Finding Meaning in one’s Work

Article added October 23, 2010

To renew one’s understanding of the truths which Alexander discovered is a recurring need for every teacher, and to work with other teachers can be a great help towards meeting it. Nowhere more than in Israel, is this kind of working together appreciated and put into practice in a manner which merits imitation elsewhere.

When I returned to Israel in 1960 after completing my training with Patrick Macdonald in London I found myself very much on my own, the only teacher in Israel. Two years later I had a flourishing practice and a long waiting list. I saw myself as a competent teacher to whom many “successes” were attributed, i.e. people freed from all kinds of incurable suffering. Slowly but surely I began to realise that if I continued much longer on my own I might still be a success but at the price of what is most essential in the Alexander Technique. So in the summer of 1962 I returned to Mr; Macdonald at 16 Ashley Place.

Curious faces awaited me in the class. The first test – putting hands on Mr; Macdonald – passed fairly well. I was still full of the drive of a self-assured practitioner; I felt around me a general sense of relief – the first teacher to graduate from Mr; Macdonald’s course had proved himself acceptable to the master; The next day things seemed very different. For even the slightest change to be made in my well-established way of working, everything had to be broken into pieces, a most frustrating experience. It was as if I had to start everything from scratch. I had to realise that the way of working that I had evolved for myself caused my pupils to pull down. The four weeks I had in London went all too quickly.

Luckily I was never again isolated from contact with other teachers. Visits to London continued on a regular basis and I was joined in Israel by other teachers; first Rika Cohen, then Misha Magidov and others followed. We kept in close contact and by 1964 we had established the custom of working together once a week. This was hard work. We were all quite young, we argued intensely with each other, often giving way to personal insults that left lasting scars. But convinced of the importance of the work, we were ready to continue in spite of the difficulty. Some of us who are now training-course directors would never have become teachers without these weekly sessions in which teachers gathered to work together; A new stage began in 1974 with the opening of the Jerusalem training course under my direction. We were urged at the time by STAT to form our own association to supervise training in Israel. Mr. Macdonald supported this move saying, “In Israel you are still speaking the same language.”

Every training course has its own particular character. It brings in a new authority. I was well aware that I could not compete in quality with my seniors. I felt it necessary to make this clear to my students and at the same time to give them the tools for working continuously to improve themselves on a long-term basis – long beyond the three years’ training. As soon as the first teachers graduated from the course, we started our program of weekly meetings in Jerusalem, a program which still continues. We also continued our regular general meetings and began holding workshops lasting from three to five days in the summer. When new training courses opened in Tel-Aviv and Haifa, the summer workshops grew to include graduates from all courses and the more senior teachers and directors of training courses joined me in leading them. These comings together were not social occasions. Our approach was extremely business-like, we worked hard to come back to essentials, and to avoid slipping into our subjective inclinations. The danger of losing our common language has always been there, the more so now that there are several training courses. Perhaps the most rewarding outcome of this constant effort is to be found in the nation-wide meetings that take place three or four times a year and bring together most of the practising teachers. In these meetings intensive work takes place in a growing background of confidence.

An objective method practised by subjective people

The Alexander Technique is the achievement of one man working on his own. Alexander claimed that what he discovered and applied to himself is scientifically sound – it can be repeated, evaluated and measured objectively, by anyone who cares to do so. But dealing with a teaching technique we find ourselves in a teacher-pupil relationship which is full of subjective shades of difference: likes and dislikes, talent, quality, adaptability of teacher and pupil, different teaching approaches, etc. Trying to follow in Alexander’s footsteps we experiment and experience everything as if it were our own discovery. We tend to minimise the enormous help we received in the process of learning, and without noticing it something objective and precise becomes very subjective. With each new generation of teachers more “Alexanders” appear, each one with his own partial understanding claiming to be the true Alexander; Partial understanding tends to become more and more partial. Supported by our inborn laziness we revert to our old habits without noticing it, still believing that we have discovered the truth and are continuing to teach it. We are not really willing to accept criticism from those others who do not really know. As long as our professional world is limited to a small number of pupils and to a more or less social relationship with our colleagues we can rest quietly on our laurels.

Involution of a technique

Then perhaps, one day we notice that our work has become less interesting. We experience boredom. We are driven to make our work more interesting, to add more exercises, physical or mental. We might introduce aspects of other disciplines, therapies, philosophies and who knows what else. Soon our language changes in word and in content and very little of Alexander’s original discovery remains. We may continue to meet colleagues, each expounding our own version of the Technique and listening politely to the others. Here and there an idea might please me and I feel I have learned something; or is it another nail in Alexander’s coffin in the name of progress, open-mindedness or modernisation?

It is up to each one of us to see whether he or she is going, or tending to go, in this direction. My own experience shows that the tendency to lose sight of principles is the rule unless we seek the help of experienced colleagues and unless we come back to the essentials – to the procedures outlined by Alexander in The Use of the Self. This effort to come back to essentials obliges us to realise our own inconsistencies and the ever-present need for help. Work with others is indispensable, preferably under the direction of an experienced teacher aware of the traps and difficulties to be met on the way. We serve each other as mirrors and our impersonal feed-back can help to counter the habitual tendency to rely on our subjective sense of feeling. To be open and confident in the face of criticism from another teacher needs lots of practice. Gradually we can learn to receive factual criticism without personal touchiness, our eyes can be trained to see, and our sensitivity increases hand-in-hand with our capacity to withhold our habitual reactions.

Training students is a great responsibility: are we preparing them to become self-assured, “competent” teachers or are we preparing them to realise the difficulties and limitations of individual work, to consider themselves beginners who just finished the primary stage of their studies? Taking the hard and risky way has its rewards. Work tends to become more and more interesting. There is no need to beautify it by adding foreign elements. It is a matter of life – a constant struggle, frustrating at times, but full of life.

Observations on teachers working with teachers

Having stressed the importance of teachers working together I hope that the following observations on this activity might be of interest to any teachers wishing to submit themselves to this process.

A teacher whose authority is based on quality and experience is as liable to make mistakes as anybody else. Rather than play the absolute master he or she should encourage a spirit of enquiry in which those involved are all trying to discover whether or not a given direction is being followed and if a deviation is occurring to point this out without a sense of blame.

Teacher-pupil relations when both are teachers can become quite complex, even more so when a third teacher comes into the picture. Who is active who is passive? Putting myself into the hands of my guide can produce a lifeless passivity or an activity deeply rooted in wrong conceptions. Often the partners start to blame each other and it is not always easy to sort out such a mess. A guide must see to it that his directions are not distorted by wrong conceptions, the guided must actively follow the directions. Suddenly, the guided becomes guide trying to correct his guide. This is a very delicate situation charged with strong emotions. It can work well if based on acute observation with the help of a mirror and an atmosphere of mutual confidence.

Trying to improve – one tends to become too careful which means “endgaining”; work slows down, becomes sticky and one starts to pull down. In trying to avoid it one easily falls into the opposite – carelessness, though with a certain drive, disregarding mistakes. An encouraging attitude towards each other is the way towards a luke-warm kind of work in which we avoid real confrontation and criticism. This is not the. way towards effective team-work. Mutual criticism can become a means whereby we help each other and, if felt that way, can create in us a real sense of gratitude. True – such an attitude does not come naturally to us, it often seems an impossibility. Long periods of regular work are needed to arrive at real laboratory work – delving at times into subtle levels of precision beyond the sensibility of our feelings, where only our eyes and our partner’s directions can get us through.

Having arrived at a really good level of work almost immediately we tend, experienced as we are, to rest on our laurels as if we can now at last rely on our improved sense of feeling. This is the greatest of all obstacles. From the beginning of our training we faced the experience that what felt “right” a moment ago might now feel “wrong”. This line of argument is familiar; “I just worked with David and he said it’s perfect, how can you tell me now that I’m pulling you down!” To work precisely we need to come back to the beginning, over and over again, as if we had learned nothing. As a rule we are much too lazy to do this and struggle hard to avoid it.

Mr. Macdonald once told us that he could conceive of a time when good and precise directions will have lost all their life and meaning. It took me many years to realise that this happens of necessity in a regular cyclic way. Realising this phenomenon – our bad days can become a source of help, putting into question everything we believe we have achieved. It helps us to be more open, to work with others, not blaming them and not being blamed by them for our shortcomings.

Shmuel Nelkin is a senior teacher of the Alexander Technique. Trained by Patrick Macdonald, he is was the first teacher to bring the technique to Israel. He is the Director of the Jerusalem Alexander Training School.

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