we work together, how we celebrate, how we problem solve. It guides the experiences offered at our School and the way these experiences are brought to the children. Although it is ever present in our school day it is fluid, particular to each individual and often challenging to articulate.  Special Character is a frame we work within yet flexible enough to provide each class teacher the scope to use their individual strengths and creativity to bring experiences and curricula to their class.

Within our own School, Special Character is expressed in numerous ways and slightly differently by each person who works with it. Some parts of Special Character can be seen while other parts are invisible but vital; some parts are linked to the amount of time we put into various activities or certain moments in the rhythm of the day. Special Character can include supplies or materials, and it can also mean specific subjects that aren’t found anywhere but in a Steiner School.

Special Character is held by all of us as a community and by each one of us as an individual, in this time and in this place: This is what makes Taikura special to all of us. It is certainly linked to a philosophy – that of Anthroposophy – but it is also inclusive and very much of its place within the context of New Zealand and the Pacific, and within its time of the 21st Century. It often guides and determines how we respond to the child, to a challenge or to an opportunity but it is important to remember it is a living thing carried by the individuals working within a specific community, school or initiative.

As a teacher working within the Special Character of Taikura, we are challenged daily to work to understand what the child is  needing for their individual development.  As educators for the future we seek to answer the question, what does this child need for their life’s journey? To help build an understanding of Special Character at Taikura what I share here are some ideas and some practical examples of how these concepts work in the school day.

Within a cultural context

Steiner wanted teachers to work with the children in front of them and for teaching to reflect the time, the place and the land of their incarnation. In this way te ao Māori is intrinsically linked to the kaupapa of our School.

Ours is a way of educating a child that makes room for each cultural heritage to arrive within the space of the curriculum. In turn, the individual children – and what they bring – co-creates the hands-on, day-to-day curriculum.   In a Steiner School, while diverse in heritage the impulses of te ao Māori and anthroposophy have a synchronicity and each aligns well with the other. Rather than being an ‘added-extra’ or a ‘nice-to-have’ te reo me ōna tikanga is vital to our place as a contemporary Steiner School in Aotearoa. At Taikura we see these threads come together richly during the Class 10 Marae week.

The slow cook method – giving things their time and place

At the heart of our Special Character is a commitment to honour the process of a child unfolding at their own pace. Each year is time rich for the student, they are given the time they need to arrive at and achieve each milestone. Each year group of students is on the same path, travelling towards a shared destination however we recognise each student will journey at their own pace. As a teacher and as a parent I value and feel privileged to work within a philosophy where the child is received, seen and accepted for who they are then given the time to learn and achieve at their own pace.

Curriculum as a gift

The philosophy – and the curriculum it informs – is an amazing gift to the practicing teacher. The work held in the curriculum is a tool with which each teacher delivers content, material, stories, skills and experiences from a place of creative practice. Teachers deliver the same threads but in different ways depending on the group of children or students and their own background and soul life. All senses are pulled into the learning journey and are useful pathways for students and their teachers. For example, movement and physicality support health and wellbeing while also providing practical experiences of space and time, and abstract concepts such as those found in mathematics.

Each year level has its own theme that directly meets the child’s soul life at that point of development. These themes are universal across every Steiner school but are made relevant to the culture and environment of the specific school and its community. Main lessons for each year group link to that theme, which also resonates in what is delivered within other parts of the curriculum such as art, music, mathemtics, story and drama.

Music and the arts are used to enrich learning at various points in the day. These provide opportunities to learn in different ways and open different aspects of the child’s learning life. Singing as a group, for example, encourages listening skills, helps with conversation skills and enriches the social life of the class.

Our Special Character includes wide and varied ways for the child to meet success. In the early years children are at many different levels yet all coexisting and working together. An example of this is the child who writes with technical accuracy but struggles to find their voice, working with  the child who has not yet mastered the skill of writing but has an amazing gift of language and thought.  Our Special Character comes to life in little and large ways, often we see inner learning coming out through a hands-on activity. This can look like mathematics patterning work coming through in the knitted flute cases they are creating in handwork.

A child may struggle understanding particular concepts purely by thinking them through however our curriculum provides the opportunity for learning to be experienced in many different ways: cooking, gardening, knitting or through story. The technologies – woodwork, metalwork, earth building and soft textiles – give the chance for practical application of abstract ideas. Here, concepts are experienced instead of simply being talked about. An example of this is mathematical thinking and spatial awareness are strengthened through morning circle activities and in eurythmy. During a Steiner school day, multiple contexts are provided so each child has many opportunities to learn and achieve desired outcomes.

Taikura’s Special Character as a Steiner school can be seen in the materials our children and their teachers use, in the amount of music, movement and drama they are involved in, it can be seen in the beautiful surroundings, both inside our classrooms and in our grounds. But it can also be felt in the time taken to explore, nurture, listen to and build an understanding of each child. It can be felt in the creativity classroom teachers bring to their personal delivery of the curriculum. It can be experienced in our festivals and yearly rhythms that honour our community, our soul life and our natural world. Together, we bring the Special Character of the School to life through our own individual interpretations of it, and we work alongside each other to grow that understanding and enrich the experiences of all our children as they navigate their journey towards adulthood.