Jan Ney Patterson, the RSCT's early childhood teacher education director, recently returned from her first visit to China where she mentored in three Waldorf schools working with both teachers and parents. Although she had been asked to go several times previously, she felt it was time to take the plunge, in November of 2017.
She was warned that the experience would be a culture shock and hard work, but nothing prepared her for the reality. Jan found herself working all day, evenings, and weekends, as well as sleeping on hard cots in unheated homes. “Everyone wanted to take me out to dinner” she said which meant even more meetings. In the beginning she was so homesick she didn’t think she would be able to last the month. She had done her best to come prepared but when unable to access drop box to retrieve reference files she was often thrown back on her own resources and inspiration from her angel. “It definitely stretched me professionally”.
Two of the three schools Jan visited were kindergarten to grade eight near Xi’an, a city that is famous for the Terra Cotta Warriors. It was always her wish to visit this site and she was grateful for a day trip to see them.
Both Parents Attend Workshops on Waldorf Parenting
Jan led two weekend workshop on Waldorf parenting which attracted 40 participants. It is common in China for both parents to attend all such events. One session for example was on the important role of storytelling and circle work in a child’s development. The parents were delighted to learn by heart The Bremen Town Musicians and a lively movement journey of the Three Little Pigs.
In the evenings Jan worked with the school’s faculty and administration to deepen their understanding of early childhood development. Given the potential tedium of listening to translation, making these presentations visual and interactive was key. Jan found herself stressing the importance of meaningful work in a country where children are often catered to by the extended family. One parent came up later to say her son now helps to clear the table.
Climbing a Mountain with the Children
At one school Jan worked with a teacher who was having difficulty with her class: more boys than girls and all very active. Every morning they climbed up the mountain side to find a spot to play and have snack. By the end of the week both their play and their ability to listen had transformed.
Two of the schools were in small villages where Jan walked past fields with women planting vegetables, harvesting the corn, and drying herbs and home-made noodles. It was a Waldorf teacher’s paradise to see such meaningful work. As the only foreigner in the village, when she walked down the ally-ways the villagers would come out to greet her. When she ate in the little café they would come in to practice their English. It was like being a celebrity.
The Foreign Grandmother
At one of the schools she lived with a young family whose grandmother prepared all her favourite meals. The family’s three-year-old daughter asked if she could sit with “the foreign grandmother”. “The food was amazing”, said Jan, everything local and homemade, prepared lovingly over one little gas burner. But, she said, you had to be careful what you asked for, because the next day, there would be a case of it delivered. Receiving a bag of live crabs to have for supper was the most difficult. A real luxury for the family but hard to face.
Leaving a school, after working with the parents and faculty for a week, she felt incredible sadness. You develop such a close bond especially with your translator who not only translates your thoughts but your soul. Aside from her translator, there was only the occasional person who spoke English. One little girl whose father was an English professor helped her by telling her what she needed to do and introducing all the children so she would learn their names.
Waldorf Resonates with Chinese Traditions
Waldorf is by far the most quickly growing independent school movement in China. Jan said that the Chinese people find the Waldorf philosophy resonates with their spiritual traditions. Many of the parents want for their children what they did not get in their highly academic early years. They understand the value of play and the effects of too much stress. Some parents who live in big cities even establish second homes near a village Waldorf school so that their children can attend.
In spite of the many cultural differences between China and the West, Jan feels, children are the same everywhere. She confirmed her understanding of archetypal images that Steiner indicates all children bring with them. The way they laugh, whine, throw tantrums are a universal language. She saw some extraordinary play but also children who have been “pulled out of the water” too soon. Waldorf parents in China have the same worries that we do, about whether their child is going to be prepared for the challenges of adult life. Children in China also attend a lot of extra-curricular lessons.
A Generation of Parents Who Grew Up as Only Children
A big difference now in China is the change in the “one child only” policy. Parents who grown up as only children want their own to have brothers and sisters. Many other things are also changing quickly. Cell phones are everywhere; even the old street cleaners are looking on their devices as they sweep and hundred-year-old grandmothers use them.
There was great interest in our RSCT teacher education program, and request to come back to continue intensive work in the schools. Not many Chinese teachers can afford to come to Canada for a year to study Waldorf education. They want us to go there.
On her last two days in China, Jan got to be a tourist in Beijing, where she rented a bicycle to get around. The trip to the Great Wall and the Imperial palace was on the final day. Places Jan had only dreamed of visiting were experiences beyond words.
Many thanks to WECC Waldorf Early Childhood China and the support of the Rudolf Steiner Centre Toronto for making this opportunity a reality.
Jan Ney Patterson
Director of Waldorf Early Childhood Teacher Education
1. Jan presenting to the faculty of a Chinese Waldorf school.
2. Jan visiting the Terra Cotta warriors.
3. Children climbing a mountain as part of their new daily rhythm.
4. Jan visits the Great Wall of China