Meet Julia McIlroy: Bringing Magic to Middle School Math

Marin Waldorf School’s marvelous math teacher, Julia McIlroy, has always been drawn to mathematics and sciences, but she’s also seen the world from many other perspectives: as a teacher, as a prison volunteer, as a public defender, and as a mother. As a graduate of Summerfield Waldorf School in Santa Rosa (which she describes as a “beautiful experience”), Ms. McIlroy learned to have a complex view of the world—and that’s just what she thinks the best students can bring to STEM fields. Learn more about her upbringing, her Waldorf education, her life as a public defender, and her approach to math education in the interview below.

Let’s start by talking a little bit about your childhood and education. Where did you grow up?
I grew up on a vineyard outside of Healdsburg, before Healdsburg was posh. My grandpa was a cardiologist, but he had a dream of owning a vineyard, so in the 70s he bought forty-five acres along the Russian River and transformed it into Chardonnay, Zinfandel, and Pinot Noir grapes. So that’s where I grew up—wild and free, roaming the countryside and playing in a winery.

My mom is a microbiologist and food chemist, so she was working when I was young and they had to find a school for me. They eventually found Summerfield Waldorf kindergarten. I remember the first time I visited the kindergarten: the classroom was so warm and inviting. You wanted to stay there for the rest of your life. 

My mom knew immediately that this is where we were supposed to be. My dad was not so convinced. But he came along. Eventually they both ended up going through the Waldorf teacher training and my mom is now a special education teacher. 

I remember kindergarten vividly: making soup and honey buns, building fairy houses in the field, and climbing trees and rocks. I still have the birthday book of drawings from all my classmates! 

I went to Summerfield through 12th grade. It was a rich experience and prepared me so well for college and law school. In fact, college felt a little easy after my rigorous high school classes. In high school, I read Emerson and Thoreau, studied Russian literature, and every year took physics and chemistry. The early and middle grades were similarly rich and I developed a deep love of learning and a strong foundation that is still benefiting me today.

Where did life take you after high school?
In high school, I had amazing teachers and I wanted to do and be everything. My biology teacher was particularly inspiring, and I thought I was going to be a biologist or maybe a doctor. Then I went to college and I really loved learning about people and how people worked, so I became more interested in psychology and sociology. There was a program that was asking for volunteers to go to prisons and interview women who had been battered. A new law at the time allowed for women who had been battered to have their sentences reduced. Our job was to go into the prisons and take their entire life history.

First of all, it’s so hard to be in a prison. Even visiting for a few hours is awful. And then the women would share their life history with me. Every one was a life of trauma and abuse that started at a young age. And then they would encounter the legal system, and the legal system would essentially do the same. They were punished for having lived a life of abuse. It was traumatizing, just hearing it. I felt I had to help. I couldn’t let the system just keep going as it was.

So I went to law school and I became a public defender. I did that for many years. What I learned is that you can help individual people, but it’s much harder to change the system. I’d keep seeing the same situations — and even the same clients — over and over again, and every time I felt that, yes, I can make this person feel seen and heard, but I can’t affect the entire system. At some point, it becomes a burden. It weighs you down.

I was teaching all along, but I think that’s really why I started spending more time teaching. Because teaching is a creative, hopeful exercise. Helping students reach their potential was healing in so many ways.

What other teaching jobs did you have?
I worked in the math department in college, and I worked as a high school substitute teacher and remedial teacher. When I was a public defender, I worked at Empire College in Santa Rosa teaching paralegals. And I helped create the San Rafael High School mock trial program.

There’s a really active mock trial program in the county, but San Rafael High School didn’t have one. We want more diversity in the legal profession, but if we exclude one of the schools in Marin that has a lot of diversity, you’re missing an opportunity. So we decided to start a mock trial program to get more students of color engaged and so they know that law is a possibility for them.

The students were remarkable—better than many attorneys that I knew. That’s how good they were! Every year there is a mock trial competition in Marin in front of real judges where the high schools compete against each other to go to the state championship. I encourage my students in middle school to go see it, because if they go to high school in Marin, they can participate.

So let’s talk about middle school! As a teacher, how do you approach math?
I am passionate about math education. My number one goal is to keep students interested and engaged in math so they will continue on with it in college and beyond. I want to have as many of our students go into STEM fields as we possibly can. Our students have a complex and ethical view of the world—I think having them in science and technology is really essential for our future. 

Math education hasn’t changed in over 100 years. The timing has changed: Schools keep shifting the curriculum younger and younger because they think that will prepare students for harder math, but it’s actually backfiring. What colleges are finding is that students aren’t actually prepared because they’re advancing in math too early and their brain development hasn’t caught up. 

If you look at the countries that are very successful in math, they often wait until kids are 7 years old to do any sort of formal math instruction. The other thing they’re doing is teaching math more conceptually. What I find is that once students figure out how to solve a problem, they’ll be able to repeat that problem 30 times. But they still won’t understand what it means. They can get a nonsensical answer and not even realize it because they’re not thinking conceptually.

How do I develop a conceptual understanding? What I do is encourage more problem-solving and active learning. I want them to be engaged in learning, so they have confidence in themselves to go out and solve any problem that they encounter. 

Part of that is having more complex work. Not just having worksheets with repetitive problems, but having complex tasks, where there are no immediate right or wrong answers. This prepares them for higher education and the workplace and keeps everyone engaged. If you have rich tasks, the students who may be behind academically can do something, and the students who are really high-achieving can take it to higher levels.

Unfortunately students believe that math is procedural work like times tables and fractions. While those are important, that’s not how math is in the real world. I went to a training at Stanford last week with a professor who is at the forefront of mathematics education, and changing mathematics education here in California and in the world. She told us about how she went to a PhD defense presentation in which there wasn’t even one number involved. It was for a PhD in mathematics, but there wasn’t even one number!

Math is really a creative, visual subject. But it is not taught that way. In fact, one of the most incredible mathematicians – she was the only woman to ever win the Fields Medal, which is like the Nobel Prize for math – would draw everything she was working on. Her daughter, who was 4 or 5 at the time, thought she was an artist because she was always drawing at the kitchen table. 

What we think of as math is not really what higher level math is. So I tell my students that just because you struggle with this one tiny aspect of math, it doesn’t mean that you can’t think mathematically and be a mathematician. It is so gratifying to watch my students become fully engaged in math and persevere with difficult material. Teaching is truly such a joy.

Interview by Julie Meade. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Meet Adam Neale, Mentor and Maker

Adam Neale, Marin Waldorf School’s woodwork and outdoor education teacher, has always had a fondness for making things. He brought that gift, along with his genuine kindness and affability, to Marin Waldorf School over a decade ago, and today is one of the most beloved teachers on campus. An outdoor enthusiast and sportsman, he is a veteran of many MWS class trips, as well as an alumni parent and father to twin girls.

In the interview below, Mr. Neale tells us about his childhood in Miami, first-day jitters as the new MWS woodwork teacher, and (as you hoped!) how he met his wife, MWS director Megan Neale.

What was your childhood like?
I grew up in Miami, Florida. I loved it. I was really into the natural world, being outside all the time, being on the water, in the woods, in the mangrove swamps. That’s where I loved to spend my time. 

My parents really enjoy being outside too. My mom studied marine biology. My dad was into fishing. They loved bird-watching. We spent our weekends out and about. 

I’ve always liked making things. One of my first memories of woodworking was from summer camp in North Carolina. We dug up these little sassafras trees and I made a cane with the wood. I spent so much time working on that walking stick—and it’s funny to think it’s the same thing I do today, something that I was really drawn to as a child. Now I work surrounded by all these sticks! It’s endless what you can do with that stuff. 

Young Adam Neale working on his sassafras stick.
Canoeing in North Carolina as a teen.

I went to a high school that had a week in the wintertime where you could take a class and make things, it was called Intersession. I made a fishing rod. There was a teacher and a fisherman, and he had kits for putting the guides on a rod. I never forgot that either.

You’re into fishing too, right?
Yeah, I’m into fishing too. I just made another fishing rod during the pandemic. I tie my own flies. 

Adam Neale and Megan Neale in 1990.

How did you find your way from Florida to California? Were there stops in between?
I met Megan at a wedding in LA. She had decided that she wanted to live in Miami before I met her. I was living in Phoenix, Arizona, at the time. I told her I needed a ride from Phoenix to Miami to visit my parents—because I liked her. She was living in Marin and had just graduated from UC Santa Barbara, and she came through Phoenix to pick me up on the way to Miami. Our first date was driving across the country.

Later, she got into graduate school in Colorado. I ended up going with her, and it changed my life in a big way. I thought I would live in Miami forever. And then I was the Florida guy who moved to the mountains! I’d seen snow one time before I moved to Colorado. It was freezing cold. 

I got a construction job with a really good carpenter who took the time to show me how to use tools and really do things right. I was grateful for that. Megan was a junior high teacher. Later I taught snowboarding, I taught fly fishing, and I was a raft guide. 

Were these your first teaching jobs?
I actually started to teach at the camp where I got into woodworking. I was a camp counselor there, and I taught canoeing and whitewater rafting. So I had quite a bit of experience teaching kids at that point. I had really good mentors, people who taught me, so it was easy to teach what they had showed me. 

We bought a house, and then we had twin daughters. That’s when we decided we needed to be around family, so we moved here. 

Adam Neale fishing with his twin daughters.

How did you end up at Marin Waldorf School?
I was looking to get back into surfing, and I went to see a surfboard for sale at someone’s house. His wife ran a Waldorf preschool from their home, and their daughter went to Marin Waldorf School—she was a few years older than our daughters. Our daughters were just about the right age to start preschool, so they started going there, and we became very interested in Waldorf education. 

When our daughters started at Marin Waldorf School, I was doing construction, working with a friend. The woodworking teacher’s daughter was in the same class as my daughters, and we were good friends. I would help him out in class sometimes. A few years later, the next woodworking teacher left unexpectedly and the school asked if I wanted to take the class. I said sure! I jumped in midyear.

Was it challenging?
Very! I’ll never forget the first day—I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous in my life. I was nervous for so long—even on the outdoor ed hikes! I felt a lot of responsibility. What am I going to teach these kids? The people here are so bright, there’s such a high standard, so I felt I had to live up to that. [Current 8th grade teacher] Ms. Deason was our class teacher, so that was the standard that had been set.

My daughters were in fifth grade when I took the woodworking position, and that’s the first year of woodworking in the curriculum, so I taught my own daughters. I think I overcompensated by ignoring them. And they felt weird calling me “Dad,” so they called me “Mr. Neale.” Hearing “Mr. Neale” in their voices was always funny. But it was great. They’re very easy-going.

It’s surprising that you were nervous because you have a good, natural connection with the kids.
It’s an interesting position I’m in because the students have something in front of them that they’re working on. I give them the space to create stuff, and I get out of the way. They are very open. A lot of conversation comes naturally in that space.

And what about outdoor education, which you also teach?
That’s another place where I’m creating space, trying to help the kids feel comfortable outside. That’s my main goal: to connect them. 

I got a degree in environmental studies. It was a bachelor of arts degree, so I studied a lot of philosophy behind the environmental movement. I always wanted to affect change for the environment, but I always wanted to do it on an individual level. I felt that was more my style, because I have a peacemaker side to my personality, where I connect with people and I want to understand them. So my idea was to be an outdoor educator to connect kids to the environment so they, in turn, would want to do the right thing for the planet. 

That’s what I feel the Marin Waldorf School outdoor education program is about. Number one, making kids feel comfortable outside, so they want to go outside, so they see the value of it, without telling them that directly. There’s another word for it: coyote mentoring. In this philosophy, you’re bringing kids along but not telling them exactly what you’re doing—by playing games, having moments where you go outside and try to be as quiet as you can to listen to the birds—but what you’re teaching them is how to be self-reflective. Once they get quiet, they start to notice things about themselves while they’re trying to notice things outside. Trying to do that with young teenagers is really a challenge.

We’re so blessed to be surrounded by open space here. Trying to imagine what ancestors, what native people, the people who were here a long time ago were doing and connecting with that as well. 

In the Andes in Peru.
At the North Platt River.

What about class trips?
Again, it’s that experiential education. It was a big part of my education growing up—I learned most by doing—and I traveled a bunch when I got out of school. I always pushed myself on those trips. Academics are important, but putting that to practical use, seeing the skills they developed in the classroom and the social fabric that they have, then they get to go out into the world. I’ve heard a lot of different compliments from hosts for our groups who say, these kids are just amazing. 

The first five or six years, I never went on any trips. I went as a parent. But slowly, once my girls graduated, I start going on class trips. Iv’e been to Hawaii with Kathy Darcy’s class—that was an incredible trip. I went to Colorado, Arizona, the Four Corners area twice. I did the Eel River with Gail. They all were special. I went to Boston with Ms. Jackson. 

There are so many moments I remember, like traveling across the country on a train with Rising’s class and watching the kids interact with the conductor. It was so neat to see kids who were so polite and who weren’t afraid to put themselves out there and talk to people. 

Any trips in particular that stand out?
It’s hard to say. Every one! I’ve been so lucky.

Interview by Julie Meade. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Meet Adventure-Loving Marieke

A native of the Netherlands and a graduate of the Waldorf teacher training program in Stuttgart, Germany, Marieke Duijneveld joined the MWS family two years ago as a mom to four students before taking a place on our faculty last year as a parent-child teacher. In the fall of 2020, Marieke took the lead in the Morning Glory kindergarten class, where she leads twice-weekly song-filled play-based hikes in the hills around school. Read on to hear how Marieke’s free spirit and a love for adventure has propelled her across the world and all the way to Marin County.

Tell me a little bit about your background. Where are you from and where did you grow up?
I am from the Netherlands, from a little town close to the coast—right near the polders, or reclaimed land. In the Netherlands, a lot of the land is created, because it’s below sea level, so they pump the water out and create land.

My father was a teacher in a public school, but when I was two, he became a Waldorf teacher. I went to a Waldorf school from preschool through 12th grade. We biked to school every day. We used the car to go on vacation or to visit my grandparents, who lived two hours away, but we never used it for school—only on my birthday! That was very special, because on my birthday my mother baked a treat to share with the other children in my class, and so we had to drive to school to bring it. Otherwise, rain, shine, snow, we always biked. 

I was a very dreamy child. I had a vivid imagination. I would go into the woods with my friends in long dresses without shoes. I always dreamed of traveling, my ideal was with a covered wagon pulled by a donkey. 

Did you imagine yourself being a teacher growing up?
Not at all, because both my parents were teachers, and they taught at the school I went to. I thought I’d never be in that same situation with my own children!

And now you work at the school where your children go!
Well, at least I don’t teach them. 

What did you parents teach?
My father was a class teacher—but in the Netherlands, there aren’t many subject teachers, so the class teacher also teaches subjects, like form drawing, music, English, German, gym. My mom was the woodwork teacher. 

When I was 16, my father took his sabbatical and we moved to Sweden for a year where we lived on a farm with adults with special needs. I went to a school that wasn’t a Waldorf school. It was a huge shock! But it was good for me, and helped me to appreciate Waldorf education.

Then you went back and graduated from the Waldorf school?
Yes, and then I went to college and I met my husband while in college. We were in the students’ choir, and one weekend we were all on the train and someone found out I went to a Waldorf school. 

He called to Jasper, “Hey, Marieke, also went to Waldorf school!” So we sat together and talked about woolen underwear and no TV, and so on, and that was it!  

How did you end up in California?
When we were both 28, we wanted to move abroad. I had a dream: Let’s start an orphanage in Argentina! I was looking for something adventurous—something that sounded very far away. My husband is a bit more realistic. A friend of his worked at Weleda and it’s an international company, so Jasper applied to Weleda, and was hired in a role in Germany. Moving to Germany did not feel as adventurous as Argentina. And there were no palm trees!

Since we’d moved to Stuttgart, I decided to attend the Waldorf teacher training. I didn’t speak German very well, so I needed to find something to help me learn the language. I loved it. I studied to be a class teacher, and I taught in a local Waldorf school after graduating. Then our first daughter was born, and our second daughter soon after that. 

When Jasper was asked to lead Weleda North America, we had to decide whether we would move to the United States. At first, it didn’t sound appealing to me. But we both like adventure, so we said, let’s do it and see what happens. We moved to Chestnut Ridge, New York, a little north of New York City. 

We loved it there. I didn’t know much about the U.S., and the people were so helpful and so nice. It was nice to live close to New York City, because we could just go there for a night, for instance to Carnegie Hall. We loved the Waldorf school our children went to. In the Netherlands, all Waldorf schools are public charter schools, none of them are fully independent, private schools. So children have to take tests and the curriculum is heavily influenced by the public school system. The education at Green Meadow Waldorf School in Chestnut Ridge felt so much closer to what I think Steiner intended with Waldorf education. 

I worked as a parent and child teacher, and later as a kindergarten teacher at Green Meadow Waldorf School. After a total of 10 years in New York, it was time for something new. I still missed those palm trees and wanted to go to California. So we chose to move across the country and embrace yet another adventure here in Marin! 

Tell me about being a mom to four children. That’s a lot of kids!
Yes it is a lot. And I love it! 

I always wished for a large family and am so grateful to have four wonderful children. There is an anecdote about how to deal with a large family. With one child, both parents have their hands full, with two, it’s really, really busy but at least you have two hands, and in my case a partner. Three is stressful because you’re trying to stay in control, with four you just have to give up trying to keep everything under control. 

Working with children in kindergarten every day inspires me to be a better mom. And vice versa, my experience as a mom probably also helps me professionally. 

Kindergarten is different this year, but are there any upsides to early childhood during COVID?
It is wonderful to be outdoors more than before. We added more hike days to the program, which I otherwise maybe wouldn’t have done. Being on these hikes in nature with the children is so sweet. We go to places where there aren’t any toys, and they just play! They play for an hour and a half without taking a break, and they enjoy being in their dreamy worlds.

It’s lovely to be in kindergarten and to help create a world that is good, and forget about everything else that is going on. 

Also, I love that the groups are smaller as a result of the Covid pandemic. It seems to benefit the children socially. It feels more natural. 

Meet the Imaginative Rod DeRienzo

In the second installment of our interview series, we’re introducing the delightful Manzanita early childhood assistant teacher Rod DeRienzo. Mr. Rod is known to many children on our campus as the famous voice of the Gold Monkey and Jeremy the Giant, two characters from an original story series he created for his daughter (if you aren’t a fan already, you can listen to one of his stories by clicking here). To grades students, he’s Mr. DeRienzo, last year’s lead aftercare teacher and the creator of stories about Phillipe, Suzette, and the mice of Córdoba.

Below, Mr. Rod shares how he began making up children’s stories, how he found Waldorf education, and what he likes about working in the Manzanita classroom.

Tell me about your background.
I grew up in New Jersey, in suburbia. My father was the mayor of my little town for 30 years.

Wow! 
Yep. Proud Democrat! And I got my first job before I was a year old. 

And what was that?
I was a male model. I was the “dry baby” for the Pampers commercials that ran for about three years between 1972-75. You can still find them on YouTube. 

That’s amazing!
Yes, millions of people have seen my rear end.

How do you even get cast for something like that?
That was my mother. She thought I was such a cute baby.

Did you see yourself as a teacher growing up, or is that something that came later?
Again, with my father being mayor, he was always involved in Scouts and coaching and all that, so I think I inherited his interest in helping children. For a time I was the adult leader of the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts, when I was 18 years old. Yup, I’m an Eagle Scout. 

I’ve always been interested in education. I helped tutor my niece and nephews before I had my own family. I went to a Montessori grade school so I’ve always appreciated alternatives to the standard.  

After college, I went right into the family business, which was corporate moving in the New York–New Jersey area. I ran crews of 100+ men, big trucks in and out. I got to yell a lot. But that experience probably helps with staying calm amongst herds of children.

What brought you to Waldorf?
My wife. She found it for my stepdaughter, Oona. To be honest, at first I thought it was silly. I thought the children would know nothing but churning butter and knitting. But when Oona was in kindergarten I volunteered in the woodworking class, as a father volunteer, and that’s when I started looking around and realizing how wonderful it all is. 

Dave Alsop, who was involved in the Bay Area Center for Waldorf Teacher Training, was running a new dad circle where we would meet at the school once a week, read a book, and talk about how to be good fathers. It was through him that I learned about the teacher training and my wife suggested that I take it. She knew my destiny long before I did!

I enrolled in BACWTT in 2013. That year BACWTT was moving their summer session from the East Bay to the Marin Waldorf campus and they needed someone with moving experience.

You’re kidding?
No, I’m not. 

So since 2013, I’ve been on BACWTT’s board of directors. Actually, now I’m the president of the board. So I’ve come a long way from my initial what are these hippies doing? 

My first Waldorf job was in the kindergarten with Ms. Lisa, even before I graduated from the teacher training. I was the early childhood aftercare assistant. I’ve taught a combined 5th/6th grade at another Waldorf school and have substituted in all the classes here at MWS and was the grades aftercare teacher here for a few years. During training, I wanted to be in the high school track, because my college degree is in medieval history, but fate seems to bring me to the little ones. 

What’s the best part of the day in the Manzanita class?
The best part of the day? Hmm, it’s hard to say. I think the best part of the day is observing the children during free play. I’m part referee, part lifeguard. And to see them—how they interact, how they’re growing, how they work through their dilemmas—it’s just wonderful to see.

What’s it like working in early childhood and having your son right across the way?
It’s perfect. We want him to be independent and not always with Daddy, but I get to look over the fence and see him playing. I can hear the teachers singing, “Ozzi, put that stick down!” 

You know, it’s precious, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. Our children grow up so fast. Oona is already in 8th grade! And here we are, starting from the bottom up again. It’s kinda nice.

That’s where all the stories come from—it’s from Oona. Because I would tell Oona stories every night, and the books we had—the standard Doctor Seuss and whatnot—I thought I could do better. I started telling her stories and we would be giggling and laughing away in the room and my wife Tanya would wonder, What are you telling her, is it appropriate? What’s going on in there?

To provide proof of my appropriateness, I began to record our stories. It then became a tradition to record all of our bedtime stories. For Oona, I have 800 or so recorded. And for Ozzi, we’re on 604 as of last night.

So Tanya could hear them too?
Yup, she trusts me now. After a decade or so! 

Well, now your stories have made you famous on our campus. 
For years I’ve told the children stories in aftercare, both grades and early childhood, as well as during the distance learning last year. I also recorded stories during the summer for my fans.

Are you sure you don’t want to write a book?
No, you know, it’s the sound and the voices. I like uploading stories to my Patreon site. I intend to add some more stories for November. Actually, my wife and I do have a rough draft of a historical romance we’ve written together. But that story is not for the kids! 

Interview by Julie Meade. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Meet Dena Malon, Our Magical Grades Director

Today, we are beginning a new (mostly) weekly column in our school newsletter and on Grandmother Oak, focused on stories, lessons, and insight from our faculty and staff. For some, becoming a Waldorf teacher is a lifelong calling. For others, a more unexpected and circuitous path led to our school. We want to share these stories, as well as lessons and stories from our students in each classroom, from preschool to 8th grade.

Fittingly, we begin the series with an interview with our grades director, Dena Malon, whose life began in New York City, where she grew up the daughter of a professional magician—”an immaculate showman,” as she describes him—and eventually brought her to Atlanta, back to New York, and then to Northern California.

A former actress, a native New Yorker, and a longtime Waldorf teacher who joined MWS in the 2019-2020 school year, Dena Malon took the new role of grades director for 2020-2021. In the first month of school, she’s already taking a hands-on approach to the role, teaching lessons, mentoring teachers, and working directly with students in and out of the classroom.

How did you become a Waldorf teacher?
I was an actress, a long time ago. I’m from New York, and I trained there. Then I moved to Atlanta where I had a successful acting career. I became the artistic director of an educational theater company, because I always believed there were therapeutic and healing aspects in drama. I started working with children and senior adults and people in prisons and in all different kinds of communities, helping them to open up to the creativity within themselves. 

Then I started working in schools primarily, using drama to help students, in grades kindergarten to college, learn how to communicate better, to write more effectively, and to become more engaged in what they were learning. Imagining opens you up, and when you write, you’re just writing down what you have imagined. So it’s very effective. I did a lot of training for teachers in using drama to enhance the curriculum and classroom management.

I also created issue-oriented plays that explored sexual abuse, watching too much television, uncovering your own creativity. I was the artistic director of a theater company [pictured left] and our company toured all over the southeast, bringing the arts to education.

I first read about Waldorf education in Mothering Magazine, before I had children, and I thought, This sounds incredible. Years later, I had a three-and-a-half-year-old and a newborn, and we were driving down the street and there was a sign for “The Children’s Garden: A Waldorf Kindergarten”—and I thought, oh my gosh, that’s that school that I read about. That was the beginning. I knew very little about it, but I could sense that something extraordinary was happening and I wanted my children to be a part of it.

After a few years, I knew I wanted to become more a part of it. I wouldn’t have become a teacher in any other form of education, but this was so creative, and so different, and it fascinated me—to learn about a different way of working with students. I became a first grade teacher when Max was in the third grade and Jack was in kindergarten. 

How old are your sons now?
They are 28 and almost 32. And I absolutely adore them. They’ve been working remotely as creative directors for strategic communication firms for three or four years. In this capacity, they traveled all over the United States, Canada, and Europe. Jack, in particular, loves being in Mexico.

One of the most extraordinary times in my life is when I went to visit them when they were living in Tulum. We had beautiful dinners together, and the one day that they had to work when I was there they treated me to a “rebirthing experience” at a spa.

What was your childhood like?
My father was a magician. I grew up watching him perform. It was very exciting. When he did shows for children, I would get to go. He was an immaculate showman. I learned a sense of timing from him—to always leave the audience wanting more.

I always wanted him to call me up, to be one of the children involved in baking a magic cake. I would say, Please, call me up, I won’t tell anybody I’m your daughter! I just wanted to be under the spell. He never would. So when we got to the place in the act when I knew that no one else was coming up, I would say to whoever was sitting next to me, “That’s my father!”

I’ve often reflected on the fact that the first man in my life was a magician, who could make impossible things happen.

That’s very unique.
Right. So I thought I really need …

… to do something with that! I’d love to see what you do.
I have been working on a story about it.

Do you have any other ideas for writing projects?
I have been thinking about writing an imaginative one-woman performance that traces my own incarnations through history. I am married to one of the instructors from my Waldorf training, Thom Schaefer, who is the education director at Credo High School. When Thom was going to Israel to live and work—we were friends for a long while, before we were married—I told him to find the most beautiful spot in Jerusalem and shout out my name to bring me back, because I thought my story should start there, but thousands of years ago.

I love that. Did he do it?
Yes. He traveled a lot, and he began to call my name out in many places. He’d come back and he’d write me, or he’d call me, and he’d say, I was just in Turkey and I found this place… and he’d send me postcards from where he called my name.

How do you envision your role as grades director? What will you bring to our school?
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot through teaching the curriculum. I’ve taken two classes all the way through the grades, and through this, I’ve come to understand the support that teachers need.

Adult education is also important to me. I like talking to parents about the curriculum and how Waldorf schools operate. I am so grateful that at this time in my life I have been given the opportunity to share my experience with this community.

What’s something you’d like to share with parents about Waldorf teachers?
The teacher sees your child as who they are, right in front of them, but also their potential, for who they can become. You are working with the present and you’re also envisioning the future.

Finally, I wanted to ask, during this time—with the pandemic, the fires, the social unrest—any silver linings or takeaways?
We have the opportunity to learn to communicate in deeper ways. We are looking into each other’s eyes. Even unbeknownst to ourselves, we have to be more communicative with our eyes because that’s what we see. We’re learning to read more about each other, without the benefit of the whole face. Another benefit is teaching outside, which is something we will never give up!

With DEI, and the sensitivity that’s being brought up, this time is making us look at the curriculum and at our own attitudes. It’s making us even more conscious of who we are, which is very important— important for all of us.

*

Dena Malon is the grades director at Marin Waldorf School. Thank you for sharing your story with us!

Interview by Julie Meade. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.