This is the first guest post to appear on the anthropopper’s blog!
It’s from Bernard Thomson in Australia, who is particularly interested in the question of leadership and management in Steiner Waldorf schools. The anthropopper is also interested in this issue and has previously written on the topic, here and here. It was these posts that prompted Bernard to visit me when he came to England recently and, although we have differing views, I invited him to write a post setting out his thoughts. We both hope that this will start a discussion on an issue of vital importance to the development of Steiner Waldorf education.
But first, here is Bernard writing about himself:
“I grew up in the Midlands and attended Elmfield Rudolf Steiner School. In 1973 I went to Germany to complete my education returning to the UK in 1978. I studied philosophy of science and economics at the LSE followed by a year at the Centre for Social Development at Emerson. In 1987 I moved to New Zealand and in 2003 arrived in Australia where I became a business manager at a Steiner school south of Adelaide. After 12 years I began to work as a freelance consultant initially specialising in leadership and governance in Steiner schools. My career and work experience has been predominantly in social welfare organisations, both Steiner based and ‘mainstream,’ with an ongoing interest in social and organisational development.”
Leadership & Organisational Structure in Steiner Waldorf Schools
by Bernard Thomson
The issue of leadership and organisational structure in Waldorf schools is not new. Indeed one could argue that it began in the early years of the first school in Stuttgart and in one way or another has continued ever since. And this should be no surprise since organisations are living systems which defy any permanent structural solutions.
However this topic is pressing and engages many of us concerned with Waldorf education and its capacity to survive and thrive in an ever changing social, political and economic environment. To date the argument has often been between assertions as to what Steiner said or meant about school leadership and the pragmatic response to perceived and, indeed, evident failures in organisational governance and leadership. Steiner did say there shall be no headmaster and he did say that every teacher was to act in full personal responsibility without recourse to the comfort of receiving directions from an overarching authority*
In this contribution I will not debate the pros and cons of College versus Principal structure as I believe this misses the real question.
I take as my starting point that a school organism, like any other social organisation, needs a structure together with process leadership to guide its performance. And it requires such a structure and leadership that best supports its purpose and function. Unlike a production industry where the purpose is an efficient process to deliver goods to willing customers, a school is in the people business; its product is what goes on between human beings namely teachers, students and parents. The human relationships are the fabric which supports the pedagogical practice. The latter cannot exist without the former and the efficacy of educational practice is directly related to the health of the human relationships.
In the production industry, which can be considered as a system of inputs, process and outputs, we might conclude that it can be optimised through specifications which precisely control as many factors as possible. Frederick W. Taylor gave his name to the first so-called scientific management system which sought to do just that. Centralised control from the top appears to be the logical answer to co-ordinating a diversity of inputs and processes. However this authoritarian structure is being challenged because it fails to take account of human (f)actors whose motivation and hence productivity is directly affected by the workplace environment and culture. Indeed there is an increasing number of organisations which are being reimagined as living entities in which ecological systems thinking replaces the mechanistic logic of direct and control, cause and effect. The human subsystem (according to Lievegoed’s phases of organisational development) is, I believe, what is here being developed as part of a move towards the third phase of integration. This accords with my understanding of consciousness soul activity where we do not seek nor expect answers to the challenges we face to be available in a model or formula. Instead the ongoing engagement with other thinking human beings forms the basis for our decision-making processes. And this is the same for both production industry and human services.
This means abandoning certainty (or the illusion of it!) and becoming comfortable with the unknown, the ambiguous, in other words, the creative process. A recent book by Fredric Laloux, “Reinventing organisations” describes various approaches to this challenge, in a range of diverse industries. What they share in common is the removal of central control in favour of distributed authority in which accountability is achieved through clearly defined processes, a system for effectively disseminating information for maximum transparency.
The widespread shift in Waldorf schools across the globe to a more top down or principal leadership structure is mostly justified by the failure of a collective approach to school management. There are many examples of this failure, with which I am also personally familiar. The apparent solution, however, is also producing many failures if these are to be determined on the basis of school performance as judged by staff and parents. Indeed, in Australia at least, there has been a continual turnover of school leaders (variously called administrators, heads of school, directors, principals, etc.) where the common denominator is an authority structure in which the school board or council appoints the school leader with full authority to manage the day-to-day operations of the school. Accountability is one way, and that is up.
Now there are also good examples of leadership performance that build collective strength and support a strong collegial culture within the school. Thus we invariably conclude that it is not the structure but the people that make the difference, and this is true. So are we faced with either a collective approach which may work if there is a high level of individual and social competence, or a single authority which may also work if the “right” person is in charge? Is there nothing more to it than to simply hope or pray that we can get the right people in the right places? And who chooses the right people?
As I mentioned above we are in the people business in which human relationships are key. We are also in the human development business in which role modelling has a powerful influence and we don’t need Steiner to tell us that the character of the teacher, or indeed of all adults, is central in supporting healthy development in young people. So we can confirm Steiner’s vision that the school must be led by a culture of learning and human development, which he called a republican teachers’ academy.
I believe in the notion that you start working in a way that is congruent with the aim. If it is true that for the students, “Our highest endeavour must be to develop individuals who are able out of their own initiative to impart purpose and direction to their lives”(1), then we found teacher practice on personal initiative and self-responsibility. The supporting school organism supports and strengthens this by creating a culture of personal initiative and self-responsibility. The leadership culture embodies this.
In his 1990 book “The Fifth Discipline” Peter Senge introduced the concept of the Learning Organisation which has 5 key features which include personal mastery, building a shared vision and team learning. I suggest that in the Learning Organisation we find a close similarity with Steiner’s vision of how a College of Teachers and Waldorf School management is to be understood.
Steiner’s vision for school leadership and governance recognised the fact that the cultural/ social mission of Waldorf education requires a new form for human learning and collaboration. This insight is now finding resonance in a growing understanding of organisations as social organisms. The “Newtonian” mechanistic model is being replaced by a living systems approach (see “Leadership and the New Science” by Margaret Wheatley).
Organisms have an ecology which connects all the elements together in a living dynamic. They are not run or managed in the conventional sense, but may be said to operate and self-regulate according to a guiding motif. The guiding motif acts as a point of self-reference. In an animal organism we speak of the unique animal instinct which guides behaviour; in the human social organism we must speak of the mission or spiritual ideal. It is just this that Steiner said must replace the headmaster by becoming the focus for the College work. As self-responsible adults participating in a self-regulating school organism we move with our experiences from the periphery to the centre and take out to the periphery our newfound intentions. The task of leadership is to facilitate the collective learning which informs the mission and to guide the processes which transform the mission into individual resolve.
Social understanding and discernment is of course necessary for leadership. Leader-guides must be selected who have the maturity and social skill to advance leadership throughout the school. The school processes must be transparent and accountable and include practical methods for review and evaluation. But the old form where adults make themselves subservient to an “outside” authority which “knows best” has to be left behind.
This process requires a new understanding of leadership as something akin to an alchemical process in which everyone participates. The idea of an “external” reference point or standard against which to guide practice will be seen as always provisional and temporary and must ultimately be abandoned in favour of self-referencing also known as self-governance.
* Address by Rudolf Steiner 20 August 1919 on the evening prior to the lecture course translated as “Study of Man” (also known as “The Foundations of Human Experience”)