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Sell the Farm! Break the Bank! It's Waldorf School or Bust!



This year is a big one for me. It’s a year I thought a lot about when my fourth (and final) daughter was born.


“What will we be doing five years from now when we have both a kindergartener and a senior?” I would wonder while nursing or folding laundry or planning the school day for the other two I was homeschooling. “How will we possibly afford the Waldorf school for all four kids, how can I possibly homeschool them forever and how could I possibly make peace with sending them all to public schools?”


It certainly never occurred to me that when this day came, we’d be living in Mexico and sending three of our girls to an international preparatory school while my first born finished high school at a charter in Pennsylvania.


Now, I couldn’t have this conversation in just any circle of mamas. I mean I could, but I wouldn’t bother. I’d be assumed crazy the minute I admitted how many school options we’ve tried looking for the right fit for our family (truth be told, we’ve moved a bunch, too). But you, the thoughtful and conscientious readers of Mothering, are a different breed. And I know for a fact that you, too, have spent countless hours racking your collective brains and searching your big ol’ hearts for the right answers when it comes to your kids and education.


SO LET’S TALK.


My story began 16 years ago when my eldest was still a toddler. (It’s all here: How I Nearly Lost My Shit Trying to Keep My Kids in “The Ideal School”). Rather than retell the whole thing again (and assuming that you’ll just click over and read it), I’d like to offer a thing or two I’ve learned from our journey through…


Two public high schools


Two charter high schools


One Waldorf middle school


Three public elementary schools


Two Waldorf elementary schools


One Mexican Montessori initiative


Three homeschool co-ops


One arts-based preschool


One Christian preschool


Two years of homeschooling


*and now*


Precisely three and a half weeks at a international Mexican preparatory school


I know it sounds insane, but if you add up the ages of my kids, we are talking almost 42 years to consider. (Okay, that sounds crazy, too.)


A circle of friends at the amazing Montessori initiative we were a part of in southern Mexico.


ANYHOW, the conversation I’d like to begin has less to do with any one school model as it does the way we as parents get so panties-in-a-wad-worried, white-knuckle-nervous and mama-bear-ferocious when it comes to the subject of whether we are doing the right thing by our children when it comes to their education.


Yes, it’s an important subject. Yes, it warrants considerable consideration. But to what lengths are we–as thoughtful, connected and in-tuned mothers–obligated, expected or willing to go in order to ensure the “ideal” education for our children? How do we appropriately prioritize THEIR needs (as we currently see them) against the budget, personal balance and the overall wellness of the family?


How far is too far?


I, personally, reached a point where I hated my life before I realized something had to give. For me, that was too far. Others I know have seen their savings accounts at risk and for them, that was far enough. Others still would say it’s crazy to even consider paying for school or homeschooling when there are perfectly good public schools out there and their limit isn’t wrong either.


Clearly the answers to these questions are as unique as each family asking them.


As for my personal opinion (the revealing of which is sure to wad the panties of many a mama bear): As adamant as I was in the beginning that the Waldorf way was the end-all be-all, I feel just as certain today that children (in general) can thrive in most any school setting (or un-school setting), depending largely on the attitude of the parents and the richness of their home lives.


Their last school in Mexico, where the kids played on whatever was around (including this old refrigerator) and couldn’t have been happier.


Hang on now. Before you go to that defensive place in yourself that protests, “Oh, but not my sweet boy. He’d be eaten alive in a class that size” or, “My girl could never sit still for so many hours,” or a big one for me, “But their school isn’t just a school, it’s our community!” I get it. “But she’s such a talented…” I know. “But maybe if we just sell the…” Been there, too. “But my intuition tells me…” Yep, that’s the hardest one.


At least it is if your income doesn’t agree with your intuition.


SO—for those of us who truly believe in a certain type of education and don’t make loads of money, but happen to buy into the “where there’s a will, there’s a way” spirit this country was founded on–what are WE supposed to do? Fight the good fight? Start initiatives? Study policy reform? Compromise our convictions?


Clearly, I can’t tell you the best thing for your family, nor can anyone else. And just like your babies, you know your family best. What I can offer are a few realizations I’ve had along our educational journey so far (for what it’s worth, and heck–it’s cheaper than any tuition).


Eight Things to Consider When Determining Whether Your Kids’ School Is Worth the Sacrifice


  1. There is always another way to look at your situation. Flip it around, turn it on its end, look at the bigger picture, leave the country! Whatever you do to gain a new perspective, stay open and fluid and curious. Are the limitations you feel real or created? Are you telling yourself stories about the way you think things are or “should be,” and if so, do you like your story?
  2. If you find yourself holding tight to one certain way, ask yourself what you are afraid of. In my case, I had a death grip on Waldorf ideals for the way they support the wholeness of the child, for the creative and outdoor learning environment and for the way the world is presented as a safe and beautiful place. But when I finally let it go (after many years and because 40K+ a year simply doesn’t work for us), I realized that I could still create much of the same environment in my home, that many other good non-Waldorfy folks share similar perspectives and that I was the one who needed to see the world as a safe and beautiful place if I wanted them to believe it.
  3. This is the first time in history that parents have even considered this many choices. The mother of a good friend of mine summed up this sentiment nicely, “I just don’t understand what all the fuss is about. When my babies were growing up, we didn’t all sit around and try to make everything perfect for them, we just loved ‘em real good and knew they’d be okay in the end.” I think it’s legitimate to ask ourselves what our elders might have done in our situations. At least that’s what every other generation has done.

    Were the days before we worried over every last detail really so bad?


  4. Kids don’t see things in terms of perfection. (More on the subject here.) Not one baby is born into the world expecting a certain educational paradigm. They come into the world expecting to be loved. We are the ones who get so hung up on the details. They are curious about everything.
  5. There are teachers all around us and opportunities for growth built in to every moment. Tapping into these everyday lessons is often simply a matter of slowing our pace and paying attention.
  6. Life will offer them what they need, even when you cannot. Trust in the greater good sure takes a load off.
  7. Home life trumps all. Balance within your household, within your relationships and within yourself are going to matter more to your child in the long run than the school they attend. If these things are out of whack, no school will make up the difference.


  8. This is a first world problem. I can’t tell you how influential it’s been to step outside of our privileged US existence and contemplate such matters having made friends with oppressed and impoverished people. I’ve met woman after indigenous woman who would like nothing more than to send her kids to school if only there were a school, or enough money to afford the books or uniform. Conversations such as these ought to include a giant heap of acknowledgment that WE ARE THE FORTUNATE FEW WHO ACTUALLY HAVE CHOICES.


What do you think? How have you made peace (or not made peace) with your kids’ educational journey? Going to great lengths in order to meet your children’s’ educational needs? How far is too far?





Beth Berry

About Beth Berry

Beth Berry is a writer, mother of four daughters and born idealist living the real life. When she's not orchestrating the household, she can be found in one of several precarious yoga poses, wandering indigenous Mayan food markets, or holed up in a sunny southern Mexican cafe with her laptop, a shade grown dark roast and a contemplative look on her face. Having lived against the grain as a baby-slinging, toddler-nursing, secondhand-shopping, wanna-be farmer for 17 years, she and her family decided to ditch the rat race for a taste of life abroad. Now, in addition to challenging conventional wisdom, she writes about her life-changing experiences working among women in extreme poverty and oppression. Keep up with her musings and adventures in imperfection at www.revolutionfromhome.com.



Comments (17)

We're a Waldorf family, and I could REALLY relate to your post. I've felt the burden of that big tuition bill and angst at the thought of sending my older child to a different type of school. My younger one didn't get admitted to our local Waldorf nursery program, and I was DEVASTATED. It took me a long time to move forward emotionally. (I'm still smarting at the loss of the Waldorf experience for him.) But he's now attending another school, and he's happy as a lark. The experience has shown me that, while Waldorf provides many benefits (and is still my top choice), other options are viable. And I think you're right: school is what you make of it. (I think this goes for colleges too.) Thanks for writing this!
I love this and will share with friends! I am a former public middle school teacher married to a public high school teacher, and yet, since the day I found out I was pregnant I have been stressing over where my 13-mo-old will go to school (Waldorf being the top of my list, but since the closest one is 2 hours away we'd have to move. yeah, right.). Thanks for sharing your insight!
Insightful. Author Jim Trelease, once mentioned that the amount of time we spend at school amounts to roughly 880 hours a year. After seeing him at a conference back when I was a schoolteacher, that quote really stuck with me. Our homes are where we educate the most. I have two sons, one of which has autism. I currently send the older one {4} to a part-time special ed preK here in Chicago. Well, not really, as our teachers are on strike as of today. I'm homeschooling the younger one {3} this year. Each year, we must really look at our kids and make sure the schools we've chosen {or not} rise to meet them. Each year, for my family, I weigh our options. I'm sharing this article on my facebook and pinterest pages. Thank you.
I was once advised that I shouldn't worry because my children would find like minded kids when they begin school. So, although I still worry, I try to remember this. Staying at home with them & providing the foundation to choose the school children who will best fit their values is my reassurance. Thanks for a great post!
As a public school teacher I believe in our public school system. Our oldest child went K-12 in public school and did very well. Our youngest soared in elem school, but became lost and of course in middle. Our neighborhood middle school was struggling to provide basic services to it's students and our high school was even worse. Our daughter was heading down all the wrong roads with all the wrong people. We knew we have to make a decision. My husband and I put everything aside and sent out daughter to private school for highschool, Chapelgate Christian Academy. Best decision we ever made. She just graduated in 2012, vice president of her class, 4. 0 GPA heading to VSU for clinical psychology. More importantly she made amazing friends, spent a week in a 3rd world county building a church, and running a bible school, and strengthened her relationship with God. You have to know your child, for Maria it was the right place to be.
Super article, thank you Beth. It really speaks to me and our family's dilemma. We (and especially I) have been agonising over this for our second - whose start at school was les than perfect , which I have been blogging a lot about recently. Thank you for your insight and hard won wisdom. I am contributing editor of Juno magazine, a natural parenting magazine in the UK, and our September issue focuses on educational choices, it is such a hot topic amongst, alternative thinking, socially and spiritually aware parents who are up for world changing - and you're right, it's all the choices that we have that do your head in!
Thank you so very much for this timely post! This really speaks to the situation I am faced with right now. I am a former public school teacher who became dissatisfied with the system. Once my kids were old enough, I began homeschooling my kids using a Waldorf/Steiner approach. I want to send them to a Waldorf school or go back to homeschooling, but a big wrench got thrown into those plans recently. My husband is a public school principal, and since we just moved to the small town in which he works, my oldest now attends his school. He is thrilled. I am not. So to further complicate such a big decision, we are faced with philosophical differences in what we think is best for our kids. I think your article gave me some good food for thought, especially in looking at my own motivations for wanting a certain kind of education for my kids. Thanks again!
This was written for me. I have been agonizing about this since my oldest started preschool two years ago. She's now in first grade, and my younger one is in preschool, and I still agonize about this every day. I'm glad to see I'm not the only one. You've really brought up some great points here, especially the ones about how much of a first world problem this really is. Thank you for this piece.
I was very happy with my daughter's Waldorf education, but I am sending her to public high school for now. Here's my family's story: http://perfectwhole.wordpress.com/2012/06/15/what-we-got-for-140000/ "What We Got for $140,000"
A beautiful summary of exactly why I tried as hard as I did to provide a Waldorf education for my children. My eldest attended the Austin Waldorf school through the eighth grade as well, but with three more right behind her it became obvious that we had to make some hard choices. Oh, how I wish it were more accessible to all...it's so hard for me to get past the fact that only kids from certain income brackets are "eligible."
Yes! I have often pointed out that the first Waldorf students were the children of factory workers, that Steiner intended this education to be for all children, regardless of family income. One of my fantasies about winning the Megamillions lottery is the idea of creating a huge endowment for our Waldorf school, which would make it possible to offer free and reduced tuition to any children from any background who want to attend. So far, I have not won.[img]http://en.gravatar.com/juliegoldberg#photo-0[/img]
Thanks Beth for your insight and wisdom. The choice for our children's education can sometimes seem overwhelming and frightening. After I had my first child, suddenly so many things and people in the world seemed scary and I was afraid to let her go out into it all. I love where you said " I was the one who needed to see the world as a safe and beautiful place if I wanted them to believe it. " This is so true. I have since realized that the safe and creative environment my husband and I create in our home will help our children rise above many of the things I originally feared for them. And the most important lesson I have learned is that if you take it too seriously you can miss out on just enjoying the blessings of daily moments and extraordinary insights your children bless you with. Thanks!
Thank you for this post. I had to reach this point -- for financial, logistic, and emotional reasons -- with the birth of my second child. I look back at how fierce, worried, all-consummed, and unhappy I was during the several school choices w/my first, and am bemused, sympathetic, and sad for all that energy put into something that, in the end, didn't really work out. Still not sure #1 is in the right school; but, working on having the grace to realize there just might not be such a thing; and that, even if the current ones for both kids aren't "totally right," I had better put that worry, energy, and thought into the rest of the hours in the year.... I hope your post calms some frenzied mamma bears; it's sooo hard, isn't it?
I love this article so much! I particularly like the instruction to consider looking at the situation in a different way. When we found our dream home, a huge old farm house having nearly 2 acres of beautiful property right in the middle of our large city and at an incredible price, many of our friends and acquaintences could not believe we were moving where our children would be in the "horrible inner city, urban" school district. We received offers to allow us to use friends addresses so we could cheat and go out of district. We also have the income to afford any of the many private schools in our area. Seven years ago when we first moved in we walked up to the nearby elementary school, the same school where my husband and I met when were students there decades ago. We both were in tears. Just from the outside we could see the school had become seriously delapidated. When we started school we found it to be even worse i nside. It appeared a work order had not been sent to the district offices in years. Teachers appeared tire and worn out on the first day of school! The PTA was small, secretive, and exclusive. We had a desicion to make. Most people with our means would have run screaming to private school. But, using the mindful parenting I have developed as a longtime Mothering reader, we decided to think about it. We decided to stay and see what we could do to help our alma mater. It was not easy. It was 3 very diffiucult years of serious good fight. We took a pictorial presentation to the school board. I wrote letters of complaint and sent them certified mail. Parents and teachers and staff, who did not know what we were up to, viewed our efforts to help our school as us being mean, nasty troublemakers. We got hate mail. But guess what? The longstanding principal was removed. A new principal was put in place who befriended us and let us know just how bad the situation was ans asked us to continue helping him. Because of our letters and threats of legal action there were work trucks up at the school an entire summer fixing things. Several of the better teachers who stayed or were retained have thanked us for doing what needed to be done. We are now in the middle of a 7 million dollar full renovation from a city iniative. The new principle cleaned house and we have nearly all new faculty. We have afternoon strings and ballroom dancing, for free. The PTA was turned in to the State oversight board for questionable finances as we could never seem to see any use of the fundraising profits. Uniforms were instituted and the teachers chose a really nice scheme to include plaid skirts for the girs. The playground now looks like a high end private school at recess! Oh, and the new PTA quickly raised money for new playground equippment. In short, instead of running, we chose to work to improve the school for the 450 other students in our neighborhood who do not have the choice to leave. We chose for our children to learn to have a wider view of the world by attending school where there is incredible diversity of race, income, and even where the hearing impaired children in our city attend rather then kowtow to fear and send them to white bread schools in the suburbs or elite private schools where their friends would be extremely homogenous. Guess what? Our oldest two have top test scores. And I am no supermom. Their academics come 99% from their public school teachers. They were both accepted into the hard-to-get-into charter school that is fabulous. To be fair, it is still not ideal. Because of several large apartment complexes our school has high overturn. Many of the lower income students contribute to lowering overall school test scores giving a false sense to the public about what happens inside the school's classrooms. Families from apartments often leave and do not tell the school. This gives our school a high rate of absence. Because of this we received a "D" rating from our states rating system that , again , looks bad to the public but does not reflect what actually happens in the school to ousiders. There is still poor parent participation. But we love living in the inner city! We love our kids friends and our neighbors. We love spending little in gas and being close to all of the cool restaurants, the many theater companies and fun activities out city has to offer. With all the money we save by choosing to stay in our correct district and attend free public school we take amazing vacations and send our children to camp for four weeks each summer where they get to sail, kayak, golf, care for and ride horses, sing, practice wilderness skills, do drama and perform onstage and a ton of other incredible things. In closing, do consider thinking about your school situation in a different way. We choose to accept a less than ideal school enviroment in exchange for teaching our children about diverisity, about using your power to work to change things for the better, and to supplement their education with travel and summer camp. Our children will be educated and will turn out awsome because we are their parents. Not because of where they go to school.
Thank you for this post, Beth! My daughter is in kindergarten in a school we love, but I've been obsessing over what we'll do come first grade. I blogged about what things my husband and I believe make a good early childhood education-- http://eco-mothering.blogspot.com/2012/08/what-makes-good-early-childhood.html -- and how we're lamenting the end of an awesome school. Reading your article has made me rethink the idea of placing too much importance on the school itself and trust that my daughter has had a strong enough foundation to thrive almost anywhere. Of course we the family still provide much of her influence, and that can continue. While I still plan to research our options, including Waldorf, I feel less anxious about making the "right" choice.
J Lev, Wow! Very inspiring! Thanks for taking the time to share your experience. :)
beautifully thought out Beth. And great food for me to chew right now as we ponder what is next for our little family. It is interesting to me that what is good for one isn't always great for the other and how much proximity plays into our decisions these days! The daily drive we once made for a charter school now feels very much like a road trip and our 1 mile bike to public school feels like a pretty good fit. For now. I had so many things in my head that were MUST HAVES and now we have a saying, "we're playing it by year."
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