A senior project reveals the power of Waldorf education to transform the lives of of displaced children in Iraq

By Petal Held, SWSF Class of 2021

Mere decades ago, Iraq’s educational system surpassed that of almost anywhere else in the Middle East. The country was renowned for the success of its level of learning, and highly regarded as one of the most developed educational systems in the transcontinental region. Universities there, such as the University of Baghdad, were known worldwide to be places of excellent schooling. An entire infrastructure in place for education would all be shattered in the years to come, as conflict crippled the country again and again. What was once the shining star of Middle Eastern education, has sunk down to being a less than desired place to learn.

As part of my Senior Project, I spoke with a woman named Jesse Prentice, who works in and around displacement camps in Iraq, about her journey and experience in education. It just so happens that her initiative has connections to the Waldorf Pedagogy, although I had not reached out to her due to this fact. What follows is an account of her experiences working through the initiative “Friends of Waldorf” in Iraq, especially in displacement camps. In a larger sense, her work gives an insight into what education looks like in another part of the world.

I met Jesse virtually after being introduced to her through one of my teachers. She was born in Connecticut, but her family relocated to Germany when she was nine, and she began attending Waldorf schools.  In 2015, Jesse, now in her early forties, had been working in public education in Spain, and was looking for a change. She joined a German Waldorf-based initiative, called the Friends of Waldorf. Through them, she travelled to Iraq to set up a program based on the company’s goals, which has grown to have a curriculum and a one year in-service training of Trauma Pedagogy, for potential teachers or other humanitarian workers. Over time, the program grew, and by 2017 it was certified by the local Kurdish government.

Jesse worked with the Friends of Waldorf until 2019, at which time she began working at a new organization, called Earth to Humans. Here, she investigates national NGOs who work with humanitarian issues more locally. After thorough vetting and getting to know the organization well, Earth to Humans partners with a local group. Jesse helps them build up their institutional capacities for a length of 5-7 years, until they have the stability to apply for international funds.

“Education, if done poorly, is almost worse than no education at all for children in displacement camps.” This was a main theme during my conversation with Jesse. Due to the low quality of widespread education in Iraq, she could not stress this point enough. This is because the attention span of children who have traumatic pasts is extremely short. A child who has been witness to even one horrific event is not able to sit still through a normal class period. Therefore, the likelihood of him or her being able to actually focus during a lesson is nearly nonexistent. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) plays a strong part in the life of a child like this, yet due to their age, sometimes the child cannot even grasp what has happened to them. An adult with PTSD is more equipped to consider and relate to others what he or she has gone through, but a young child might not be able to process his experiences at all, making it even harder for an outsider to reach them where there are. This is another reason behind the fundamental structure Jesse sought to establish through her organization.

Another significant piece of Jesse’s work has been educating the parents and caregivers of her students. The goal here is to help them to understand what their children are going through and how they are coping with PTSD. Oftentimes, parents just need to know that their children are normal. Seemingly irregular actions can actually be coping mechanisms. Some children regress in various ways, whether that be in speech or in literacy. Other behaviors include wetting the bed, insomnia, and shorter tempers than usual, whether that be with family, teachers or peers. The Friends of Waldorf organization tries to assure adults that all of these things are normal with respect to what their children are living through. Parents are also reminded that following any portion of a daily routine creates a soothing effect for the child’s overall psyche.

For children in displacement camps, the question isn’t necessarily how much they can learn. The question is IF they can learn, if they can get an education, focus in school, or progress healthily in life. Children who have undergone these kinds of traumas are often beyond the help of a mainstream education. They need an education which specializes in meeting their psychological, mental and physical needs. Jesse says that this all comes down to one thing: structure.

In a refugee/displacement camp, chaos consumes most of everyday life. Every member of a family is struggling psychologically, including the adults in charge of a child. This means that the person in charge of a young child is not able to provide a safe environment for them, or insure that the child is learning in the organic way all children do. For this child then, there can be a sense of total and complete disorder. Up is down, right is left, the child has no sense of direction except to follow their parents who are working through their own traumas. In our conversation, Jesse frequently reiterated that there is a large lack of organic, rhythmic structure. Parents are worried about loved ones, jobs, money, food, shelter. They cannot supply a rhythm
for their children: waking up, doing chores, learning, eating at set times, etc.

The initiative Jesse took part in provides that structure that the parents can no longer provide, mainly due to the reasons listed above. Children oftentimes come to school for the first time extremely nervous, on edge and unsettled. Within two weeks of a strong rhythm and increased stability, Jesse says, the stress levels of the children are considerably and noticeably lower, giving space for other emotions. This includes children as young as kindergarten age. Imagine a world where children are so deep in trauma and pain that they lose the childish emotions that we all had. And this is happening on the earth which we live on! The idea is mind-blowing.

Children, especially in displacement camps, need both academic and psychosocial education, to meet all of their needs (as discussed before). However, for most schools, there is not any sort of teacher training, primarily due to a lack of resources. This means that the quality of education is shockingly low. As much as 80% of “challenging behavior” from a child comes from a destroyed teaching and learning system and from unequipped teachers. Jesse knows, both through her experience and the experience of others, that higher qualities of education can have an incredible impact on the children. Most of the time, however, the resources are just not there.

The work that Friends of Waldorf does is based on the fact that the sooner normalities recur after an emergency, the better. This means that getting rhythm back into the lives of children has the potential of having one of the biggest positive impacts after a traumatic event. The organization also seeks to go to where the child is, instead of looking at the big picture of all children as a more generalized education would. This way, it is easier to find what challenges are on the front lines in a child’s life, academically and physically.

That being said, within the mainstream humanitarian mentality, housing, education and therapy are the first necessary responses after a crisis. But Jesse does not exactly agree with this. Above those, in her understanding, are the normalities and rhythms that are lost after a disaster. Friends of Waldorf works to weave in education and therapy with the routines set in place. Jesse believes that working to simply bring something (i.e. a dismal educational quality to already fragile children) is not always better than leaving things as they are. Education needs to be good in order to respond to the needs of a child who has seen more than they can comprehend. Jesse even said that, in fact, if the education was not of a high quality, it could be twice as negative for the child, leading to more harm than actually no academic education at all.

Some activities that the Friends of Waldorf inspire regarding younger children are ones that many Waldorf kindergartens do as well. They perform real activities such as making bread and soup and, for the older children, storytelling while water-coloring. This last activity, for instance, allows the children to concentrate and relax simultaneously, with the goal of retraining the brain to allow for this state of mind. This, of course, offers an entirely different approach to education than some of the old-fashioned discipline, such as yelling at the child who has dozed off or is being a clown in class. The muscle of the brain must be trained so that concentration spans, which have shrunk to a dismal size due to traumatic events, can be increased again under the right circumstances.

Integrating the free play concept into the school day of the kindergarten (and older grades) is extremely important in the work that Jesse does. In a 3 x 7 meter tent, with many family members inside, it is more than a little challenging to have any space, mental or physical, to oneself. Playing imaginative games are something that anyone with a young child has probably observed: the child plays often no matter the setting, just by herself. In a cramped space, the child who is most likely already struggling with reliving trauma has no physical or mental space to enter the world of imagination that is all their own.

This is why the work that Jesse does includes free play in the school day. This is yet another chance for children to revert back to a more meditative and peaceful place where they can lose themselves in play instead of worrying or fearing everything. This, Jesse believes, is another reason that there is such a noticeable change in the child after attending the school for even a few weeks.

Jesse said that she sees significant change in children who are exposed to creativity. Daily Waldorf rituals take place, such as songs and circles. With kindergarten children, they also follow Waldorf pedagogical norms, such as physically holding children as another way to ground them when their minds might be a swirling chaos. Everything has changed for the refugees, including the children. They experience constant movement from camp to camp and have endured the loss of everything that was once stable: family, home, friends. This is why Jesse says using Waldorf-inspired rhythm adds
so much gravity to the chaotic lives of all.

In Jesse’s experience, the majority of high achieving students are those who attended schools with this Waldorf approach. This is, of course, also due to the fact that the parents themselves are usually more invested in raising their children in this Waldorf approach as well. While much of the work here is “unproven”, Jesse says that as far as the stress aspect, at least, it can be shown that stress levels are lowered if the person (child) in question is in a stable environment where she or he feels safe. This can be attained through adhering to many of the core Waldorf principles.

There is a mix of ethnic groups in displacement camps in Iraq, and the different groups have access to different quantities and qualities of education. Displaced Iraqi citizens (due to the Islamic State) are internally displaced people. The children here, most times, were formally in state schools which are oftentimes rebuilt in camps. The average loss of education is one year for these children, but then they are able to be back into some form of schooling. For children in a displacement camp, especially Internationally Displaced Persons, it is extremely hard to re enroll in any sort of country-run school after leaving home.

Syrian refugees cannot build schools using the Iraqi curriculum, because it is different, of course, from the schools in Syria that the children have left behind. They often can’t have a Syrian curriculum, because there is no one to teach it. These children usually have only access to non-formal education. This can be a good thing, though. Because they do not need to pass formal state curriculums, it is easier to bring in the kind of initiative in which Jesse takes part. Unless there is some sort of non-formal education available, most internationally displaced children would not have exposure to education at all. Even if they are given something, it does not follow what they had been learning before.

The model of education that the Friends of Waldorf initiative runs on is not readily available. This clashes even with the mainstream humanitarian response, which is to implement education, in Jesse’s words, “quick, quick, quick.” For this reason, an initiative like this does not turn large-scale very easily. For teachers (nationally or internationally) to qualify to work in this initiative, there is a one-year in-service training. This happens for five two-week training blocks. As it is hard to find enough local people willing to put this much time towards becoming a teacher, international Waldorf-trained teachers are usually needed.

Jesse’s work embodies so much that I aspire to do and to be. Due to this inspiration, my senior project was able to take flight in a new way. I have been able to better scope out what it is I aspire to do in life. Jesse inspires me every day, and her work is a motivation for me that I hold close to my heart.