Ep. 58: Cool Schools with Santa Fe Waldorf School

July 24, 2018

Mike McShane chats with Jeffrey Baker, the school administrator of the Santa Fe Waldorf School. This prekindergarten through 12th grade school follows the nearly 100-year-old hands-on educational model put forth by Rudolf Steiner. Listen to the podcast or read the transcript to discover how this school developed, challenges it has overcome and more.

Mike McShane: On today’s podcast we have, Jeffery Baker, the school administrator of the Santa Fe Waldorf School in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was founded in 1983 and sits on 13 beautiful acres on the edge of the mountains, and currently educates around 210 students in grades pre-k through 12.

Jeffrey himself was a teacher for seven years, worked as an administrator at the Oregon College of Art and Craft and ran one of the larger summer arts camps, day camps, in Oregon.

Really great opportunity to have a conversation about Waldorf education, which is growing in its popularity all around the country. If you go to the Association of Waldorf Schools’ website you can see all the schools, all over the place, and I think it’s, it’s only something that’s gonna be on the uptick. It’s great to talk to someone who runs one of these schools, to understand the history, the philosophy, and what it looks like for a child to walk through the doors.

Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Jeffrey Baker of the Santa Fe Waldorf School.

I think maybe it would be best to start with a discussion of when we see the name Santa Fe Waldorf School everyone should be familiar with Santa Fe, and where it is, but Waldorf Education might not necessarily be a household term. Could you describe the Waldorf Education philosophy?

Jeffrey Baker: Yeah, Waldorf Education is a philosophy that’s actually been in existence for nearly 100 years. The 100th anniversary of Waldorf education worldwide will be in 2019, and the idea behind Waldorf education derives from a perspective about childhood development as observed by an Austrian polymath, Rudolf Steiner, in the early 1900s. And essentially what Steiner was looking at and purporting was that children go through these stages of development between the ages of zero and twenty-one to be roughly broken into three stages of development, and that an education that is understanding of that and suited towards those stages of development will do the best job in helping them realize their fullest potential, educate them in a manner that will encourage their own personal freedom and growth in life and retain a significant love of learning and engagement with the wider world as they become adults.

The Santa Fe Waldorf School is actually part of a much larger worldwide collective of schools. Each of these schools is its own entity. Some are independent, some are charter, some receive some funding depending on the countries that they’re located in or the states, but they all are connected by this pedagogical model that was put forward by Rudolf Steiner about a hundred years ago.

Mike McShane: Now when a child walks into a Waldorf school what is gonna set that school apart from what we might consider a more traditional form of education?

Jeffrey Baker: Well there are quite a few distinct differences that a family or a child or, is going to encounter coming to a Waldorf school. One of the things that people note, primarily, upon their first visit is this incredible focus on the aesthetic experience within the school. The spaces themselves are light and air filled and have beautiful colors and lots of natural objects and natural surfaces and play things for the children to interact with at the younger years.

The schools tend to have a great emphasis on rhythm, both a seasonal rhythm, as well as, daily rhythm and a weekly rhythm. And they’re very relationship driven. Certainly education, generally, finds its greatest success when there’s strong relationships at work between teacher and pupil. But in a Waldorf school we have a model wherein teachers often stay with children for a number of years in their educational journey, which presents a unique opportunity for that teacher to become a truly significant person in the life of a child as they grow up and go through school.

Mike McShane: Now you mentioned in Steiner’s philosophy this view towards the stages of a child’s development. You know, historically in schools we have tended to associate those with grades or even transitions with elementary school or middle school or high school. Do Waldorf schools or your school in particular have age-graded classrooms? They go to first grade or second grade or third grade. You mentioned teachers following students, is it a little bit more fluid or is that part of the rhythm as, you know, children age?

Jeffrey Baker: Yeah, they certainly move through a progression of grades, but often with the same teacher for a number of years, as I mentioned prior. We do have a first grade class and a second grade class and third grade class and, you know, some of our students will be with their classmates and their teacher for five years or six years through the elementary school experience. As they progress in, in the curriculum, as their intellectual capacities grow and develop the school does start to have more and more specialty teachers come in for certain subjects throughout the grades. Things like Spanish or movement or mathematic skills and English Skills, as we move into the middle school years and move beyond in high school.

But at essence what is, what is working with Waldorf education is the idea that there’s a tremendous amount of creative freedom for the teachers. There’s sort of a road map to the curriculum and the pedagogy and how it unfolds, but the teacher is in a place of freedom. Getting to work directly with these students over a period of time to, to model their lessons and student’s experience off of individual needs or to classroom social dynamic or classroom needs, generally, and that makes for an experience that really becomes much more tailored towards the individual that the teacher is interacting with each day.

Students are getting, yes, this general experience of the pedagogy, but it can be more highly fashioned towards the needs of the students of the current day. The pedagogy follows certain indications and models, as I said, from Rudolf Steiner and many of those have been fundamentally serviceable over the past hundred years, without question. But inherently built into the curriculum is also this idea that education should be a living engagement between the adults providing it, or the educators and the children, with the parents, of course, being an integral part of that mix. The primary educator, obviously, and a collaborator through this whole process.

Mike McShane: Then how did the Santa Fe Waldorf School get started?

Jeffrey Baker: It was started, like many Waldorf schools, certainly in the US, where there was a group of individuals—some of them educators, some of them parents—who were interested in Rudolf Steiner’s ideas about education and wanted to be able to provide a Waldorf methodology to children in this region, in Northern New Mexico.

The school was founded in 1983, and very quickly moved to the site it now inhabits. Within the first year of its life it moved to this current campus, where we’re at now. We have a lovely 13-acre campus. It’s backed by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which provides the backdrop to Santa Fe itself. And it’s a, it’s a high desert campus with pinon and juniper, and lots of open play spaces and arroyos and what have you, for the children to, to interact with and to engage with as part of their daily play, outdoors during recess, and also that’s part of their educational experience in investigations during the curricular day.

Mike McShane: How many students does it serve now?

Jeffrey Baker: We are a pre-school all the way through high school institution here in Santa Fe. We have about 210 students. Our class sizes tend to range 12 to 14. Fairly small classes throughout the grades, but this provides for a lot of opportunities for the teachers to engage directly with the kids and provide some of that customization that I was talking a little bit about earlier in relation to educational experience of each class.

You know, in a more traditional public setting, like I was raised in, we had this experience as children and students, we had new teacher, a new teacher, every year or new teachers every single year and, of course, there’s always this period of transition that that requires. Where one has to get a sense of who is this human being before me, or who are, you know, these individuals that are working with as a student that are my teacher, and how do I work within their expectations, their standards. And while there’s certainly importance in navigating that, the reality is, is that also can cut into a significant amount of the educational experience for children.

By having these more long-term relationships in place, we are allowed to open up our curriculum to be a much more integrated, holistic education that allows for ample opportunity in the arts and in athletics, outdoor and wilderness education. All of these other things that sometimes schools might struggle to provide time for, the time is provided somewhat in the structure of allowing for a longer term relationship between teacher and students.

Mike McShane: I think that’s great. I think back to my own teaching days, I used to be a ninth and tenth grade English teacher, and I taught at a relatively small school, so I was the only ninth and tenth grade English teacher. So for a portion of my students, I would have them for two years. I would teach them in ninth grade and then again in tenth grade, and I know just from a planning perspective or thinking about the types of stuff that we wanted to tackle together, thinking about that as a two year plan, as opposed to a one year plan, really thinking about how the skills and capacities that students were developing could continue to develop and flourish over a longer period of time, really changed my attitude.

I found it, it gave me a lot less day-to-day pressure, because it’s like, whoa you’ve got time to do this. If the little activity that we’re doing today or whatever we’re working on doesn’t necessarily work out, it’s alright. You’re gonna spend two years with these kids, we’re gonna, we’re eventually gonna get it together.  I think it’s fascinating to even extend that out even further.

But I’m interested in, so how did, how did you get involved in the school?

Jeffrey Baker: Well, I’m actually graduated from college with an arts background and very quickly coming out of school, moved into education. I taught for French International School in Los Angeles for two years and then saw a job posting for a school that was specifically seeking with classroom experience and more of an arts background. And that’s how I stumbled upon Waldorf education, myself. Bringing no real awareness, at first, about Rudolf Steiner or the Waldorf educational movement worldwide. I came in as a person who’s intrigued by the idea of getting more of a long term experience with students, more of a long term view of the educational activity rather than just a set amount of state standards that must be met at, you know, any given week or any given month.

Having worked with that experience, a bit, both in the French system and in the California State system, being able to move into a Waldorf pedagogy felt very much like a breath of fresh air as an educator. What I experienced in my first years of teaching in a Waldorf classroom was a real openness to new ideas, to exploring and playing with ideas, and a valuing of direct observation and activity among the students.

The, I was working primarily in middle school throughout my time as a teacher in the Waldorf school, and it’s interesting ’cause one of the stronger forces I think that we encounter as educators working with early adolescence or pre-adolescence is this, this potential or tendency towards cynicism, that can develop, and that was not living as strongly, in my experience as a classroom teacher, with the first Waldorf school that I worked for.

Instead what I had were students that were very open to new ideas, very kind in their interactions with each other, and generally fascinated and excited by the world that surrounded them. And that felt like an incredible gift to be able to educate in that manner and to be honored as a teacher, who is able to come forward with new ideas, within the pedagogical model, but come forward with new ideas, try them out. Certainly not all of them worked at any given time, but because the relationships between myself and the students, myself and their parents, were strong, it felt as if we were all actively engaged in this learning process together. We were all part of this artistic endeavor to educate children in a manner that left them excited about the world that they were going to enter, as adults.

Mike McShane: Now I’m interested in, in sort of unpacking these, these pieces of family, children, parents, or, and teachers, educators that are part of it. If we maybe, kind of, drill down talking about the side of teachers, of educators.

It seems to me, and please correct me if I’m wrong, that a lot of the things that the Waldorf model asks of teachers is different than traditional schools ask of, and might not necessarily be covered in traditional teacher education programs or the things that teachers need to get licensed, to get certified to operate in schools.

I’m curious, where do you all find your teachers? Do you have to do a lot of outreach to try and surface people that share this same philosophy? Is it people who graduated from Waldorf schools? Do you have to do a lot of professional development? I’m just interested in that kind of, the teacher question.

Where do you find ’em? How do you get ’em up to speed?

Jeffrey Baker: Yeah, and that’s an excellent question, and I think it’s one of those areas that, at least in the United States, which is the only area where I can speak most directly to, there is certainly a greater need for Waldorf teachers, right now, as the movement continues to grow. I think I said, that, you know, we’re a part of this independent school movement that spans thousands of schools now, worldwide.

The Santa Fe Waldorf School and the way it approaches this is probably indicative of a good percentage of schools in the US, where we have an expectation about them—a college background and a college degree—but in addition to that there is specific Waldorf teacher training which occurs as a different program from normal college track and we’re always looking to try an identify instructors who will ideally bring classroom experience with them, but also have a background in the Waldorf pedagogy through one of the Waldorf teacher training institutes that are here in the United States, as well as, obviously, a rich background of their own through college and whatever they were pursuing individually, either prior or post their Waldorf teacher training certificate.

Now the teacher training for Waldorf education is, in part, about those things that I think we commonly associate with getting a background in education. Things like classroom management, curriculum planning, assessment tools, all of that. But there’s a deeper component to that, as well, in our training institutes, which really looks at this developmental picture that Rudolf Steiner put forward about children and how they grow into their adulthood. And, and really tries to drill down into different ways that that can be met at the different ages that you might be working with as a Waldorf teacher, because many teachers will enter into a role with the Waldorf school where they’re expecting to be with a class for a number of years. And what that means in the elementary years, for example, is that we’re really asking those teachers to be something of generalists. They have to be able to cover a wide variety of topics with enthusiasm and with some real artistic and creative aspects as part of that.

And then as they move with the children into this early adolescence age of the middle school years, more and more of that generalist model starts to need to shift into the role of more of a specialist, right? Especially as we go into the high school years, where we employ a team, essentially, of folks that have specific backgrounds in subjects like science and subjects like mathematics or U.S. history, right? But they also are carrying this developmental picture with them, as well.

On top of all of that, the school is also regularly investing in professional development opportunities. Some of those are related specifically to Waldorf education and teacher trainings over the summers about the grades that the teacher might be encountering next year. But some of it can be just related to general topics that are gonna come up in the curriculum, the teacher wants additional support in.

But our faculty, often, are really called upon to be models of adults striving towards this humanist ideal of a balance of experience and a real interest in the performing arts, in the visual arts, in the academic realms, in athletics, right? They will play the recorder. They’ll sing with their students. They’ll go out and play movement games. They’ll be working on Roman numerals, while at the same time talking about the Roman Empire to an integrated historical study block. They’ll be learning how to throw javelins, so that they can work with students on that task when they’re studying Ancient Greece, for example.

At heart, it’s a very humanist model of education. What it’s asking the adults or the educators to do is to really be constantly, actively striving in front of the students. That in itself provides an inspiration to young people that says that, that adults that are performing are also interested and engaged members of the wider world.

Mike McShane: Now the other piece of the puzzle is the family. You mentioned part of the philosophy is recognizing parents as the primary educators and this importance around modeling adult behavior for students. Do you work with parents to help cultivate those attitudes or beliefs within themselves? Do you mostly rely on those types of people to choose to send their children to the school? Is it some mix of the two? How do you work with parents so that that, that attitude, that philosophy is reinforced?

Jeffrey Baker: Well it’s really a mixture of things. It’s not as if there’s one specific group that’s seeking out an educational model like Waldorf Education. There’s, there’s actually a great diversity of, of parents and families that are choosing Waldorf Education around the globe, certainly here in Santa Fe we have a diversity of religious beliefs, a diversity of economic backgrounds that are coming forward.

Families, I think, come to the school for different reasons. One of the things that they respond to, almost immediately, as I alluded to early, is this sense of a caring community that is taking a long term view. And allows for children to be able to preserve the sanctity of childhood while still engaging in the process of education and learning.

We have a lot of entrepreneurs at the Santa Fe Waldorf School. A lot of families are coming from entrepreneurial backgrounds, for example, and I think that the reason for that is really because the entrepreneurial person can look at this school and see that it’s a school that is attempting to bring out and draw out all of these different capacities within students. Not trying to direct them towards a certain specialty or a certain outcome early on in their, in their childhood, and in their educational journey. Entrepreneurs, for example, that sense of, that sense of an education towards adaptability and personal strength and resilience. Those are things that resonate with them.

There are families that come because they get the feeling of a real deep connection to the environment and to the ecological aspects of the education. They are interested in whole systems, right? And think about that not just in terms of the environment, but in terms of their own children’s education. A school like ours, which really has seasonal celebrations, festivals and celebrations, that the families are involved in with, along with the children, that has meaning and that has resonance to them.

Another aspect of Waldorf Education that I think people often point to is related to technology. And at a Waldorf school we intentionally don’t begin the introduction of digital technology until the years in high school. And, again, that is part of our commitment as an educational movement towards building creative capacities within children through the much more, sort of, traditional means of outdoor creative play, unstructured playtime, meaningful stories, biographies, and exploration, first hand, with math and science, right? We aren’t relying on an experience through a screen to do that. We’re bringing those experiences directly to the children’s hands, directly in the classroom through the conduit of the teacher.

Mike McShane: How do you measure success? How do you know if what you are doing is working?

Jeffrey Baker: Well, we rely on qualitative assessments as a big part of what we do. We don’t issue grades at the Waldorf school until the students enter high school. But they do receive regular, written narrative reports from the faculty about how they’re progressing in these different areas of study. And, obviously, we have parent conferences that are connected to, to that with some regularity.

There have been a variety of studies done of Waldorf education and the learning outcomes of Waldorf education over the years. In allowing for a longer time period for things to unfold for a child, say the ability to, to have basic reading comprehension and skills, that being something that doesn’t have to be done exactly at this point, but that there’s a range of years in which we would be working with that. What that does is that it tends to allow for students by the time they enter into adolescence to perform quite well in, in the sub standardized assessments that, that we’re more accustomed to in traditional educational models. At the high school level, that’s really where we have our first standardized tests, in the form of the PSAT and the SAT and the ACT. These things are necessary parts, still of the college admissions process, right?

But when our students graduate out of the school, we have, we see significant levels of merit, scholarships being awarded. Our high school graduates, they’re accepted to a wide range of universities with a wide range of interests and tend to perform very well in college and beyond.

There are a lot of markers, but they’re markers that extend beyond the standard quarter and semester. Or again, taking a bit of a longer view with all of it.

Mike McShane: I’m glad you brought up the sort of ACT and the SAT and some of the grammar of the education system as we have it. I’m, by training, kind of a policy guy and so I’m interested, are there ways in which your school intersects with, with public policy? The policies either made by local school districts or the states or the federal government. Are you able to work pretty freely? Are there things that sort of hem you in?

I just would be interested to know how you intersect with, with the various, myriad education policies drafted at the local, state or federal level?

Jeffrey Baker: Right, that’s a good question and depending on the type of Waldorf school your asking that question of, your answer’s going to be different. There are charter Waldorf schools in America and that movement continues to grow and expand over the past years.

For a school like ours, which is truly an independent entity, we don’t have the same sorts of connection to No Child Left Behind or whatever new educational standard, you know, are put forward at the federal or state level. These periodic points of standardized assessment are not something that we, at the private school, have to abide by, in terms of that schedule, right? That being said, like any educational institution, we feel a strong sense of responsibility towards successful outcomes for our students and for the families that have invested in being here, right?

But the way that we pointed at and the way that we can look at that is that not only are these outcomes at the end of the journey, in relation to college acceptances, but the parents are really part of and integrated into the entire educational conversation year in and year out with the teacher or teachers that the child’s interacting with.

The short answer to your question is, that we retain a considerable amount of freedom by being an independent entity, but there are Waldorf institutions in the United States that are operating under a charter model, which obviously has standards related to the federal or the state expectations that allow them that charter in the first place.

Mike McShane: I want to close with one question, well actually a brief one before that, how long have you been the school administrator of the Santa Fe Waldorf School?

Jeffrey Baker: I’m in my fifth year here as the administrator, and I taught for seven years at a Waldorf School, prior to my moving into this role.

Mike McShane: Great, so if you could go back, if we imagine we hopped in a time machine and we went back to your first day as the administrator those five years ago. If you could give yourself one piece of advice, perhaps a lesson that you learned or something. Looking back on that time period, what would advice would you give yourself as you started that journey?

Jeffrey Baker: That’s an interesting question to ponder.

Mike McShane: Ha ha ha.

Jeffrey Baker: There’s probably ample advice that I would want to give myself that I may or may not have been capable of hearing at that time. I think that one of the pieces that would’ve been helpful to understand is the complexity of working at any institution that spans so many different ages and sections of school. So often you see an independent schools or other schools focus on a middle school, focus on a high school, focus on an elementary school, and there are complexities and beauties, certainly too, in relation to working with a pre-school through twelfth. Which it takes time to fully understand and, you might not even be aware of, until you’re midstream in that process of coming to a full realization of the complexities of navigating that full educational journey. Both for faculty as well as for families, and for students.

I think another aspect, as a fairly young administrator, and I know folks who’ve been in school administration now for 20 plus years, this aspect that can’t be underestimated about just being a listening entity and a receptive entity to any ideas that are brought forward. Often times there is almost a greater success in the act of listening than in the attempt to try and improve something or fix something. So that’s a piece, I think, that would’ve been useful. Early days, I think, a greater act of listening and less doing at the outset.

Mike McShane: Well I’ll tell you, I certainly enjoyed listening to everything you had to say and I don’t think there was anyway that I could’ve improved it. Jeffrey Baker, Santa Fe Waldorf School, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today.

Jeffrey Baker: Thank you, Mike. It was a pleasure.

Mike McShane: What a great conversation. It was really difficult to try and tackle all of Waldorf Education’s history and its philosophy and its particular manifestation in the Santa Fe Waldorf School in just half an hour, but I think Jeffrey did a great job explaining that.

For those of you that are interested in Waldorf education, a pretty simple Google search can yield a lot of really interesting information, again, about the history, about the philosophy, and about how Waldorf schools look and educate students.

As always, I’m always on the lookout for more cool schools to profile here on the Cool Schools Podcast, so if you know of any, please tweet them at me, email me, send me good vibes through the universe. However it works, if you can get that information to me I would greatly appreciate it.

If you want other outstanding EdChoice content, not just Cool Schools, but the whole gamut of other things that we talk about here, please sign up for our email list. We have lots of opportunities for you to get our wonderful content that we send. Whether it’s research, whether it’s policy stuff, whether it’s cool things that are going on around the country related to school choice, educational choice and all the different options that are available for students. It was a pleasure spending this time with you, take care.