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A Tribute to our Founding Teacher - Dorothy Olsen

Updated: Oct 27, 2022

By: Flora Seul-Jacklein, with input from Lylli Anthon and Linda Rasmussen

Flora Seul-Jacklein is one of our Halton Waldorf School's founders, and Lylli Anthon and Linda Rasmussen have been long-term faculty members, and are now supporting the school as mentors.

At this time of reflection and thanksgiving, we honour Dorothy Olsen, who passed the threshold on August 11th, 2022 at her home in Vancouver.

Dorothy was born in South Africa in April 1931. She loved mountaineering and tackled challenging peaks, often the only woman in the group. After meeting her husband Ray, the two of them moved to England by ship and Dorothy became a Waldorf kindergarten teacher. Later Dorothy, Ray and their five children moved to Vancouver where she was instrumental in shaping the early years of the Vancouver Waldorf School. Eventually, Dorothy and Ray moved to Whitehorse, Yukon, where she was lead teacher in a public nursery/kindergarten. This experience showed her how to bring the wisdom of Waldorf Education to different settings.

At our school and in all her endeavours, Dorothy was deeply committed to the foundational thoughts of Waldorf Education. While the study of Rudolf Steiner’s lectures was important for her, it came alive in her deeds and her being. Dorothy lived what she spoke and she spoke what she lived.

Dorothy modeled how to meet children, parents and colleagues with genuine interest and heart warmth. Intention and spirituality lived in all that Dorothy did, in her humble and kind way, with softness and her charming, lilting South African accent. She gave us space to learn and grow at our own pace. We felt acknowledged by her in our endeavours and striving. Dorothy showed by example how to meet people where they are at, and not impose any view on them. Just to be in her presence at drop off or pick up, experiencing her gentle guidance to the students, learning from her observations and thoughts, was support and inspiration to many a busy parent.

As the school grew, faculty meetings became more formal, a parent association was formed, and eventually administration grew. Dorothy guided this growth with clarity, sharing what she had learned and making space for new forms. She might offer quietly a few suggestions as to what could be considered, but never provided simplistic recipes.

The whole community learned from who Dorothy was: no nasty words when arguments erupted, a sense of humour and twinkle in her eyes, a deep curiosity about life and kindness to all people she met. This gesture lived in the festivals that she created, first in the Early Childhood program, then with her colleagues throughout the whole school. She set the tone how the students experienced the seasons, the richness of stories, the beauty of music, and the encounter with people from different ways of life.

Dorothy was an accomplished seamstress, sewing most of her clothes and many items for the kindergartens. She enjoyed cooking, and almost weekly, family, friends and colleagues gathered around her dining table for sustenance and good conversations. She and Ray loved to listen to music and to explore the natural world. They hiked the escarpment, enjoying the open sky and beautiful fall colours in Ontario. But her special place was the mountains and ocean in BC. Dorothy loved to read. Up to the last weeks of her life, she was eager to hear about interesting books, and initiated conversations about audio books she listened to regularly.

How Dorothy became the Founding Teacher at Halton Waldorf School

In 1981/82, a group of six families had started to work towards the founding of a Waldorf school in the area. Supported by colleagues from the wider Waldorf community we engaged in study, invited speakers, organized outreach and fundraising events, and eventually had a home based playgroup. There was a clear commitment to create a Waldorf school, not just an alternative school, which meant that finding the right founding teacher was essential.

Dorothy came for an exploratory visit in March 1983. When we asked Dorothy on the last day of her initial visit, somewhat timidly and full of apprehension, "Well, what do you think? Will you come?’" She answered with her gracious smile, "Is there even a question?" It felt like an engagement, and truly the beginning of Halton Waldorf School. Her only "condition" was, that she could have a nap in the afternoon, "needed at my age" (she was 52!). She decided to join the school for September 1984, so her son could finish high school and we had more time to get our act together.

Dorothy and Ray arrived at our school late August 1984, all their earthly belongings on a homemade trailer, having driven 2 weeks from the Yukon. We showed her a beautiful, yet empty room in the old school house in Campbellville, which we had cleaned after it had been used for storage for 20 years. "O," she said, with a sinking feeling, "well, I guess we can make that work!"

And that again was Dorothy: not discouraged by tremendous outer challenges, but seeing the potential, being pragmatic, and speaking her mind in a gentle way.

School did indeed open with 14+ students, she found a wonderful assistant, and we haven't looked back since. Dorothy formed the EC faculty, started a nursery, a second kindergarten and in 1985 the first grade started.

As is often the case in the early years of a school, teachers came and went, yet Dorothy was the rock in a raging river. She did parent evenings and public speaking events. She was often nervous and over prepared, but spoke with knowledge of the heart and from experience. What a gift. We learned so much. She and Ray guided many years of study groups. She weathered the storms of a group of well-intended, but rather inexperienced people running the show, yet guided us gently, with never one ounce of dogmatism, always supporting in others what they aspired to, even if they didn't know it yet! 

The school grew by a grade every year. More EC, Grade school and subject teachers joined and Dorothy moved to become the administrator. She still did mentoring, outreach events and supported the new generation of teachers.

Dorothy became a leading force in establishing the EC teacher training at the Rudolf Steiner Centre, now Rudolf Steiner College Canada. She continued this work when she left in the early 1990s to found the West Coast Institute for Anthroposophy in Vancouver, a Waldorf teacher training institute that continues to this day.

Looking for a permanent home led to many heated debates within the Halton Waldorf School community, but through all of it, Dorothy stayed kind and gracious, navigating opposite viewpoints and helping us find the common thread: the children. Not so much in words, but in her example of being humble, seeing the potential and rising above the fray. While the decision to move to Burlington was made a few years after her departure, the foundation she provided to the school certainly helped us find a direction that was realistic, honoured the community, and would offer Waldorf Education to many future generations of children in Halton.

The school’s newsletter was called ‘Impulse’ from 1983 to 1997. In a way, this name reflects the lasting impulse Dorothy brought to the school. The Halton Waldorf School is deeply indebted to the gifts she bestowed on our community, and many individuals, through her personality, her heart warmth, interest, kindness, humility, and being both visionary and pragmatic.

We like to think that Dorothy continues to offer guidance and support from the spiritual world as the Halton Waldorf School continues to grow and evolve.

Our heartfelt thanks, dear Dorothy.

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