The relational aspect of teaching and learning is often overlooked, but it’s critically important for children. Strong student-teacher relationships help children in many different ways, from providing short and medium term academic and behavioral benefits, to longer term lessons that help students thrive in higher education and the workplace. Waldorf schools are intentionally designed to be supportive communities of parents, teachers and administrators, where strong human connections help the children thrive and grow. A number of different aspects of how we do things at Waldorf School of Princeton foster community and support strong relationships, including how long students stay with one teacher, our approach to evaluation and parent communication, and our festival and community life.
Why Student-Teacher Relationships Matter
Teachers are a very important adult figure for children, with students spending an average of
1,000 hours per year with their teachers. A meta analysis of 46 studies by the Review of Educational Research highlights the numerous benefits of strong student teacher relationships including higher student engagement and academic achievement, as well as a reduction in absences, disruptive behavior, suspensions and dropout rates. How does Waldorf Education support strong student teacher relationships? It starts with how long Waldorf teachers stay with one group of students, and how they view their role as teachers.
Staying With One Class: The Advantages of Teacher Looping
A Waldorf teacher teaches their class a broad range of subjects and typically spends multiple years with one class, sometimes even taking a class first through eighth grade. The core benefit of this practice is the degree to which it strengthens the student teacher relationship. Instead of starting over each year with a new class, the teacher is able to really get to know each student in their class and to understand their strengths, their challenges, and their capacities. They learn to recognize which areas a particular student needs additional support in, and which areas that student would benefit from being challenged in. They grow to understand the ways in which each student learns best, and can adapt their teaching to reach and engage that student, and spark that love of learning that is so critical to long term educational success. While having a teacher stay with a class has been a core part of Waldorf education since its inception, there has been increasing mainstream academic research highlighting the benefits of this practice.
A 2018 Harvard study found that the amount of time a teacher spent working with students mattered, as they compared elementary school classes where students learned from several teachers who specialized in one subject, with elementary school classes where students learned multiple subjects from one teacher. The students who learned multiple subjects from one teacher academically outperformed the students who learned from multiple specialized teachers and had fewer behavioral problems. The specialized teachers cited the fact that they had fewer interactions with their students, and less ability to tailor their teaching to particular students as frustrations that those teachers had with that instructional setup. Another recent study from Brown University found that students who had the same teacher for multiple years similarly had improved academic performance, and reduced behavioral problems. A multi-year student-teacher relationship helps build trust and ensure that students feel seen, recognized and supported in who they are, which has powerful educational and behavioral benefits.
Nurturing Talents and Removing Hindrances
Waldorf teacher training emphasizes the importance of strong supportive relationships as a key component of Waldorf education. One aspect of that is that teachers are asked to meditate daily on the particular needs of each child in their class, allowing themselves to concentrate on what that child needs academically, socially and emotionally. The other aspect that Waldorf teachers bring from their training is the view of education as a developmental journey towards freedom. The goal of Waldorf education is for each child to be able to realize their full potential, and achieve success on whatever path they choose to pursue. The role of the teacher in that educational journey towards freedom is to give the students as many “tools” (skills, capacities, etc) as they can to allow that student to be successful, while at the same time identifying areas of struggle and hindrance and helping the students overcome those obstacles.
The fact that teachers and students work closely together for multiple years is hugely helpful to the process of nurturing talents and helping students overcome obstacles. For children struggling in a certain area, the teacher can start from day 1 of a new school year to support that student and work with them to strengthen their work in that discipline. It is also very helpful for students who are academically gifted in certain areas. Teachers who have taught that student over multiple years know what they are capable of, and can challenge them to do their best work, or improve in areas they are less talented in, instead of allowing them to coast on their existing talents and strengths. Teachers who really know their student’s interests can help nurture their passions, hone their skills, and ignite the fire of intellectual curiosity, without losing sight of what the student will need to build on to thrive and pursue their chosen path.
Child-Focused Support Network: Teacher, Parent, Community
The Waldorf approach to evaluation also reflects this focused, long term student teacher-relationship. Each class teacher and subject teachers provide written narrative reports to parents, sharing with families that holistic picture of their child's progress through childhood and through the richness of the Waldorf curriculum. Raising children can be challenging and even isolating at times. Our teachers strive to be trusted allies in the task of raising happy, healthy and thriving children. Parents can also benefit from their child having the same teacher for multiple years, as the additional time and interaction can help create strong communication and build trust. Parent-teacher conferences, class meetings, and our narrative approach to school reports are all part of our view of the parent-teacher relationship as very important to the success of each child. That is why we care so much about our community and festival life. We want parents to participate in the community life of the school and of their child’s class. We want to create opportunities for parents to meet each other, to meet our teachers and administrators, to volunteer and to feel that they are valued partners in their child’s educational journey.
The Long-Term Benefits
Dr. Daniel Siegel MD and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson PhD argue that “one of the very best scientific predictors for how any child turns out — in terms of happiness, academic success, leadership skills, and meaningful relationships — is whether at least one adult in their life consistently shows up for them.” A trusted teacher that really knows a student, and cares about their well being and long term success is very helpful for their ability to be engaged, learn, and persevere in the face of challenges. Having had adults in their life that they trusted and worked with and who helped them learn and grow pays dividends for students when they enter higher education and the workplace. Researchers from Arizona State University found that students who had had teachers that “affirmed and responded to their thoughts and experiences” prepared them to engage with authority figures and to be able to assume those positions themselves. That is the reason that Waldorf graduates are strong communicators, unafraid to engage with professors, colleagues and employers. That ability to engage, advocate for themselves and others, and to communicate clearly and effectively helps Waldorf graduates succeed in higher education and beyond.