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An Attentive Teacher?

Last month we had the honour of having Kevin Avison, UK Waldorf teacher, author, and editor, as a guest teacher in our handwork teacher development program. As our students prepare for their graduation next month, Kevin spoke about one of the most important skills a teacher must have, the ability to truly observe and give attention to the children before us. He has kindly written this blog post in summary of the talk he gave on November 12, 2022.

An Attentive Teacher?

It may be possible – although, I suggest, undesirable - to teach lessons to classes of children without especially observing them. But to teach children, it is essential to see & experience, to attend, to them. That involves seeing into what is happening in the class & attending to children as individuals. A teacher who aims to serve the development of young people, as Waldorf education envisages, can only choose the route of attention. Teaching lessons & “delivering education” is a narrow, & narrowing, objective amounting to little more than a heightened form of training. Dogs & horses are trained; human beings need to be educated.

If my view is correct, an educator has to be an observer. At this point, we need to recognise what this involves. Rudolf Steiner characterised the principal rhythm of soul-life as that working between sympathy & antipathy. He used these two concepts in a technical, or specialised way. On the one hand sympathy flows into the world & all we encounter, while antipathy flows back into the self as we inwardly reflect on experience & appraise it: with sympathy we embrace life, with antipathy we withdraw from it in contemplation. Yet something of the common meaning of these words remains attached. At the extremes, an over-sympathetic person overwhelms us almost threatening to destroy in the encounter; such a friend might be considered “clingy”, at worst, obsessive. At the extremity of antipathy would be someone who aways seems to draw away from us, remote & warily watchful, evasive of real contact. Oscar Wilde, in his “Ballad of Reading Gaol” deliberately confuses the first situation with “love” in the poem’s refrain, “For each man kills the thing he loves…”. However, the figure from fairy tale, the captive in the tower, like Tennyson’s “Lady of Shallot”, represents the opposite extreme: the eponymous lady being able only to survey the world, prevented from participating or intervening in any way, cursed to be an eternal spectator.

English language gives a further insight. The range of synonyms for the verb, “to look”, provides a gradation of possibilities from the negligible “glance” or “glimpse” to the intrusive “scrutinise” or, perhaps more sinisterly, “to place under surveillance”. Somewhere near the middle of the range of possible words for “looking/observing”, stands “giving (or paying) attention”. It is evocative that, I am told, in Spanish, the phrase is to “lend attention” to something. Both in English & in Spanish then, the act of attending must be actively engaged, or willed. It is an act that must be motivated. Attention I believe best describes the quality of empathetic observation a teacher needs. Rudolf Steiner has given us a means to develop just such attention because we need to set out consciously to develop it.

What are called the six fundamental (so-called “subsidiary”) exercises seem to me to offer a methodology, a toolkit, to help develop this balanced attention:

  1. Thinking - for 5-10 minutes daily about a single, simple object & maintaining clear, logical thoughts about it throughout the exercise

  2. Undertaking a deliberate, consciously chosen action at a set time - each day to develop & strengthen will

  3. Striving to achieve balance & equanimity in feeling, to acknowledge one’s moods without surrendering to their swings & turbulence

  4. To practice positivity - to seek for some good in every situation without losing discernment, consciously countering our in-built tendency to perceive negatives

  5. To practice impartiality, remaining open to possibilities of life & readiness to inwardly challenge the prejudices & pre-conceptions we carry with us

  6. To think carefully & thoroughly about the foregoing exercises, practicing them together in an act of perseverance

Rudolf Steiner describes these in “Guidance for Esoteric Training” & they are elaborated in practical - if somewhat complicated - detail by Florin Lowndes in “Enlivening the Chakra of the Heart”. But it would be a mistake, I suggest, to think of these as belonging to “advanced Anthroposophy”. Each of these exercises help us to become better teachers, more able to meet the student’s needs, clearer in our intention & attention to them. We might also agree that such inward qualities as are indicated here are life affirming, supporting the sociable arts, including professional mentoring.

Inwardly we work to try to develop these qualities, but there is also what we do outwardly; observing individual children: their physical appearance, characteristic gestures, relationship to tasks & to others, tone of voice & style of speech & such like. In the workspace, or classroom, we can enhance our work & attention by ensuring, so far as possible, the environment is logical, purposeful & beautiful. For example, items that will be needed are to hand & in order (tools or projects set out so as to avoid crowding, within reach & not cluttered); the mood of the space is that of a workshop; yarn or other materials can be artistically displayed & past projects might be on show (as long as we take care not to leave the same items on display too long so that they become stale!). How children use & relate to the workspace will be another significant item to observe.

If you have an assistant, there is opportunity to share & compare observations (in a school there may not often be time within meeting agendas to discuss every individual child you feel requires a child study). If you are not the class teacher, try to find time to meet with the class teacher to share what you observe & any specific difficulties a child may have. From time to time, if you notice a child who always sets about a project in an unusual, or clumsy way, it can be beneficial to try to do the task in the same way as that child does – but not, of course, in the presence of the child as that is likely to embarrass her/him. (What does it feel like? Can you get a sense for what this particular child is attempting to do? Does what they do tell you something about the nature of their difficulty?)

As an attentive observer, you own what you experience as a part of your relationship to the particular class & child. We thus avoid turning the child into an object of scrutiny. It is a scientific process, but a warm, humane science filled with interest in the developing person & focussed on learning to serve the child better, not an antipathy-filled type of “data-grabbing” in which the observer is conceived as becoming invisible, outside & beyond the observation. Our observation is thus neither “subjective”, nor “objective”. We give attention & the child offers back insight. It is resonance of a loving interest, true knowing.

Kevin Avison November 20th 2022

Kevin Avison has been a teacher in the UK in both public and Steiner/Waldorf schools. He is author of "A Handbook for Waldorf Class Teachers" & an editor of "Towards Creative Teaching", "Tasks & Content of the Steiner Waldorf Curriculum" & author of the introduction to the most recent edition of Karl Stockmeyer's compilation of Rudolf Steiner's indications for the first Waldorf School. Now retired, he serves on the governing Council for Elmfield Steiner School, responsible for teaching & learning.

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