Rosie Simpson: "Rites of Passage"

Rosie Simpson “Rites of Passage”

Introductory Talk #9 at Rudolf Steiner Centre
on Wednesday 28 September 2022

Rosie has been the Programme Director for the Certificate in Rudolf Steiner Education at Taruna College for the past six years.  She was Principal of Taikura for 9 years after being the last Class Teacher to take a Lower School Class for 8 years.  Her previous years at Hohepa as teacher and house parent with children in need of special soul care have given her a wonderful basis for understanding education.


The Taruna Course has been created for state-trained teachers transitioning to teach in a Waldorf School or wanting to change their pedagogy and do things differently in a mainstream setting.  A real question when teaching such a course is how not to make judgements about state education, but to be open and flexible without dogmatism about the right way to teach.  Rudolf Steiner did not set out to create a school movement but an educational movement that would touch the lives of children the world over.

I am always delighted when I hear back from a state school teacher that ‘story-telling has just transformed my class.’  Or ‘doing morning circle has been a delight.’  Even from a secondary school teacher who said girls were stitching their own beanbag and writing a journal.  Another in a formal school situation described herself as a ‘Steiner teacher’!  There are many ways of bringing Waldorf pedagogy to children, whatever the seeming constraints of the educational environment.

A Rite of Passage can be seen as threefold:  a starting situation that will be left behind, an act of separation >> a transition, threshold or gateway through which you consciously pass>> an emergence or reincorporation as a renewed or changed person with new status. This passage is witnessed by the community with some ceremony or ritual and often with outer symbols. Graduations for instance may be marked with special clothing, gowns, hats and the receipt of a certificate.

Rites of Passage have traditionally been observed in communities with strong cultural or religious heritage, often around the time of puberty. Examples are the Jewish Bar Mitzvah, a Christian confirmation ceremony, Vanuatu vine jumping, or African tribal communities where boys are taken out into the desert or bush and put through physical trials before coming back as a man.  It is society’s way of recognizing change.  Steiner was very good at recognizing these shifts; where physical development is accompanied by the emergence of new faculties and capacities: a three year old saying “I”; the appearance of permanent teeth around seven; puberty for the 12 year old; the birth of Astral Body at fourteen. These require recognition and a change of orientation in the teacher/adult towards the child, something has been cast off and someone new steps out.

Twenty-one was recognised in New Zealand for a long time as time to receive the Golden Key to the door. At a deeper level we can understand this to be entering your Sun period [21 to 42] and the arrival of the individual ego.  At a 21st birthday party, if they are lucky, the young person will have speeches made for them by family members or people who know them well, celebrating who they are, helping them move out of childhood into adulthood.  This old wisdom has slipped from consciousness and now the sixteenth or eighteenth birthdays take precedence, where society grants permissions to drink alcohol, to vote, to hold a drivers licence.

New Zealand has been described as one of the most secular societies in the world.  Secularity gives some freedom but also a levelling down.  The specialness of occasions is diminished. I had the privilege as a child to attend church – this gave me a rhythm in my week.  Festivals lifted life out of the ordinary.  When I took my Class Two to a church, only three out of the thirty children had ever been to a church – it was a very moving experience for them to be in that space and to wonder at that space.  Children may go to weddings and funerals, but they may well be in a park or at the beach.  Taikura has Festivals as strong markers of the passage of the year.  One special one is the Carol Ceremony where children move from Kindergarten to Class One. They are brought in by the graduating Class 12 students, the little ones all dressed in white, arriving with some trepidation, bearing a lily to give to their new teacher, and Class 12 dressed in ballgowns and suits, as adults leaving the school with dignity and grace. Each group departs this ceremony to take up a new life: the forming of a new class and a new way of learning, the graduation away from school and class bonds into life and individual pathways of work study or travel. It is a beautifully conceived rite of passage where all three stages are honoured. 

As I came in I saw a Monarch butterfly on a swan plant – it reminded me of a story I used at a parent evening Class 3.  Think of children of this age strongly pushing at their boundaries.  The butterfly lays eggs which hatch into caterpillars, then there is a special moment when they spin a cocoon around themselves and withdraw into a dry husk within which there is vitality, chaos and change.  Out of this emerges the imago, but it is important that it is not “helped” in any way.  If you help the butterfly by opening the chrysalis for it, it will emerge maimed – because it needs to be able to push against the husk to pump up its wings so it can launch into flight.  The analogy for parents is that when children push with demands, we need to be able to resist, to be a chrysalis, an authoritative figure – if not, there will be a certain kind of lameness in the child’s soul forces.

Steiner education is probably the only one that says you may damage the children by doing something too soon.  Early childhood education is a very important time.  Sometimes as adults we want to help a child to make a step without pain.  The emerging butterfly is a picture for the birth of the soul, the psyche [the astral body] – the Greek word for butterfly is psyche – is a beautiful image of the emergence of the colourful self at 14.  There is an uncomfortable time for parents when the children are pushing and developing their soul muscles and you have to establish yourself as an authority figure. 

At Taruna I have experienced home schoolers, who are also unschooling their children.  The Unschooling movement is quite big, where children follow their own interest.  Steiner education is a counter picture to this – we as adults have a lot longer earthly experience of what the earth offers and brings, and we can offer our own inner authority {an author is one who can write or tell a story} to guide the children (who have more recent experience of the heavenly worlds) how to live on the earth.  How do they get to know what they don’t know?  

When you look at the Steiner curriculum it is helpful to look at the New Zealand curriculum as well.  At the time of Taikura’s integration, it was rigid and difficult – structured and scaffolded.  Now the 2007 iteration of the curriculum is very good – it contains a list of 6 things a good curriculum should be based on: inclusion, diversity, Treaty of Waitangi, empowering children, learning how to learn, and striving for excellence.  The one thing that is not included is that the curriculum should be based on child development – or, for Waldorf Education, the process of incarnation unfolding in child development – that is a huge difference.  When I was at Training College, Piaget {Theory and Stages of Cognitive Development} was still taught – it is all about teaching when the time is right.  It means that teaching has now become entertainment – picking topics at random.  This year the six year old is going to learn about Japan, without any thought about “Why am I teaching this topic to these children now?” or “What capacities are unfolding at this age?” 

Rites of Passage are quite an archetypal picture.  In Guild times, a young man moved from Apprentice working in the Master’s studio to a Journeyman travelling {crossing a threshold} until creating one’s masterpiece and becoming a Master {and Teacher}.  You knew exactly who you were and where you were on the journey.  A similar progression was Page >> Squire >> Knight.  For women it was different – becoming ‘earth ripe’ and having child-bearing capacity was a huge step.

A wonderful aspect of the curriculum – which I only saw by looking back after eight years – was the natural  opportunity the curriculum provided to create meaningful rites of passage for children where the right thing happens at the right time.  This may be for an individual child or for the group.

For example, in Class 3, the nine year old is coming to self-awareness; how do we mark this?  It could be a first Class Camp – staying overnight away from home without parents (like a sleepover at a friend’s place) – is a threshold, a rite of passage.  It could be in a tent or tepee, an unfamiliar space.

I remember saying to parents, when children came in Class 1 wearing watches, and we did not have a clock in the classroom, “Please wait until Class 3 when we will learn about time and measurement {comparing themselves to their environment} when the passage of time will have relevance for them.  You may get seven year olds looking at their watches and saying ‘There is 5 minutes to go to before the bell rings’.  It brings a premature awareness of time instead of swimming in the stream of their education.  How do we hold back, and wait for the tome to be right?”  Nowadays it is smartphones that need careful withholding. 

Holding back has real potency.  I can remember the passage from printing with crayons to using pencils.  Then in Class 4 cursive writing with a pen.  These may seem to be small things, but led up to in the right way, they can become quite special markers.  It is a beautiful time for parents to gift an old fountain pen that, say, a grandparent may have had.  It marks the birth of a new skill.  Another is the reading of Chapter books independently – a time to gift such a book.  I can remember having a boy in my class who couldn’t read for a long, long time.  Then in Class 8, I caught him reading a Harry Potter under his desk during mainlesson time and I felt such joy that at last he was reading and reading for himself.

I remember the High School Handwork teacher had an ex-student write her a letter saying that when he was creating his first CV, he had put in it his Sewing Machine Licence.  He thought of it as a real thing – given to him when he could operate the sewing machine independently.  That threshold was marked by pride and a Licence.  He was surprised it didn’t have recognition in the world outside Taikura!

The Autumn Harvest Festival play by the first four classes has markers: in class 1 the children are gnomes {elemental spirits}; in Class 2 bright shining meteors; in Class 3 they are in the Dragon’s skin – which is utterly appropriate; and then in Class 4 they are the townsfolk who tame the dragon.  These are rites of passage – the younger children know that next year they will progress to the next stage for which, by then, they will be ready. 

There is great wisdom in the stories one tells from a young age.  The Billy Goats Gruff lives deeply in the child’s soul.  The little Billy Goat Gruff can’t pass the Troll but says “Wait for my big brother!”  The second one can’t but the third one can and takes on the troll.  There is a process of knowing that you are maturing in physical body, in skills and in courage, becoming ready to cross the threshold {bridge} – ready to take something on. 

Every year my class camp provided a rite of passage – not for all children, but for some.  What activity in this camp is going to take them out of their comfort zone?  Class 6 – high ropes.  Class 7 – age of exploration.  There are thresholds of fear and uncertainty.  There are also social thresholds.

I had the privilege of taking my class to Fiji.  We were there for only 10 days, but the children I brought home were not the children who had left.  Some of the ones that shone were not the bright stars of the classroom but those who shone socially.  We stayed in villages with families – they would socialise, get up and dance, they opened themselves up – it could not have happened earlier.

Class plays can be another marker.  There were certain plays where I chose children for roles that had the possibility to shift something in them.  There is a beautiful story of Raniero and the sacred flame by Selma Lagerlӧf.  Raniero in his youth was a boastful, brash fellow.  He goes to Jerusalem to bring back the sacred flame to light the Easter candle in Florence.  On the return journey he is utterly humbled, he is robbed and has to ride backwards on his horse to protect the flame.  I chose a boy for this part who had become full of himself and not very nice to other people.  The part was transforming for him.

There are right times to swim, to play the piano.  Music teachers say you can start learning instruments at 5 or 6, but if you leave it until they are 9, then they will learn in 6 months what could take 3 years at the early age.  We need to recognise this ‘ripeness’ and the best time for learning things, but it does take careful observation by the teacher and parent to not jump the gun or to give in to the plea of “but everyone else is doing it.”

The curriculum is for teachers; parents need to consider when children get pocket money, their own phone or other privileges.  Decades ago, psychologists were writing about the demise of ‘frustration tolerance’ – when children can’t wait for anything – they want it NOW.  It becomes increasingly difficult because there are no rites of passage, children don’t feel they should have to wait, our society is one of fast everything and instant gratification. Markers of maturation are no longer clear or commonly agreed. There is that pushing at the ‘walls of the chrysalis’ – to get out at the right moment through one’s own effort can be a hard won achievement, requiring practice and patience.  As adults we need to bear, as firm and loving witnesses, the pain and frustration that can accompany that transition to butterfly. It is worth waiting for!

In a Steiner school we, as teachers, move on with the children, we do not have the luxury of repeating a class year after year, becoming an ‘expert’ of that age.  The ‘moving on’ is part of the inner path of the teacher.  In a sense we create our own rites of passage too as we make this inner shift from year to year; both the children and the wise curriculum lead us on from who we were to who we are becoming…

Posted: Fri 04 Nov 2022