[WE Talk] David Sloan – On the Art and Heart of Waldorf Teaching

David Sloan

On the Art and Heart of Waldorf Teaching

On this episode:

  • insights on how to go about creating a thriving Waldorf High School
  • the changing nature of students today, and how Waldorf education meets them
  • how Waldorf education has changed and developed over time to meet the needs of today
  • words of wisdom to young adults

Episode Transcript:

Nita Davanzo: Hello and welcome to WE Talk, a podcast that explores the role of Waldorf education in helping children, parents, and families thrive in an ever-changing world. WE Talk is brought to you by Shining Mountain Waldorf school and this is your host, Nita June Davanzo.

Hello and welcome my dear WE Talk listeners. On this episode of WE Talk, I welcome David Sloan. David is what one could certainly call a master Waldorf teacher. He taught at the Green Meadow Waldorf School in New York for 25 years, but in the middle of his time there he actually hopped on over to Shining Mountain Waldorf High School in Boulder, Colorado to help create it! He is now a current teacher at Maine Coast Waldorf High School and he also teaches at the Center for Anthroposophy where he teaches humanities in the Waldorf high school teacher training summer program.

In addition to being an incredibly gifted teacher, David has also written a few books; one is called Stages of Imagination: Working Dramatically With Adolescents, and the other called, Life Lesson: Reaching Teenagers Through Literature. Lastly, he’s written a book of poetry called The Irresistible In Between. I welcome David to the show and know that you will enjoy the interview.

Welcome David to this episode of WE Talk. Thank you so incredibly much for being here with me today, especially after coming off of an intensive high school teacher training session.

David Sloan: Well, thank you for having me, Nita, and it’s good to see you after a mere 28 years between appearances.

Nita Davanzo: Just a small bit of life has happened between the last time I saw you.

David Sloan: For both of us.

Nita Davanzo: So David, how did you originally find Waldorf education or we could also ask, how did it find you?

David Sloan: Well, it was definitely the latter in my case. I was a senior in college and I’d already begun to make peace with the fact that I wasn’t going to be a famous writer, unfortunately, or even a journalist. I had, however, taken an education course and I was looking into alternative education models, and it was during a winter vacation that a family friend from Germany who had briefly attended a Waldorf school during her high school years told me a little bit about Steiner and his work. And more importantly, she shared with me a brochure about a center in England called, Emerson College, where I could study all about that weird and nearly unpronounceable word “anthroposophy”, which I couldn’t pronounce for a couple of years. The other attraction was reading in the brochure that there would be young people from 20 different nations, which I’m embarrassed to admit and please excuse my callow 21 year old self, I translated into young women from 20 different countries and so I went.

Nita Davanzo: I love that. And what was your experience like when you were there? How was it for you?

David Sloan: Well, it was eye opening. It was life changing. I went two different years. I went way back in 1971-72 when nearly half of the 180 students were Americans and a lot of the people that I met there, I realized I had karmic connections too because over the next 40 or 50 years, I have kept bumping into or working with a lot of those people. And two years later, when I went back to get my education training there, I met my future wife. So, I guess it really was a karmic place.

Nita Davanzo: Yeah, indeed. It’s fascinating to me I feel like how the Waldorf world seems to have those karmic connections and has those relationships that come up again and again in a circular fashion as we move through our lives. Yeah. So David then you, to fast forward through the ages, you became a Waldorf teacher, high school humanities, and can you just name the whole list of schools that you have taught at?

David Sloan: Well, that’s not such a big list. I spent most of my teaching career at Green Meadow Waldorf School in Chestnut Ridge, New York, about 45 minutes northwest of the city, that’s where we raised our four children and they are all lifers from that school. And then I spent the year at Shining Mountain Waldorf School back in the early nineties. And most recently we moved about 13 years ago up to Maine and helped to start the what was then Merriconeag Waldorf school but is now Maine Coast Waldorf High School.

Nita Davanzo: Okay, excellent. So you’ve been at the helm of a few different Waldorf high school foundings. Can you share with our listeners a bit about this leap that you made across the country to support the founding of Shining Mountain Waldorf high school? How did you hear about this opportunity? What inspired you to depart from Green Meadow and really take on this quite a challenge?

David Sloan: Well, I’d been teaching at Green Meadow for over 10 years first as a class teacher, which is a saga in itself, then as a high school teacher. And while I really appreciated my dynamic colleagues in the school community in general, I was never very fond of the New York metropolitan area and it was getting more and more congested and I just was looking, I think, for a reason to get out. So, when a representative from Shining Mountain named, Pam Lambert–you might know her as “mom”– visited the school sharing her vision and Shining Mountain’s intention to start a high school. If only they could find an experienced high school teacher to lead the way, my ears perked up and we talked about coming out for a visit to meet their planning group, teach a class or two and get a sense of the place.

And to be frank with you, I fell in love with Boulder immediately and with the school community, but I knew that it was going to be a huge transition for my family. My wife Christine, was the general manager of a natural foods market across the street from the school. She was not eager to leave that behind. We had four young children ranging in age from three to 13. We knew that taking them out of their classes would be wrenching, to some degree, but it was the kids who were really drawn also to the adventure of it all. So we moved.

Nita Davanzo: Pretty incredible that you took that leap really following your intuition and I love that you note that you really felt that sense of adventure within your children too.

David Sloan: But it wasn’t completely shared by my wife and that was actually an important resistor in the whole thing because we had to talk through all of the pros and cons and even when we had moved that conversation continued and it really ultimately resulted in our only staying for the one year.

Nita Davanzo: I so vividly remember, as a young person, I was in fifth grade at the time of the arrival of your family and this sense that it was … I had this sense for a lot of the different visiting teachers or leaders and then Walter whom who came at that time from Renee Karito, to I believe Douglas Gerwin visited at one point, to then you and your family coming, it was like this this magical like, “the Sloan family is coming”. And so meeting your family and just getting along so well with your children and just feeling this immediate sense of kinship with your family and it was just a beautiful year. I always remember looking forward to seeing your family and hanging out.

David, what was it like in those early days at this high school? How does one even begin something like that, the creation of a new high school?

David Sloan: Well Nita, I was very, very fortunate to be joining what was already a healthy young school and there was a committed group of parents, your parents among them, who had already laid so much of the groundwork for a new high school initiative. They’d secured the community hall across the street from that main campus, they’d gathered funds to get the initiative off the ground, and they generated a good deal of enthusiasm for the project. So in in some places, you can find a lot of resistance to the idea of launching a high school mostly because those people just can’t imagine the benefits of a full 12 year plus Waldorf education. Rather they’re concerned about financial challenges, the perceived drain on the school’s resources, that sort of thing. But in Boulder, I did not experience much of that resistance, just the opposite. There was a great deal of enthusiasm that had already been generated.

Nita Davanzo: Excellent. What were some of your joys and some of the challenges of that time?

David Sloan: Oh gosh. Anytime anyone undertakes a pioneering experiment really, there’s so much uncertainty. It’s like bushwhacking and breaking trail on cross country skis. After a big snow storm, the initial effort is both exhausting and it can be anxiety producing, but once the tracks are there, it’s a bit easier for others to follow. And it can also be exhilarating to be that first one. So leading the way into an unknown. I didn’t necessarily feel like I was leading the way, I felt like I was part of a collaborative effort that was a extraordinarily farsighted.

So, one of the great joys and challenges of that first year was the interesting constellation of the pioneering class I believe that fully half of that first class came from outside of the school and they were very unfamiliar with Waldorf. So we had to worry not just about educating those kids, we also wanted to create a healthy social dynamic. So to that end, one of the most gratifying experiences that year was producing a play with the class, and that was Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. So I guess that has the notable award of being the first high school play of the many great plays at Shining Mountain over the years.

In the spring, we took the train to Northern California for a class trip and we performed that play at a Waldorf arts festival, which was very well received and I guess looking back that trip helped to put Shining Mountain a little bit more on the map in terms of the Waldorf world.

Nita Davanzo: What an adventure, I’m sure for those students who were able to meet and visit with other Waldorf students too.

David Sloan: Yeah, absolutely. Well, as it is for many of these Waldorf students who are able to attend festivals or conferences, we have for our 12th graders here, I think even Shining Mountain students may go here at Hermit Island in Maine; It’s only about an hour away from us, so it’s our home turf. Every year in the fall, there are two or three weeks filled with Waldorf seniors coming from as far south as Atlanta and as far north as Ann Arbor and I guess as far west as Shining Mountain, and they all come together for a week of mountain marine biology, and poetry, and painting, and getting to know each other. And there’s something so reassuring, I’m sure, for these seniors who realize that they are part of a movement that is much greater than their own school. They almost always come away from that experience exhilarated and enlarged.

Nita Davanzo: Finding that, as I noted the word kinship before, there’s an immediate kinship I think that’s recognized within … that I recognize whenever I’m among other Waldorf alums. Yeah. Funny that you mentioned Our Town, that, that was the play. I’d forgotten about that. And coming back to these different karmic circles and interconnections, I know that one of your students in your recent high school teacher training, she will be the new humanities teacher at Shining Mountain, her name is Megan Beruldsen, and her brother, I directed in Our Town. So that was experience. Yeah, I think that was the last time I think … I don’t remember if there was another time that it had been produced at Shining Mountain, but that’s a fun little intersection there.

David Sloan: I think it’s also true that this past year they did a production of Our Town as well and it was directed or produced by someone I still remember very well from my year at Shining Mountain and that’s, Laurel Ogletree, who I still consider, although we haven’t really had much contact with each other, I still consider her a friend. So that’s lovely.

Nita Davanzo: Yeah, I love that. So David, fast forward to today. You have been teaching in Waldorf High Schools for over 40 years now. Congratulations. You are a celebrated author and leader in the Waldorf Movement and, as I’ve noted, you’re a teacher of Waldorf teachers at the Center for Anthroposophy. In your many, many years of teaching, how have you seen Waldorf education and the students and communities that make it up change?

David Sloan: So Nita, you have a way of asking huge questions. This is a huge question. I’m a little bit wary of making general pronouncements based just on my somewhat limited personal experience. May not be true for the movement as a whole, however, I would venture to say that the Waldorf movement is in a state of transition right now. My generation of boomers who started teaching in Waldorf schools mostly in the 70s, have either retired or they’re in the process of riding into the sunset in their various communities and they’re being replaced by a younger generation of teachers, many of whom they’re just as committed to the mission of Waldorf education as their predecessors, but they’re also committed to family and to protecting their personal time. And I really respect that gesture of protection for all of the wonderful contributions that Boomers made to strengthen and carry the Waldorf movement into the 21st century.

I’m not sure we always maintained that balance between work and home life. Too many marriages suffered, as did the health of too many teachers on the altar of growing that Waldorf movement. So, as for the communities of students and parents, on the one hand, it’s been gratifying to see Waldorf education grow in the past few decades and become more of a recognized force for social and cultural renewal in the mainstream. On the other hand, and I hope this doesn’t sound too dark, I’m increasingly concerned about the number of schools that have faced or are facing major crises. And like a lot of independent schools, our movement is facing demographic shrinkage, enrollments becoming a major challenge in many schools.

The vaccination issue is another huge factor pressuring schools from the outside. And of course the technological change in the last 15 or 20 years of seeing our whole culture become dependent on digital devices has had profound effects on everyone but most especially young people. And for all of the convenience and surf boats turbocharged speed that our cell phones and computers enable us to operate in this world, I grow increasingly concerned about the exponentially rising levels of anxiety that I see in the classroom and depression in our students, about what I guess I would call the opportunity cost of they’re spending so many hours in front of screens instead of outside in nature, and about the difficulties people seem to have just in navigating human relationships.

Nita Davanzo: David, if you were to teach another 40 years or not, what are some of your hopes and dreams for Waldorf education and for yourself personally?

David Sloan: Well, another 40 years of teaching for me personally, I hope not. Thank you very much. I would be around 110, I would rather be helping the movement from the other side of the threshold by that time. As for Waldorf education, I guess my fondest wish would be for us to find ways to expand the reach of Waldorf to serve more and more underprivileged kids and to make it affordable for ever larger numbers of children for whom it currently seems out of reach.

And I also guess I would wish internally that Waldorf teachers find ways to adapt the classical Waldorf Canon to suit the needs of today’s young people. We simply cannot rely on tried and true methods of curriculum the past hundred years to meet the challenges of the next hundred. And I assure you, I speak from personal experience on that score because my own students remind me weekly that I cannot simply recapitulate what I’ve done in the past, sometimes successfully, sometimes only modestly so. We have to learn to be flexible, elastic, responsive, and, if at all possible, farsighted enough to anticipate what our students and the larger world is going to need in these future decades. That’s no easy task.

Nita Davanzo: Yeah. In closing, David, what advice might you give to a young Waldorf teacher today just stepping out onto their professional path?

David Sloan: Well, it’s interesting, I was asked this exact question by a young woman last week who was enrolled in The Center for Anthroposophy high school teacher training program that you mentioned early in the program. It’s based in Wilton, New Hampshire. It’s a hard question for me to answer since I’m so aware of how much the world has changed since I was a young cub and just starting out my teaching career. However, I did say two things to her that I’ll share with you.

One, I said, learn to say “no”. Waldorf schools are notorious for overloading their energetic new recruits, and in the process, burning out promising young teachers. And number two–t’s a little more elusive–I told her to find some daily or weekly artistic and/or meditative means of renewing herself. Teaching young people is a daunting task at any age, and it’s not getting any easier in this divisive and turbulent world. We need as much inner fortitude and serenity, I would say, and outer support as we can summon. I know that it’s been a great source of comfort to me over the years to ask for, and every great once in a while, receive strength from what I guess I would call spiritual first responders. I don’t think I would have lasted this long as a teacher without that occasional inspiration and support. So, that’s what I said to her.

Nita Davanzo: Thank you for sharing that with us. David, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate just your time certainly here with me today, but all the time that you’ve spent educating young minds into the wonderful beings that they are today and the continued work that you continue to do there, both of young adults and of young teachers. So thank you for your work in this world.

David Sloan: Thank you, Nita. As you well know, I think you’re one of those wonderful young minds that is making an impact in the world today and I applaud you for the work that you’re doing as well. So thank you.

Nita Davanzo: Thanks David. I hope you have a great rest of your day.

Thank you for listening to WE Talk brought to you by Shining Mountain Waldorf School and hosted by Nita June Davanzo. WE Talk is made possible because of listeners like you who invest in the production of the show. Share your appreciation for what you’ve heard today, help us explore the value of Waldorf education and preparing our children for the future by going to patreon.com\wetalk podcast. If you’d like to be interviewed, have a suggestion for an episode ahead, or simply wish to share feedback, please email us at wetalk@smwaldorf.org.