The Vault

Adult Relationships With Children

By Jean Shepard

 

When Sue asked me what I could tell you about education and children, I felt stumped. So I thought the best thing to do was to speak of the experience I've had and then rely on questions.

There have been three main experiences with children, in three different schools. The first was a school in East London where the social background of the children was not always particularly happy. The school there had a holiday programme for three weeks where children, if they wanted, could come to school to learn. Parents were fairly pleased for the children to be occupied, and some of the children actually preferred to be there rather than on the streets or at home. The form teacher and the headmaster ran this event and there were about twenty children who came, in order to learn to read. They were all about nine years old, but their reading ages were lower, and some were virtually non-reading. The class teacher was really quite keen that the Technique be applied. She was a well-established, old-fashioned school teacher with a lot of love, but also much discipline. These children respected her and were well-behaved in her presence, so it was a controlled classroom situation, not a riotous one. I just really pulled out all I had—I hadn't been in a classroom since the age of eighteen, when I'd left school—I had no teaching experience whatsoever. But the point was , I see in retrospect, that I was left entirely on my own to direct the proceedings. The headmaster was there with full support and came in and out occasionally to see what was happening—this was a new situation for him and he was genuinely interested. The form teacher was there in the background and with her presence there was discipline because of the children's respect for her.

We found book-rests and got the children well seated and upright. They had their books at eye level and so we began. It was a big adventure. Essentially they loved the care—for some it was probably the first time anybody had treated them with that kind of individual attention. I found afterwards that they enjoyed being touched. There was one child with great bruises on him from Dad's belt, and I think it was rather a change for him to be cared for. They appreciated the space and the time and the quiet—I think that's valuable for children. They actually enjoyed the discipline of the Technique, and being taught—so all went well.

Before they began to read I brought them in touch with their senses—they sat there, poised, happy and then practised running their eye round the clockface, looking at each number (part of the Bates technique!), running their eye round window frames, listening to the cars outside, then to their heartbeat, actually coming in touch with the senses. For, after all, without our senses we have no learning so they were, basically, in a dream. I found it very important to link them with their senses for some minutes and, with that awareness, focusing their attention on the book in front of them. From then on it was simple Alexander principles: stop, think, act. I gave them lots of time: reading a phrase for them—they following it, reading it for themselves and, one by one, "Could you read that back? No—well it doesn't matter. Read it again. Could you now? Not sure? When you know you're sure, when you know you can give it to me back, then you give it to me back. Are you sure?" "Yes." Out it came, confidently, no stumbling. We went round the class like this—stop, think, act—plenty of time—it doesn't matter, nothing matters— but don't speak until you feel confident enough to, and it doesn't matter then if you make a mistake—let's achieve. They were so pleased to be able to do it.

The time spent on reading gave an opportunity to stop, get yourself together, give your directions, and not act until directed and confident to do so. I used to give the children the example of a cat. Watch a cat as it sits waiting to jump on to a post. It really knows where it is, where it's going and then moves. It doesn't flap about in midair. It just gets on with it. So with the children we had this kind of approach, leaving time for everybody to be worked on the table, which they loved.

Question: And you worked with them individually in the chair?

Yes I did—quite quickly to get them in position ready for their reading. They maintained that position because their attention was held with their reading. There was no fidgeting because their minds were occupied. Not because they were afraid to, but because their minds didn't wander. Looking back on it, it was remarkable.

Question: Can I say that when we were in London, my husband, Troupe Mathews overheared a conversation about what Jean was doing and begged to be allowed to come on the last day. He took pictures and he said it was absolutely extraordinary because, as he'd heard about it, these kids had been so wild—not learning to read and racing around—that the teacher was on the point of resigning, giving up, saying, "I used to be able to teach children to read, but I'm just a failure now, I can't do it any more!" And he said you would have thought these were the most serene, well behaved Victorian children because they were balanced—they'd learnt a lot of the Technique in these three weeks. They were enjoying what they were doing—they were having success. They were sitting quiet, without fidgeting—not rigid at all—but just sensing and balancing. It must have been quite a transformation.

The children found a joy in learning. Children love to learn and to achieve. Isn't that what children are about? What's the point of not being able to take your next step in life? The situation doesn't allow them to learn when they're not disciplined.

I thought afterwards that what I took to the school was achievement, the ability to learn, someone to say "You want to sing? Well sing. Do you want to write, do you want to read? Well read." It was this wonderful opportunity to learn. That's quite a lesson for us really, because we're in an age where discipline has not been fashionable at all, an age that allows children to do what they want because that's how they'll develop most naturally without the interference of adults. I think that attitude is absolute nonsense. These children proved it—they wanted guidance and discipline and care, and time and no criticism—just space.

Some years ago I was very interested in the Doman-Delacato crawling exercises. I found it fascinating on the Alexander training course to see the misuse that these revealed, and the improved co-ordination which their practice brought about. So I gave them lots of crawling exercises which produced phenomenal results.

For example, I discovered that one girl couldn't read because her right eye was virtually non-operative, and nobody knew. This poor girl was sitting there without spectacles, unable to read. The simple thing that was noticed was that she couldn't crawl— her movements were so extraordinarily abnormal—there had to be something amiss. The position of her head as she was trying to read indicated that something was wrong. A simple thing—but she did need spectacles and then she could read—just common sense. The crawling showed up a variety of deficiencies in that area. In truth, I hardly knew what I was doing. I was simply working with Walter Carrington behind me, as it were, entirely in accordance with the principles he had taught. Stop, think, act—it was pure trust. I can't say it was anything other than trust.

I gave each of the children turns on the table, which they loved.

Question: What were the other children doing while you gave the turns?

Some of them were watching, some were continuing to practise their reading and some were crawling under the guidance of Mrs Cannon, the teacher, who, by that stage, could oversee.

Question: How did you introduce crawling? How did you indicate that it might be nice to do it, as it were?

I just said that that was what we were going to do. I didn't really philosophise about it at all. I said there's an exercise and I'd like you to do this—and they did it, they were so obedient and trusting because I was new. They didn't ask why, I don't think it was their wont to ask why. All I can say is that, at the end, they were reading at the level of their right age group. The headmaster was astonished. "This was only three weeks, wasn't it? Mmm." And so was I. It gave me great faith. I was astonished. I was only just qualified and was simply working obediently to instructions given during the training course.

Question: Can I suggest that, in an ordinary school situation, if you only had twenty pupils in a class, who were there because they wanted to be, you might achieve more than is done nowadays?

I agree. The setup was propitious. The children were there because they'd chosen to go there and were eager to learn. They were all several years behind in their reading age. There was the support of the teacher, and it was a perfect situation because I could direct their mental as well as their physical activities. I was in charge, totally and completely, with the trust of the headmaster and their form teacher. So it was a unique situation. But in that situation we had at the end of it about 20 children reading, where they couldn't before. I didn't analyse it afterwards, but that was the situation.

Now I'll give you an example of another school where I felt I achieved nothing. This second school was a Junior school in Witham, Essex, where the headmaster had had Alexander lessons and was particularly keen for them in his school. He saw their value and had also heard about our three weeks in East London. So I tried to work with classes of 20 to 25 pupils. I felt it was useless to go into a class as an Alexander teacher, without the form or subject teachers knowing the aims of the work. Personally, I can't work with groups. Essentially, I worked individually with the children in London, although I talked them through their reading as a group. Then followed individual work on posture and on the table.

In the second school I was invited quite freely into the classrooms—and to help with PE classes, but I felt totally useless. Being an Alexander teacher in the background with the PE teacher giving the instructions was, I found, pointless. Therefore one or two children who had particular problems I requested to help individually. There was one very withdrawn child whom, it was assumed, wouldn't speak. I took her off separately, with a book, and we worked with her seated well and with a very similar approach to the reading class in the London school. She could read, and she read to me. She also spoke. Why? Who knows. But this was a single teacher/pupil situation. Confidence? In a room on her own with no one to mock her (she had a slight speech impediment)? Perhaps everything that stopped her from speaking wasn't there any more. So the Technique worked well on a one-to-one handling of children, but as a group situation I found it hopeless, and I saw no opportunity in the traditional teaching situation for an Alexander teacher to work.

I was given the freedom to do what and when I liked, but I found no opening in the group situation and my presence seemed to simply distract attention from the classes.

Question: In my experience when teachers say, "Come in and do exactly what you want with this particular class," what they sometimes mean is: "You do it, don't ask me to think about it."

For the most part, I was in the second school as someone whom they hoped would not interfere. As long as I was quiet I could do as I wanted. There was no real interest in what I was doing, except from the headmaster, who was a very caring man. He said to me during one lunch break, "Now, in this situation, how would you get these children to use themselves well?" My reply was: "Just give them the instruction to taste their food. At least they'd stop talking and be where they are, in the present moment, actually in touch with what they were supposed to be doing, which is eating. With the noise of the children he could hardly hear me speak. There was a lack of peace and quiet. Children don't have to be noisy. In fact they are happiest when they are quiet, when they have their attention focused. A child needs to be totally connected to his or her surroundings. For a young child, the world is spiritual, the world is everything. The experience of living is all they want and to be in touch with it is all they need. So to taste their food is an experience for them.

These are the two main situations that I can relate in the terms of teaching the Alexander Technique in a school.

My feelings after that were a yearning to connect with children, which I had never had previously. I'd never wanted to be a teacher, and never considered being one. I felt instinctively that the only way to be with children was to believe in them, to be at one with them, to support what was good in them, to be on their side. I had a feeling that that was what I wanted to do. So I now teach in a school where the staff essentially are on the children's side, do care about them, do give them time and space, do believe in the truth in them, do look always to bring out what's good in them. I'm employed there as a biology teacher not an Alexander teacher. But I felt I could apply all that I'd learnt in those other two situations and work through the knowledge that the Alexander teacher training gave me which, in essence, is stop, think, act.

Question: What sort of school is this?

The school I teach at now is not a state school. It was set up by people who wanted to educate children and give them the best in all areas of life, spiritual, mental and physical, and that's the only reason why I'm there.

There's an analogy that I think is so true. The teacher is like a potter who always works with two hands, the inside hand creates the space, which is love, and the outside hand holds the shape and that's discipline. And neither one hand without the other bears any fruit. No pot has form without a space—it has no function without good form. Those are my feelings on the subject. In this school there is discipline, and the grace and the 'upness' of the younger children is exquisite. There is also quite a lot of drama and singing.

Question: I've seen teachers who were tremendously disciplined only because they were boring the children.

The key factor in education is that as soon as a child is bored you change the activity or the approach. A bored child is a naughty child. A child should never be bored. If teachers love their subjects they'll always be able to present them in an interesting way. The teacher must always be open to recognising boredom, because as soon as you get boredom you get fidgeting. I'm not saying we've got perfect children, we haven't. The feeling I have from this first experience in education is that children want to learn. Children are happy when they're disciplined and when their attention is taken. They need space, they need to be believed in, they love beauty, they love goodness, they love love. You have to keep that love of creation alive and modify the teaching methods as the ages of the children increase.

By discipline I mean attention held to the job in hand. The best teachers don't need to instil discipline because they love their subject and they stimulate a love in that subject. If you have the child's love and attention, who needs tough discipline? If you have the children's attention they want to be with you. We have great fun. We don't have silent classes. If you have the attention of the child, you have no problem.

Question: Do you find that you're able to sustain that level of consciousness in yourself? That's very demanding.

You must give time to yourself as a teacher. You're human and you're going to flip your lid sometimes. But if you do so you only get the same reaction back again. And that's where the Technique is applicable. You simply don't react, you respond. And that takes time. It means stopping, it means inhibiting.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Before training with Walter Carrington, Jean Shepherd worked at Great Ormond Street Hospital in the research department, on the biochemistry of various conditions, mainly those resulting in mental deficiency. She enjoyed and valued her work but was not happy that it depended on animal experiments. Once qualified as an Alexander teacher, she went on to study Biochemistry at Kings College London, gaining her PhD there. She now teaches Biology at an independent school for girls.

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