Q&A with Betty K. Staley author of Between Form and Freedom

Betty K. Staley has been a Waldorf educator and researcher for over 50 years. As a founder of the Sacramento Waldorf High School, she taught history and literature for 20 years and then helped found six Waldorf high schools in the United States. Betty has written eight books on middle school and adolescent development, adult psychology, and curriculum.

Betty has just published the third edition of her book: Between Form and Freedom, Raising a Teenager. She talked with Anna Virgran about why she thought it was time for this book to be revised, how she has updated the book, and how she hopes parents, teachers, and other adults who work with teenagers will use it.

How is being a teenager different today than when this book first came out?
It’s such a different experience. Their language is different. The way they talk to each other is different. They challenge their teachers differently because they have access to so much information through the internet. So they need to be taught in a way that allows them much more independence. And I think that’s not just COVID. I think that’s just — young people are different today.

Also, students today are world citizens. They have connections with this country and that country, and they love to do projects that involve collaboration. They’re not plugged into one area and they are using internet, I think, in a very good way.

You have teenagers who get stuck on video games and get addicted and that’s a problem. It was drugs. Now it’s drugs and video games. And also a lot of depression, a lot of anxiety, a lot of it through COVID — but not only. It’s also a change in our whole culture. It’s a rough time to be a child and to be a teenager, and an exciting time.

How did you go about updating the book for this edition?
I looked and I said well, who’s my audience? By now I knew this book was being studied by parents, usually eighth grade and ninth grade parents, in many places. And I made changes based on that. About fifty percent of the book is the same, but the other fifty percent really makes it much more current. Teenagers have changed, society has changed, COVID has come, and a lot of gender issues have come. So I really looked at that. Another difference is the way it’s formatted. At the end of each chapter there’s a little summary, for busy people.

And I did a lot of research. I’m very, very in tune with research and I brought in the results of a lot of work, especially what’s been discovered about the female brain. Very interesting. And early puberty, those were the two main things that I focused on… and then screens, of course.

Why did you dedicate this book to the Sacramento Waldorf School class of 1978?
As I reflected on my career of almost 60 years, I realized that I really learned to be a teacher at the Sacramento Waldorf School. That’s where I started teaching. I did kindergarten substitution for a couple of months. Then I did handwork all through the grades, and I loved that. And then I took a class in fifth grade and I took them to eighth grade. And then I went back and picked up the seventh grade, and then at the end of eighth grade we started the high school. I never dreamed of myself as a high school teacher, but it was really perfect.

So that’s the class of 1978, which I picked up in seventh grade. But I had been teaching them handwork since first grade so we knew each other very well. And my first day with them in seventh grade they said, “Tell us the story you used to tell us in first grade.” So we sat at the creek and I told them the two fairy tales that I always told them in handwork. And they were my class. One of the boys said to me, “We’ve been waiting for you.” Interesting. And so seventh grade, eighth grade, and then we started the high school together. And I realized that in that class they really worked me, and they really taught me to be a teacher. And then I went on, of course, to teach for many, many years. But as I look back, I really thought about that. So I dedicated the book to the Sacramento Waldorf School and to the class of 1978.

What was something that you learned in your research for updating this book that really surprised you?
The work on the female brain. I’ve gone through a whole period teaching adults as well, teaching college students, and they don’t want to know about differences. There are no differences. We went through this whole stage — everything’s unisex. And yet this research is showing there are differences neurologically. And you can play around with this, and you can talk about changing genders, but the teenage brain — the human brain — is different based on the female and the male. And as complicated as that gets to be in conversations, that’s a reality. So I think all of my writing has changed since the ‘90s because of all the neurological research.

How do you hope that people will use this book?
I think the way it works best is in parent meetings where they might read a chapter together or read ahead of time and then discuss it. It’s the conversation that’s important. So I hope the book will stimulate the conversation, that parents will realize that there are legitimate issues to be resolved and that different people have different points of view. And that we each have to figure it out for ourselves and our family.

But conversation about it is the most important thing. Because raising teenagers is not a solo event. It’s really family and friends and community. And the community is having a bigger effect on them than it is on the little children. So where do we live? What’s going on?