When the child is ready for first grade, it is appropriate to use the powers of understanding for more abstract matters, including writing, reading, and arithmetic. But, to the child, it is not simply the acquisition of knowledge that is important. The process by which this knowledge is learned, through the creativity of the teacher who becomes the "author" of each subject, must meet the inner need in the child for true authority and provide a secure basis for the child to reach out in the world.
The Waldorf school responds to this need with a most remarkable offering: providing a class teacher as the key authority for the time between the "change of teeth" and the onset of puberty (Grades 1-8). Ideally, this teacher, though by no means the only teacher of the class, accompanies the children through all eight grades of elementary school. The class teacher's task is to guide the group of children during these important and impressionable years and to teach the class many of the curriculum subjects.
A Frequently Asked Question about the Class Teacher:
A Waldorf class teacher ideally stays with a group of children through the eight elementary school years. How can a Waldorf class teacher teach all the subjects through the eight years of elementary schooling?
The class teacher is not the only teacher the children experience. Each day, specialty subject teachers teach the children eurythmy, handcrafts, a foreign language, instrumental music, and so on. The class teacher is, however, responsible for the two-hour "main lesson" every morning and usually also for one or two lessons later in the day. In the main lesson, he/she brings all the main academic subjects to the children, including language arts, the sciences, history, and mathematics, as well as painting, music, clay modeling, and so on. The teacher does in fact deal with a wide range of subjects, and thus the question is a valid one.
A common misconception in our time is that education is merely the transfer of information. From the Waldorf point of view, true education also involves the awakening of capacities: the ability to think clearly and critically, to empathetically experience and understand phenomena in the world, to distinguish what is beautiful, good, and true. The class teacher walks a path of discovery with the children and guides them into an understanding of the world of meaning, rather than the world of cause and effect.
Waldorf class teachers work very hard to master the content of the various subjects that they teach. But the teacher's ultimate success lies in his ability to work with those inner faculties that are still "in the bud," so that they can grow, develop, and open up in a beautiful, balanced, and wholesome way. Through this approach to teaching, the children will be truly prepared for the real world. They are provided then with the tools to productively shape that world out of a free human spirit.
—From "Five Frequently Asked Questions" by Colin Price;
originally printed in Renewal Magazine, Spring/Summer 2003