THE ALICIA WALLACE COLUMN: A friend’s family opened my eyes to a different way to educate children

Waldorf schools offer a different approach to education - but at a high cost. What could we create for ourselves that could offer a different way of teaching our children?

Waldorf schools offer a different approach to education - but at a high cost. What could we create for ourselves that could offer a different way of teaching our children?

This week, I am catching up with a friend who lives in New York. She has two children - 13 and ten - who attend the Waldorf school where she works as a teacher.

It is always fun to spend time with this family for a number of reasons. I have observed that everyone is involved in what happens in the house, from cooking dinner to making decisions about how the day will go.

The children know their mother has authority, and they still understand themselves as whole human beings with opinions and ideas they can share with her, with each other and with anyone else. Sometimes they do not like a decision, like starting to go to bed earlier as summer comes to an end, but there is little resistance because they understand the reason. It has been interesting to hear their thoughts on the way they are being raised, educated and engaged as real people in a changing world.

I did not know much about Waldorf schools before meeting this family. It sparks my interest every time I spend time with them and hear about what the children are doing. This education system is a form of experiential learning that centres imagination and creativity.

On my second night, the ten-year-old made dinner for five. He cooked ground meat and rice for the tacos as well as beans for his vegetarian sister. When it was time for us to build our own tacos, he asked guests to be careful not to mix the beans with the meat to ensure his sister’s diet would not be compromised.

After we ate, the siblings argued about which of them would get to make dessert for the other. My friend said if they wanted to argue about this particular issue, she would let them. They eventually decided the ten-year-old would make dessert for everyone, and the 13-year-old could make him a special dessert too.

The 13-year-old and I talked at length about her experience as a student at a Waldorf school. She has a good understanding of the difference between her school and mainstream schools. She noted the small class size in particular as a positive aspect, and likes that each class keeps the same teacher every year. It feels more like a community, and the students get to know each other well enough to realise when someone is having a bad day and be able to offer help.

There seems to be an intentional focus on community-building and empathy, steering clear of the individualism that tends to dominate in mainstream school. She did make a point to tell me they are still competitive and her teacher often takes them to play basketball and do sports drills to use that energy in a different way.

She also told me about the way subjects are combined which makes the material more practical and interesting. As an example, she talked about the connections between mathematics and art. She said they learn geometry by drawing the shapes and shading each part using a variety of techniques.

At their school, the children learn to knit and crochet from the first grade, and they start by making their own needles by sanding down pieces of wood and making a decorative piece to cover them, largely for identification purposes.

Waldorf school tuition is very expensive, so not many people have access to it. Parents with appropriate backgrounds sometimes become Waldorf teachers in order to benefit from the significant discount they get on tuition. Some also try to find ways to direct their children’s education in other ways by starting homeschools or exploring unschooling with their children.

We often think the existing system in The Bahamas promotes discipline and children who want to learn simply will. We tend to think that anything too different would have a negative result, that students would miss something. After spending time with my friend’s two children and hearing about their educational experience, I’m sure that is not the case. They are incredibly well-spoken, have interesting ideas and the confidence to share them and understand their responsibility in the learning process.

It is good to be reminded there is more than one way to achieve a goal and that some methods work better than others. The current education system in The Bahamas does not leave much room for play, curiosity or creativity, but it does not have to be that way. It does not have to be Waldorf either.

Imagine what we can create for ourselves by engaging scholars, advocates and young people in an iterative process to produce a system that responds to the particular needs of Bahamian students. We have to build the systems we need to meet our own needs - and we can.

What about us?

We put significant focus on tourists and their experience of this country. It is not only because tourism is the top industry or our reliance on it for our income. We feel direct connection between ourselves and this place, and understand people see it as a reflection of us.

For this reason, we are constantly thinking about what they might think when they see, hear, or do certain things.

Unfortunately, it often seems we are far less concerned about ourselves and one another given the long-term effects of our circumstances.

The load shedding we are experiencing on a daily basis is more than an inconvenience. It is a safety issue, an impediment to academic and career progress, and a financial burden among other issues.

We have not yet come to an agreement on whether or not it is a crisis, but it is certainly an ongoing problem affecting all of us.

Even those with generators have seen an increase in their spending on fuel.

We commiserate every time it happens, complain as we make sacrifices to better prepare ourselves for the next occurrence and ask ourselves what we could possibly do about it.

Nothing about the response is particularly surprising or unreasonable until it focuses on tourists. People sometimes make comments that dismiss our experiences and highlight the plight of the tourist who has come to “paradise”.

When the narrative centres the tourist, residents of The Bahamas are pushed out of the picture. The assumption is we are accustomed to this low level of service, so it is excusable. In the case of the tourist, such negative experiences are inexcusable and must be remedied for their benefit.

It is not inherently bad that we would like people to have positive experiences of the country and be able to recommend it to others, potentially driving more money into the economy. It is, however, an indication of a serious deficiency in care and concern for ourselves as human beings.

We have, for so long, thought of The Bahamas as a product and everything in it - including us - as a service or in service to the image of paradise we sell to non-residents that our everyday lives become secondary.

People complain about unkempt verges and roundabouts, saying, “It’s the first thing tourists see!” They say there should be more art and entertainment for visitors to enjoy. They report terrible service they receive while showing visitors around, and they say, “I was so embarrassed!”

Do we not deserve beautiful surroundings? Should we not be able to enjoy a broad range of events all year? Is it too much to ask for us, as residents here, to give and receive excellent customer service at all times?

We reserve far too much for tourists. It is bad enough that we have limited access to certain spaces, and that some people take one look at a person and decide whether or not they are worth any effort.

We need not feed the idea that tourists deserve more or better than we do.

They come for a short time, and yes, they want to have the best possible experience.

We are here every single day, making the most of it, often demanding very little when we deserve much more. How is their short experience more important than ours which generally last a lifetime?

We have to reject the idea The Bahamas is for anyone else. We need to commit to making it the country we want and others can enjoy; not a country others enjoy and we struggle to live in.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment