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Klaus Esser
Klaus Esser, German musician and educator.Carles Ribas

Waldorf method educator: ‘The fact that the Nazis didn’t like our schools is good publicity’

Klaus Esser, who teaches in a Barcelona center, believes that screens can detract more than they can contribute to children’s abilities

Jacinto Antón

Klaus Esser, 48, is a teacher and member of the management team at El Til.ler School in Bellaterrra (Barcelona). It is one of the more than 2,000 schools worldwide that follow the Waldorf method, an educational system that grants a lot of freedom to students so they will learn to live and think for themselves, as the school motto maintains. The Waldorf method has been contested and even been considered suspect, but the reality is that it is taught without trouble; some parents are happy and others dissatisfied, just like those whose children go to conventional schools, and students go on to higher education just like their peers in other schools.

Esser, a native of Hamburg in Germany who studied at a Waldorf school (his mother was a teacher at one), became a music teacher, learned theater (which is part of the Waldorf curriculum), traveled to South America and worked on educational projects with troubled kids. He arrived in Barcelona in 2000, and in 2005 he joined the Bellaterra center project. He seems like a kind, sensible man who doesn’t get upset by awkward questions and speaks passionately about his profession.

Question: What is the Waldorf method?

Answer. A methodology that aspires for each child to discover and cultivate their own talent. And at the same time learn to work as part of a team, to be an individual within a group. It’s about giving value to art, which is a great ally to create criteria, but also to science.

Q. Waldorf sounds like a hotel and a movie theater.

A. It is derived from the Waldorf Astoria company, a Stuttgart cigarette factory whose owner, Emil Molt, wanted to create a school for the children of his employees. For this he enlisted the philosopher Rudolf Steiner. Today there are Waldorf schools in 60 countries.

Q. Steiner was also the founder of anthroposophy, a school of thought that has been dismissed as pseudoscientific and associated with esoteric beliefs. It’s a bit scary.

A. What interests us today about Steiner is his idea of free education, albeit free with a structure, obviously; this is an idea that was revolutionary in its time. That and his idea that the teacher’s most important task is to develop students’ enthusiasm for learning. There is nothing weird or sinister about our school. Waldorf schools are independent, there is no central body, no orthodoxy. Ours is a mixed cooperative of teachers and parents. At present, the Waldorf method has the specific aim of promoting creativity across all subjects.

Q. It seems that the schools did not do well under the Nazis.

A. Schools were banned, and some teachers ended up in concentration camps. They seemed dangerous to them because they gave students too much autonomy and encouraged them to think for themselves. The opposite of what the Hitler regime wanted. In Germany, these schools only began to revive after the war. The fact that the Nazis didn’t like them is good propaganda.

Q. Do Waldorf students have integration problems after finishing school?

A. No. It is true that in the last cycle before university examinations we accelerate the pace, but our students pass the exams in the same proportion as the others. What they do tell us at the universities is that ours are very motivated students who show great criteria.

Q. Waldorf schools have been accused of being elitist.

A. Unfortunately, there has been a trend in that direction, especially considering its origins as a school for children of factory workers; in Spain we are 100% private, while in other countries the schools are publicly subsidized. But we try to make sure that nobody who wants to study with us is left out, there are formulas. In fact, when we started out we were the least elitist private school in Catalonia, tuition used to cost much less than the others.

Q. What do you think about today’s renewed appreciation for learning by heart? It sounds like going back to the old ways.

A. The difficulty lies in achieving a balance, in not going to extremes. Freedom in learning does not mean that anything goes.

Q. What do you think of the use of technology in schools?

A. Cellphones cannot be used in our school. And everything has to be age-appropriate. Early contact with screens can detract more than they can contribute to children’s abilities. Technology is fantastic and we use it, it is a powerful working tool for teenagers, but it must be introduced gradually so that concentration and performance do not diminish, and creativity and fantasy do not suffer.

Q. The emphasis on nature is reminiscent of Henry David Thoreau.

A. There is no direct relationship, but like him, we make the most of contact with the natural environment. Nature is full of wisdom.

Q. Do we have to talk to children about everything, in matters of sex, for example?

A. They should not be forced to reflect on things about which they have no criteria. We should be there to provide guidance when doubts arise from them.

Q. On a personal level, what do you like about your job?

A. It’s amazing! To watch abilities and talent grow before your eyes, and how teenagers have the courage to do what they set out to do. It is unique.

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