What is the mark of a great teacher?
This is a question that I have been thinking about a lot recently, especially since my son started having a tricky time at his last school. Well, I’ve been given some new information to add to the mix…
While on a trip to Australia recently, I was lucky enough to meet up with an old school friend. We fell to reminiscing about the teachers we had encountered - the good, the bad, and the downright strange! But the one that we remembered with the most affection was a substitute English teacher who took our class late on in high school for a term or so. His name was Dr Watson.
His name would have been a gift to those who wanted to make fun (and were smart enough to do Holmes references). But I have no memories of that occurring. What I remember most vividly is his enthusiasm and his love of his subject.
He arrived just in time to teach us a unit on poetry. We filed into the room, expecting to be given another slim dog-eared paperback that we would slowly learn to loathe, or at least find utterly numbing. Instead, we were treated to 40 minutes of a poetic tour de force.
Dr Watson treated us like adults. He gave us a lecture about poetry. He explained the themes of the poetry of the 20th century, and how those related to the previous century, to the political climate, and to the World Wars in particular. And he quoted poet after poet, all from memory, all with vigour and spirit. I can’t remember all of them, but I have distinct memories of Eliot, Hardy, Spender, Dylan Thomas, and Ted Hughes being part of the mix.
It was a whirlwind performance. At the end of the lesson, some of the class dismissed it as pointless and a bit embarrassing, frankly. He had shown his love of his subject, and the kids whose schooling had primarily taught them to avoid any emotional involvement with education found it too much to bear.
I loved it.
I wanted to be able to quote poetry the way he did. And I was fascinated by all the different poets he quoted. So I went to the library and got out a few poetry collections, and hunted until I found all the different lines he’d quoted. I’d be lying if I said I understood all of it. But I was enthralled by enough of it that I can truthfully say: that day, and that lecture, inspired a lifelong love of poetry in me.
And that’s what a good teacher does. A good teacher inspires. They won’t inspire everyone to love their subject - that would be impossible. But they will provoke a reaction. Dr Watson made it impossible to sit on the fence that day. Either you loved it, or you didn’t. It wasn’t an option to ignore it, or say it was just okay, or drift through the class. We students had to take a stand.
I still can’t quote poetry the way he did, but there’s plenty of time.
Since Gerald, my dear, lovely singing teacher died, I haven’t sung at all. I haven’t wanted to. Not a note has passed my lips since his death.
It means, of course, that I’m very definitely not going to reach one of my goals for the year, which was to focus more on my singing and institute a regular practice discipline. But not reaching this goal is the least of my concerns.
Frankly, I am feeling a bit lost, and filled with regret that I didn’t use my time with Gerald more wisely. I didn’t work hard enough. I didn’t make the most of the opportunity I had. I knew it was very special, and I knew that it wasn’t going to last forever. And I wasted it.
I know that I did learn a lot from Gerald, but at the moment I can’t access it directly. When I have thought about singing, and thought about the lessons I had, my feelings of loss and sadness seem to block me. It’s like being stuck in a fog. When, however, I am teaching Alexander Technique to actors or singers, precious pearls of wisdom gained from Gerald seem to rise to the surface, and leave my mouth before I realise what is happening. The knowledge is clearly there, but can only be accessed indirectly.
To summarise: I currently have no desire to sing, and the teaching that benefitted me so much can only be accessed indirectly or through impenetrable fog. I want to honour Gerald by doing what he wanted me to do - take my singing more seriously - but just at the moment I am lost as to how I will do this.
I’m afraid there are no answers in this post. Sorry. I just need to put down on paper (or electronic equivalent) the current state of things. If you have any advice, I’d really appreciate it.
Thanks for listening. :)
It’s a common thing for Alexander Technique students, whether novice or old hand, to have the experience that doing an activity in a new way feels better, but also somehow… wrong.
The old way of sitting wasn’t comfortable. The new way is. But it just doesn’t feel right, a student might say to me.
FM Alexander wrote about this in my all-time favourite chapter from his books, called ‘Incorrect Conception’. His example was a teacher asking a student to bend at the knees. The student does it in their old habitual way. The teacher helps them to bend their knees in a new, more mechanically efficient way. At this point, FM says, for the student bending the knees becomes
…to all intents and purposes, a new act, bringing with it a new feeling. This time the act is not what he is accustomed to, and so it feels wrong to him.*
In a lesson today I likened this to that moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy looks around at the technicolor world of Oz and says “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.” Dorothy was a bit unhappy in Kansas - it was grey, life was hard, and people were giving hera tough time. But at least it was familiar.
Our bodies are a bit like that. We move in certain ways, ways that are familiar and normal. We may not always be comfortable, but at least everything feels normal and where it should be and, well, somehow right.
It is only when the joy of the feeling right becomes outweighed by the discomfort that people typically come to an Alexander teacher. They are taught how to conceive of and carry out activities in new ways. But no matter how comfortable the new way is, it isn’t going to have the same sense of familiarity as the old way. It isn’t going to feel right. Not at first, anyway.
The challenge for any Alexander Technique student is to recognise that they’re not in Kansas any more. There’s a new world, and it’s brightly coloured. There’s no map, and sometimes it might not seem the safest or most enjoyable place in the world. But it isn’t the same old same old. It has the thrill of adventure.
Are you willing to step out into the new? Are you ready to risk feeling wrong?
* FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.297.
Image by Matthew Mackerras