Class teachers in Waldorf education stay with the same students for multiple years at a time. Keeping the main lesson class teacher as a steady authority in a child’s life is beneficial to social and intellectual learning. Not only does this allow the teacher to appreciate a deep understanding of each student’s gifts, but it also allows the establishment of a respectful classroom environment.
Relationships matter. And having the same teacher year-over-year does deepen the connection.
In our earlier article, Strength-Based Learning in Waldorf Schools, we discussed the teacher’s primary role in facilitating a culture of excellence in students and the classroom. This is made possible by the multi-year teacher system and the depth of understanding and teaching flexibility it provides.
But does all this talk of rich and deep student / teacher relations really matter in a world of academics? The answer is a resounding, Yes! Studies show that a student’s relationship with their teacher is an essential function of learning.
According to the American Psychological Association, six different studies done between 1997 and 2010 show, “Positive teacher-student relationships — evidenced by teachers’ reports of low conflict, a high degree of closeness and support, and little dependency — have been shown to support students’ adjustment to school, contribute to their social skills, promote academic performance and foster students’ resiliency in academic performance.”
Not only does a positive personal relationship matter, but a positive approach to teaching, namely a strength-based, respectful, multi-disciplinary method helps make a student more motivated to succeed. The same APA article states, “Teachers who use more learner-centered practices (i.e., practices that show sensitivity to individual differences among students, include students in the decision-making, and acknowledge students’ developmental, personal and relational needs) produced greater motivation in their students than those who used fewer of such practices (Daniels & Perry, 2003).”
Some may think this is more relevant in the elementary years, but that is not necessarily the case. In fact, Parenting Science Magazine Reports that among American high school students, the single most important school-based predictor of academic growth in mathematics was a student’s perception of “connectedness” with their teacher.
Of course, using the multi-year teacher model is not the only way to encourage strength-based teaching, classroom respect, or close personal relationships with students. It does, however, make it easier. In fact, Waldorf Education very specifically supports teacher empowerment, independence and leadership within the classroom and the school as a whole. This marries a teacher’s accountability with their responsibility and authority and ensures that our teacher’s values and goals align with the schools as a whole.
This matters, because, as the APA states later in the same article,
“A distinguishing characteristic of schools with high-performing students is the presence of an adult school community that works together in a coordinated manner to create a social environment that supports teachers’ efforts to establish good relationships with students.”
The takeaway? Relationships matter. And having the same teacher year-over-year does deepen the connection. But a common concern parents have is, what if that connection is negative?
The Association of Waldorf Schools of North America answers this question thoroughly. They say, in brief:
“. . . A Waldorf class is something like a family. If a parent or guardian in a family does not get along with their child during a certain time, they do not consider resigning or replacing them with another child. Rather, they looks at the situation and sees what can be done to improve the relationship. In other words, the adult assumes responsibility and tries to change. This same approach is expected of the Waldorf teacher in a difficult situation. In almost every case, they must ask themselves: ‘How can I change so that the relationship becomes more positive?’ One cannot expect this of the child.”
And ultimately it is the child’s perspective that matters. According to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, the research all indicates that relationships are a matter of student perception. “They have little to do with how a teacher actually feels about students; it’s what teachers do that dictates how students perceive those relationships. Teachers will certainly have an affinity for the majority of students in their classrooms, but from time to time they may react less positively to a given student. However, this won’t really affect how the student perceives his or her relationship with the teacher. The major factor is how the teacher interacts with the student.”
So again, it is about the well-trained teacher’s actions and their ability to adapt to individual students needs. And this is best done in a smaller, respectful classroom environment, where teachers can take the time to make deep connections with students. It is also best done within a school culture that respects, supports and empowers teachers. Waldorf Education provides that culture of support.