The Unteachables

January 26, 2020

It is said that when the pupil is ready, the master will appear. That may well be true.


But just because someone appears before you for lessons, that does not make them, in that moment, a ready pupil (any more than it makes you, in that moment, the right teacher).



There is a world of difference between simply ‘being there’ and ‘being ready to learn’. The pupil may easily conflate the two. It becomes the teacher’s role to distinguish between them and, in doing so, perhaps to save all concerned from a considerable waste of effort.


This essay looks across FM Alexander’s sixty-year teaching career to gather, perhaps for the first time, the five criteria he used to judge whether a pupil was truly ready to learn.



1.  Not serious enough


FM Alexander’s technique concerned the changing of habits which is an endeavour that requires serious application by the pupil.


As Mark Twain put it, “Habit is habit and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time”.[1]

It was as well to know from the outset whether the prospective pupil had the stomach for such careful coaxing. FM therefore required that one of his books was digested before starting lessons. For many, who find his Victorian writing style practically impenetrable, that would now represent a formidable obstacle!


“At his initial interview with a pupil he'd say "I don't want to waste my time, and I don't want to waste your time and money. Read this book. If there is something there that interests you, give me a ring and make an appointment and come and see me again...


if he didn't think the pupil was serious then he wouldn't bother. You see, his time was so precious and he was so busy that he didn't want to waste his energy."[2]



2.  Too serious!


Prolonged endeavour requires a certain amount of seriousness. But the outcome can be undermined by taking the process too seriously.


As Patrick Mc Donald put it much more succinctly: “This is all to serious to be taken seriously”[3]

I believe this to be because a critical element of learning, and potentially the most difficult component for adult learning, is play. Play that of itself allows for an openness of outcome rather than sticking with known processes and relying on strictly quantitative measurements.


“FM used to come into the room where we were all waiting for the class, look around at our heavy, serious faces and say ‘Go on, go away. You’re no use to me’. He would make us walk around the square. So although this work is the most serious thing you can do, you mustn’t take it seriously or heavily”[4]



3.  ‘Fish to fry’


Regardless of a person’s demeanour, learning requires a change in thinking. And change is not possible for those who believe they already have the truth.


As FM put it, “If people will go on believing that they “know”, it is impossible to eradicate anything: it makes it impossible to teach them”[5]


What’s more, he expected them to be happy about it: “Don’t come to me unless, when I tell you you are wrong, you make up your mind to smile and be pleased” 5


This requires an openness on the part of the pupil: the absence of an agenda that would interfere with accepting something new. FM again: “People that havn’t any fish to fry[6], they see it all right” 5.


4.  ‘Jumpy’ people


While all these criteria can be reflective of the whole self – mind and body – none is more so than the initial calmness that is a prerequisite of the use of reason.  As FM put it: “It is absurd to try to teach a person who is in a more or less agitated or even anxious condition. We must have that calm condition which is characteristic of a person whose reasoning processes are operative”.[7]


5.  Vampires


Lastly, Marjory Barlow discourages us from pupils who might, however unknowingly, sink their teeth into us “… (FM) used to say to us “there are certain types of people – I call them vampires – and you’ve got to be able to spot them and get rid of them otherwise they’ll suck the blood out of you. They won’t do any work.” And it’s true. If you find at the end of the lesson that you’re exhausted instead of being rather stimulated, have a look at that person. You shouldn’t be exhausted. It’s a two-way thing between teachers and pupils. I’ve certainly never forgotten FM’s warning, and it has stood me in good stead over the years”[8]





[1] Twain, M. ‘Pudd’nhead Wilson’ (1894)


[2] Barlow, M. & Carey, S. 'Alexander Technique: the ground rules' (2011) pgs 58-60


[3] McDonald, P. ‘The Alexander Technique as I see it’ (1989) pg 35


[4] Barlow, M. ‘ The essence of FM’s teaching. Alexander Memorial Lecture given at the Fircroft College of Adult Education, Birmingham on 8th July 1995’


[5] Alexander F.M. ‘Teaching aphorisms’ from ‘The Alexander Journal’ No 7 (1972) pgs 41-48


[6] “Having fish to fry” is a variation of the more common “other (or bigger) fish to fry” meaning having something else one would prefer to attend to.


[7] Alexander, F.M. ‘ Constructive conscious control of the individual’ (1923) pg 80


[8] Barlow, M. & Carey, S. 'Alexander Technique: the ground rules' (2011) pg 66

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