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Catherine introduced the notion of living legacy at a conference in May 2011. Read her paper for inspiration!


How do I sustain an expression of loving insight in my life and work as an educator coming to the end of my career?

Draft paper presented May 2011 at Conference on Values & Virtue, York St. John's University, U.K.

MacLure (1996, p. 283) emphasizes the importance of resisting telling an inauthentic ‘smooth story of self’ in the narrative of an action researcher. Walton (2011) emphasizes the importance of distinguishing knowledge and understanding with values emerging from love and hope. Whitehead and McNiff (2006, p. 45) point out that,

‘We know what happens when people are prevented from exercising their capacity to question, the gradual loss of excitement, and the quietude of acceptance.’ (Whitehead & McNiff 2006, p. 45)

This paper focuses on a narrative of my learning to sustain an expression of loving insight in my life and work as an educator as I come to the end of my teaching career. It includes a struggle with macro-cosmic issues that focus on both a lack of meaning in existence and living a loving and productive life as my values find expression in my one-to-one dealings with my students.

The narrative is given meaning by my dream of a society in which we are all normal – all different – all unique – where we all belong and no-one is measured against another and the values that underpin this dream are the values of service, love and insight founded in an empathetic communion with the other. Also, I try to explain how naming and owning my values, consciously and powerfully accessed grace that, warmed me from within and offered shielding from without. I understood why I do what I do and who I am. It is my virtue – the best I can be in this life – and the re-awakened connection has illuminated my sense of self.

Energised by this connection, I relate how I challenged areas around my practice and, in doing so, came to the knowledge and understanding that the psychosocial stages of development (Erikson, 1968) not only provide different tasks, but may, also, require alternative approaches to these tasks. I conclude by suggesting that living legacies offer such an alternative approach rich with the hope of resolution and .

Finding Grace

I am a mature class teacher coming to the end of my career. In presenting this paper I am, first and foremost, a practitioner. At present I am a teacher of young children with autism. I am a researcher, only in as much as I am looking for a way to leave a legacy that will enable an ordinary, classroom teacher to complete her life’s work with some dignity and grace. This for me includes retaining loving insight, passion and curiosity within my work, to my very last day. So, whilst other colleagues may discuss the merits of the living theory approach to research as proposed by Whitehead (1989), I will, in this paper, introduce the concept of a living legacy. I will juxtapose the question, ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’ with a new one:

‘How do I sustain an expression of loving insight in my life and work as an educator coming to the end of my career?’

Also, I will mirror Walton’s (2011, p.7) view of living theory as the product of a ‘living contradiction’ existing ‘when there is a dissonance between the values’ a practitioner holds, and how they actually behave, in the creation of a new, disharmonious  struggle between an individual’s youthful aspirations, on one hand, and, on the other, the actuality of achievement. I will suggest that as living theory enables a person to reflect on their own dissonance and seek to resolve it (Walton, 2011), so could a living legacy enable the mature teacher to come to the end of their practice with the comfort of resolution.
So, whilst MacLure (1996) emphasizes the importance of resisting telling an inauthentic ‘smooth story of self’ in the narrative of an action researcher, the nature of my narrative, denies me that choice. MacLure’s paper looks at the narratives of people who have transitioned from teacher, via action researcher to an academic, dwelling within the boundaries of these, before arriving at their final destination. In addressing you, today, I need to make it clear that within my practice, I arrived at my destination – the place I wanted most to be. The boundaries I now dwell in are different in nature to those of MacLure’s participants. There is nothing greater or bigger beyond the classroom for me. I entered the boundary lands free of will and aspiration. With the unrelenting march of time, it simply is a process I, as others before, beside and behind me, must go through. Therefore, perhaps, my emotional need to find resolution and embrace the  ‘inbetweeness’ of my present approach towards leaving the work that has given my life structure and purpose, may refute Maclure’s description  of boundary work as a ‘transgression’. I own that I am hoping to create ‘a new space’ in which the dissonance between my values, as expressed through my youthful aspirations and the actuality of my present achievement can be resolved or dissolved (MacLure, 1996; Winter, 1991). 

So, in telling my story it will be authentic and it will not be smooth.

Whitehead and McNiff (2006) wrote:

‘We know what happens when people are prevented from exercising their capacity to question, the gradual loss of excitement, and the quietude of acceptance.’ (2006, p.45)

When I read these words they deeply affected me because I had become one of those people but as one of those people I knew no ‘quietude of acceptance’. I knew only a spirit destroying, life defeating pain. Grace for me is the life-enhancing connection with my deepest held, humanitarian values. Living connected to them enables my virtuous aspiration and expression. Living disconnected from them – losing connection with them – is for me what Saint John of the Cross termed, ‘the dark night of the soul.’

I wrote the following response:

The gradual loss of grace;
The growing dusk creeping through directives and dismissals
Transforming love and passion into indifference;
Joy into resentment and fear.
This is not a limbo of quiet acceptance.
This is a purgatory of pain
Where all that was youthful enthusiasm
Tortures the memory, trapped within resentments
Of legacies lost.

How had I come to that point? How does anyone come to that point?

The clinical psychologist, David Smail (1991, 2005) has argued that personal distress results, not so much from individual failures of insight or learning, as from the interplay between social and material power, on the one hand, and the individual’s own embodied history, on the other. Whilst agreeing with this, I would add that my personal experience has been that my values, forged in early childhood experiences, inspired the educational philosophy that has brought me, colliding and conflicting with the institutional power structures around me, to personal distress and the gradual loss of grace – the diminishing of the love and passion for the very work to which I gave my life.

In psychotherapy seeking out relationships that can rewrite past hurts only to have the past wounds painfully re-opened, is well documented. My experience is that, this drive can go beyond personal relationships to unconsciously influence one’s choice of career.

In the 1960s, I was a ‘sickly’ child threatened with educational segregation for being ‘feeble’. More than that, I was an immigrant child removed from her family for fear that my absence from school was some cultural misdemeanour rather than the result of ill-health. Although my stay, in the institution I was placed in, was short, it was long and formative enough to alter my world view. From being the beloved, only daughter, only sister, youngest child, I became one of many objects of care in a world controlled (to me) by incomprehensible, all-powerful, indifferent yet biased, paid adults.

Empathy and the appreciation of difference are two of my deepest values. They were gradually embodied by a child unconsciously choosing between closing down and shutting out all that caused her pain, or finding a means of easing that pain. I now realise that I chose to assign purpose to my pain. Thrown into a world with alien, indifferent rules and structures, where distress was a punishable offence, I became a hyper-vigilant watcher. My watchfulness internalised, connected with intuition and stripped me of defensive boundaries between I and other. In this place, empathy and identification with the ‘outsider’ took root.  A combination of intuition, empathy and identification are powerful tools in teaching children with special needs. They can take you where others may fear to tread.

They have guided me through most of my encounters with the ‘outsider’ children. In particular, they led me to spend two weeks with a child in a secure psychiatric unit speaking to him with the only language he had left, play. Simon (a pseudonym) had developed schizophrenia at the age of nine. A year later he was hospitalised. According to his medical assessment he had ‘degressed’ to the approximate age of an eighteen month old child. Therapies were not being used, as he was seen to be at a pre-language developmental stage. At this time, I was already living in Ireland but his parents contacted me and asked me if I would try and help. The consultant psychiatrist agreed to allow me to spend two weeks with Simon within the unit. Intuition and empathy led me through many encounters with Simon, including the following one:

‘ When he forgot to watch me he returned to his own world, and after awhile came down from the top of the slide. He walked in circle patterns round and round the periphery of the playground singing the words of ‘I will survive’. With great passion and intense stares he sang to us both:
I’ll stay alive.
I will survive.
I’ve got all my love to give.
I’ve got all my life to live.
So, go, go, go . .
Get out that door
Because you’re not needed anymore.
I will survive!

I sat on the bench and listened, meeting his eyes when his sought mine out. After a long while he came and sat down next to me on the bench. He sat staring out across the space of the playground. As he stared I told him that I had heard what he had sung and that I had understood it. I told him he was right, he would be alright. I told him that when he was ready he would come back. Then I told him that I knew he was understanding me and that I knew he understood when others were talking, even though he did not always want us to know that he did. Immediately, he turned towards me, and as he did so, he smacked me across the face. I caught his hand as it came back for a second blow, and as I did so, I realised how little force there was in his attack this time compared to previous ones. He let me hold his wrist with his hand suspended in the air. His eyes were confronting mine. I told him I would have to go if he hurt me again. I told him I would not stay and be hurt by him. I dropped his hand and he turned back away, staring out into the space of the play area again. We sat quietly together. Eventually I put my hand out and stroked him gently on his shoulders and back. He let me.’

In going into teaching I discovered my real, life-long passion and love – teaching – being of service – being alive. This did not happen gradually. It was as immediate as love at first sight. I simply walked in on my first teaching practice, on my first day, into my first classroom, my first class – and there it was – a sense of being, being present, being now, being vital; combined with an involuntary requirement to reach deeply into my own humanity to work with intuition, understanding, compassion, empathy and love. Fromm’s (1979) description of the mode of being encapsulates the experience, for me:

‘ . . to give expression to one’s faculties, talents, to the wealth of human gifts with which – through varying degrees – every human being is endowed. It means to renew oneself, to grow, to flow out, to love, to transcend the prison of one’s isolated ego, to be interested, to ‘list’, to give.’ (Fromm, 1979, p. 92)

For me he is describing the connection with my values and the zone in which they are freely, fearlessly and spontaneously expressed. He is describing Whitehead’s (2011, p.3) ‘life affirming energy’ and Csikszentmihalyi’s (1992) (pronounced: Chikshentmeehai’s) ‘flow experience’. Also, he is describing Walton’s (2011) ‘moment-by-moment’ relationships that practitioners can create with children. However, Walton (2011) distinguishes between mere presence or ‘in the zone’ experiences as she feels encapsulated both in Polyani’s (1958) ‘tacit knowing’ and Schon’s (1995) ‘knowing in action’,  and a Buddhist ‘mindfulness’ in practice. She proposes that ‘mindfulness’ enables an individual to realise when there is dissonance between their values and their actual behaviour. I acknowledge that the experience I am describing was not the latter and that the absence of conscious reflection played its part in my loss of grace. However, I contend that, for me, within the ‘flow experience’ there was no dissonance. Dissonance, as I will endeavour to show in this paper, grew in the vacuum created by my lack of ownership of my embodied values, the absence of reflection on how they interplayed with each other and my interaction with what Smail (1996) describes as social and material powers.

Nevertheless, without knowing the connection, by simply being in that zone, within my practice there was no dissonance but there was a hunger: the hunger to improve. Without owning my values, conscious reflection focused on methodologies and approaches; intuition, empathy and ‘tacit knowing’ were downgraded to mere tools. My hunger drove me on a quest, first, to be the best classroom teacher I could be, and then, the best Special Needs Teacher I could be. Focusing on improvement from ‘out there’ can be exhausting because there are always new methods and ideas being promoted; there are always more courses to do. Also, it is a road that may lead further and further away from our values, and thereby, increase the dissonance between them and our actual behaviour. Fourteen years ago, during my last Ofsted inspection in England, a mature colleague came to me and told me that the inspector, who had been watching her lesson, had just recommended an approach she had discarded a few years earlier because of new methods that had come in. I replied that we should never be swayed by external trends to abandon practices we know deep down in our own core to be good. I said the words but without conscious knowledge and understanding of their personal significance. Walton (2011) emphasizes the importance of distinguishing knowledge and understanding with values emerging from love and hope.

I propose that the absence of this knowledge and understanding led me, with all my love and passion for my work, and all my intuition, empathy and identification with my students, to spend seven months on sick-leave looking for early retirement in the academic year 2009-2010. It was time without grace: ‘the dark night of the soul.’

Sadly, I am not alone. DeMik (2008) investigated the attrition of special needs teachers. Smail’s (1996) ‘social and material powers’ are reflected in DeMik’s outline of the frustrating working conditions teachers described. They named:

• excessive paperwork;
• finding time for planning;
• difficulty meeting the individual needs of students;
• role conflicts including advocacy issues;
• collaboration and a lack of community with general education teachers;
• inclusion of students in general education activities;
• choice of instruction materials and presentation methods; and,
• concerns over standards and testing.

None of these issues is unfamiliar to me.

Today, having reflected on my own experience and my values, looking for the previously absent knowledge and understanding,  I want to suggest that there were two main routes in which I lost grace – that connection with my own values and the sense of self-value that they impart to me when I feel the connection. For ease of explanation I call these routes, ‘I’ & ‘I with other’. These are terms familiar to me in my play work with children with special needs. In that, they depict the developmental stages of socialisation. In this context, I see them as part of the onion layers of my embodied, individual history and knowledge.

Also, I want to acknowledge a link with Whitehead’s (2005) ‘I’ that is central to the creation of living theories. In creating this link I want to explore how the ‘living contradiction’ i.e. when there is conflict between the values the individual holds and how they come to behave within an institution – does not find positive expression within a reflective, collaborative process, such as, described by Walton (2011) but is, instead, swallowed down, year after year, until grace is lost.

On the ‘I’ side is, Stevens and Wetherell’s (1996)  proposal that as older institutions, such as, religion and communal organisations break down, more and more emphasis is placed on the individual and personal identity as the touchstone for meaning in life. Taylor (1989; 1991) has called this ‘moral relativism’ because people accept that everybody has the right to whatever values they choose. Whilst enabling tolerance, this may leave an individual, who has no access to collaborative inquiry and support, such as, Walton (2011) describes, isolated, particularly within an institution with conflicting values and priorities.

Also, with hindsight, I believe the lack of reflection on the values that inspired my passion in teaching, played its part.  No-where in my training or in all the years of practice, in-service training, inspections, higher degrees, etc, do I recall anyone ever asking me what the values that inspire and inform my practice are. Neither do I recall ever asking myself this question. As already alluded to, I have studied the values of the good and the mighty. I have studied the pedagogies of the great thinkers. I have looked at different teaching approaches, methodologies and practices. Where I had never gone, was never encouraged to go, was to my own self i.e. with reference, once again, to Fromm (1979), the emphasis was on the accumulation and having of knowledge, not the being and the ‘knowing’. In the last few months, I have come to believe that without this reflection, and the conscious knowledge and understanding it imparts, the values that inspire us, as unique and splendid human-beings to be passionate, compassionate and loving practitioners in empathetic communion with our students, can never, ever be owned. Moreover, if we cannot acknowledge our own values, how do we inspire them in our students/ in others? If we cannot name or own our own values, how do we enable others to do so with their own?

Finally, on the ‘I’ side, I want to draw on Rokeach’s (1973) proposal that a person’s values that relate to conduct – he calls these our ‘instrumental values’ – have two different modes. One relates to our moral values (what is right to do) and the other to our competency values (the most effective way of doing). However, Glen (2000) proposes that when these are placed in conflict, an individual is forced to prioritise. I share Glen’s view. It has been my experience, over and over again within different schools, with different managers, that when institutional demands/limitations/restrictions, etc, place my moral values in conflict with my competency values, I have chosen between the two modes, setting them out of balance with each other. In my own case, my competency values have in the past been subsumed by my moral values i.e. I have given priority to my moral values at the expense of my competency values. Unfortunately, this prioritising has put me out of sync with some colleagues and managers. I have lost count of people who have equated professionalism with pragmatism and who have cautioned or advised me to work only within ‘professional’ boundaries and time limits.

On the ‘I’ With ‘Other’ side I have placed Baron-Cohen’s theory of empathising versus systemizing. In some ways, it reflects my inner conflict between moral and competency values but here relates to social interactions. If, as Baron-Cohen proposes, we are all somewhere on the spectrum of empathy – systemizing, then I know personally, holding empathy as one of my values, the hemisphere I inhabit. Also, I know, which end of the spectrum I can expect students with autism to be on. But what of my colleagues, management, parents and the other professionals I come into daily contact with? What of the school inspectors and their agendas?

Empathy can be a gift wrapped in razor blades if it is too much a one-way street. It is well accepted today that those who nurture – the carers – need to be emotionally nourished, too. Once at the preliminary meeting with Ofsted inspectors, I told the inspectorate that if I treated children the way they were reported to treat teachers, they would have grounds to dismiss me. I have worked for management for whom the same would apply. Who in our profession cares for the carers, particularly the ordinary, time-served ones?

Baumeister (1991) asserts that, in contemporary society value is now sought in the personal sphere, such as, in achievement at work, in relationships and in particular, in the development of self. Huxtable (2011) reflects this when she states:

‘My values are ontological: that is they are at the very core of my being and give my life meaning and purpose. They are lived in the sense I unconsciously and consciously express them in what I do and the way I am.’ (Huxtable, 2011, p.4)

Baumeister (1991) further considers that other areas of life have become subordinated to the development and creation of identity. If work or a relationship threatens the development of self, this is sufficient justification for moving on. Whilst agreeing, I suggest that his proposal best fits those whose default is to competency values (or perhaps are best situated more towards the systemizing hemisphere) because in my own experience, I stayed on, in my judgement doing the right thing for the students, in situations that seriously threatened my sense of self. In her research, on the attrition of SEN teachers, DeMik (2008, p.22) concluded that ‘the differences in their personalities drove them toward unique responses to the pressures of the job, causing some to choose to stay in the field and others to leave.’ I wonder, if as well as or instead of ‘personalities’, conduct mode and position on the spectrum have a role to play?

However, whether personality, conduct mode or place on Baron-Cohen’s empathising – systemising spectrum,  the situation in which one invests one’s time and energy in pursuit of personal values either nourishes or drains ‘grace’ within individuals. For me Dewey said it best when he wrote:

‘the environment consists of those conditions that promote or hinder, stimulate or inhibit, the characteristic activities of a living being.’ (Dewey, 1944, p,11)

Rokeach (1973) also identified what he called ‘terminal values’. Again he proposed that these are double stemmed with ‘personal values’ relating to what a person hopes to achieve for themselves and ‘social values’ being how they wish society to operate. I suggest that personal and social values stand juxtaposed against each other and, are as Huxtable (2011) describes:

‘relationally dynamic being held, formed and re-formed in that complex ecological space forming the living boundaries between self, other/s and the world.’(Huxtable, 2011, p.4)

However, in this instance, I, also, propose that when either of these remains out of sync with how things really are, over time personal distress may evolve. My personal value was to be the best classroom and special needs teacher I could be. My social value was that society would appreciate the need for difference in all forms; this includes, valuing the dedicated, experienced practitioner equally as the administrator, the academic, the scientist or even the artist. I arrived at my personal goal; Her Majesty Inspectors, Ofsted Inspectors and the Government of Ireland’s Inspectorate, have told me that I have, but society did not honour its part. In so many ways, society’s message to me is that I count for less, and that counting for less, I have not arrived at a place society really values. Alongside Huxtable (2011), I would like to quote Gardner et al.’s (1996) insight into the need for external motivation as well as internal:
‘ . . even seasoned professionals may have a hard time continuing to work in the absence of at least an occasional acknowledgement or evidence of appreciation.’ (Gardner et al, 1996, p.258)

If losing ‘grace’ results from:

• Isolation;
• lack of reflection and ownership of values;
• value conflicts and imbalances;
• lack of nurturing;
• the nature of the environmental values are invested in; and,
• the lack of synchronicity between personal or social values and actual reality;

What enables ‘finding’ grace?

The Phoenix

I am she you cannot kill,
The Phoenix with the golden wing.
Many times bound,
To the fire,
You bear me.
But when you lay me
amongst the screeching flame,
Another ME is born again.

I wrote ‘The Phoenix’ poem as a teenager.  In many ways it combines my moral and personal values. For me, it states that virtue will survive – that I will do what I judge the right thing again and again, regardless of the struggle or the defeat, and that will be my greatest achievement. But by September 2009 I had had enough of the struggle identified by DeMik (2008). If early retirement had been on the table I would be retired now. It was not, and even after seven months of recuperation, I returned to work without the love and passion I had enjoyed for so long in my teaching career. I listened to those around me who told me it was time to look after ‘me’. I was to do my job and nothing more. I was to do the required hours and nothing more. This sounded like the voice of competency values, values that I had, estranged myself from, to stay true to my moral values.  More than that, this was the antithesis of my personal values because I had lost the survivor’s spirit.

But I could not live the death in life the vampire of bitter experience had brought for too long. The metaphor of the Phoenix rising out of the ashes generates another possibility beyond survival and resurrection. This new idea is about flight. When Huxtable’s (2011) ‘relational dynamic’ results in the loss of grace, the Phoenix’s message is to seek out of an alternative, hopefully more nourishing ‘ecological space’.

I looked around desperate to find a means to leave a legacy that would snatch worth out of the ashes. An advertisement for a professional doctorate at Hope University popped up in a Google search. Against the impossible odds I had constructed within my mind, I was offered a place. This would metamorphose into a re-connection with grace.

At Hope, as with Whitehead (2011, p.1), I have been influenced by the ‘guiding vision and orientation of the Centre for Child and Family’. This guidance scaffolds the journey that brings me to the writing of this paper. It began with the encouragement to name and own the educational values that underpin both my philosophy and practice. In doing so, I came to know that there was no contradiction or dissonance between my philosophy, values and my practice. My philosophy struggles with macro-cosmic issues but my values find expression in my one-to-one practice with my students. I dream of a society in which we are all normal – all different – all unique – where we all belong and no-one is measured against another and the values that underpin this dream are the values of service, love and insight, founded in an empathetic communion with the other. Naming and owning my values, consciously and powerfully accessed grace that, warmed me from within and offered shielding from without. I understood why I do what I do and who I am. It is my virtue – the best I can be in this life. Therefore, my sense of self was illuminated by the awakened connection.

From this I felt empowered, not only to work towards a living legacy, but, through a deepening understanding of my own values in my practice, I examined those areas of my work that had the greatest dissonance and conflicts. When dealing with these areas, in the past, I had increasingly and predominantly used avoidance or withdrawal strategies. Interestingly the three areas I identified were all ‘other’ adult related.

The first area was relationship between the teachers within the unit. As a result of my documentation of the stresses within the unit, we have moved away from the ‘closed door/individual responsibility’ approach to a collaborative, collegiate approach. This includes shared responsibility for all students and weekly meetings with the Deputy Principal who is the Special Needs Co-ordinator. Also, on a personal level it has brought all the teachers in the unit more closely together. As with Walton’s (2011) collaborative inquiry group, our trust and support of each other has grown, leading to a more confident expression of what is important to us as individuals and as a team.

The second area was my relationship with parents. To understand the best way forward with this I took one weekend to meet with them individually or in couples at a place of their own choice. From these meetings I constructed two lists for each parent – the first was their personal concerns and the second was concerns they shared with other parents. Those on the first list I have been working through with the individual parents at monthly meetings. Those on the second list I have worked through at whole group evening meetings. As well as having very positive feedback from all these meetings, my relationship with parents has become more open, more loving, more mutual respectful and appreciative. For example, the following comments were received as part of the parental feedback:

‘We think as parents that it is so important to have a close working relationship with the teacher/school. The meetings have helped with this.’
‘The first group meeting was great – not only meeting other parents with the same problems but addressing this subject (sensory and motor issues). We all had and have the same thing in common  - very good.’

One parent even wrote the following at the end of her feedback:

‘Having a child with autism you are always anxious about school life for your child. Things like – how is he with other children, how is he progressing, is he in the right place? Meetings like these go a long way to answering these questions and issues. Also, to meet other parents builds up relationships that can be helpful going forward. Most important to us is the relationship between home and school and working off the same sheet. Myself and XXX would like to thank Catherine for giving of her own time for these sessions.’

Moreover, I believe that these meetings will have a long-term positive impact for the unit as a whole. For example the following comments, also, formed part of the parental feedback:
‘The dedication and understanding and work you all do, especially communicating and working with us parents.’

‘It was good to be in the classroom and see what they do and how they are taught; to see how dedicated the staff are. XXX is very lucky to have this placement.’

‘We feel the staff are putting XXX’s best interests first and we feel we can approach the teacher about any issue and she will give guidance.’

But more than these, there was an unexpected outcome in most of the parental feedback sheets returned; there seemed to be an improvement in the relationship between parent/s and child reported. For example,

‘Doing homework with XXX has improved . .’

‘It’s great to be able to talk to him about the school, his class, his workstation and all the children in his class.’

‘Learning to learn with him, to understand how and what his pace of learning is.’

‘I view XXX differently now. Looking at XXX for what he can do and his strong points rather than the weak.’

The third area was an area clearly identified by DeMik (2008). It was the relationship between the mainstream and the unit, special education teachers. I particularly saw the need to address contradictions here because this area persistently challenges both my philosophy and my values. The present model of autism focuses on deficits not differences. A deficit model is used to imply a missing difference that either justifies ‘segregation of people with the deficit from those without’ (Faulkner & Lewis, 1995, p. 234) or, combined with principles of inclusion, can lead to ‘melting pot’ attempts to  normalise students with autism. In the ‘melting pot’ classroom the danger is that teaching approaches and techniques are based on those used with students without autism but with explicit emphasis on the development of communication and interaction, as these are seen to be where the deficits lie. For example, when I first met Ben (pseudonym), he was a student in a brightly decorated, language rich reception class. He sat at a group table situated two tables away from his teacher’s desk. He sat facing other students. To look at his teacher he would have to turn his head right and look past several other heads and possible pairs of eyes. He appeared to be a highly stressed little boy. He waved his hands and arms about and spent a lot of his time repeating words and phrases from television programmes. When addressed directly his head went down, his movements became more agitated and his echolalia increased. The school’s initial response can be seen to be based on a deficit model. Something had to be added to the classroom to assist this student to fit into its practices, routines and curriculum without causing distress to self and others. Therefore, the school acquired a special needs assistant. When I first went into the classroom I noted that she sat next to the student. She was there to constantly bring him back to our world and to ensure he interacted with it. She was there to ensure he completed tasks. She was even there on the playground requiring him to play with his peers. There was no place in the classroom or the playground that he could escape, like any other student, into his own reverie.

As the appreciation of difference is one of my deepest held educational values, I dream of mainstream classrooms that accommodate and adapt to the different needs of students, rather than requiring students to accommodate and adapt to pre-existing, unchanging classroom environments. Guided by the collaborative inquiry approach at Hope (Walton, 2011), I asked colleagues interested in improving the learning and well-being of children with autism (and visual learners) to volunteer, to come together, on a monthly basis, to draw on our shared knowledge and experience. The membership of this group fluctuates. There were only three members of staff at our first meeting, sixteen at our second and eleven at our third. Again, the feedback from staff has been very positive.

However, MacLure’s (1996) words are haunting me. This is not a ‘smooth story of self’. The initial moments of exhilaration because, connected to my values, I had challenged my own fears and met with self-measured success, are not the end of my story. My values may have been my muse, and absence of knowing them may have been the cause of the loss of connection, but finding grace and channelling it again into similar pursuits, also, provoked the opening of some old wounds. For example, the mainstream/unit group experience highlighted the underlying difficulties that made this area a huge source of the frustration that had previously helped to erode my sense of grace. It was where my philosophy had conflicted most with ‘the other’. It was where, fighting for my ‘truth’, disconnected from my values, overwhelmed by dismissive and proud, existing practice, I had made huge retreats. The second time round, I, again, felt the threat of the growing dark. For example, the loss of one group member lead to the taking down of a classroom’s visual timetable, the dismantling of a quiet working area and the end of the use of supportive visual aids. I felt this loss personally, but in feeling it, I realised my error. Saint Paul says to the Corinthians, Chapter 13, verse 11:

‘When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.’

I understood that rising from the ashes does not have to mean repeating the same course of action, hoping that this time it will end better. I understood the need for wisdom and discernment in my choice of action. I understood the need for action grounded in embodied knowledge and appropriate to my own ‘psychosocial stage of development’ (Erikson, 1968).
The young, novice teacher needs to name their values to know and own them, but the older, mature class teacher, without the cloak and vermillion of status, needs to know and practice connection with those that nourish the grace of the values deep within. For some, forms of collaborative inquiry, such as, Walton (2011) describes, are possible and will provide this connection, but there are others who, I propose, are at a different ‘psychosocial stage of development’ (Erikson, 1968) and/or whose needs and/or opportunities are dissimilar.

Erikson (1968) describes eight stages of psychosocial development that occur throughout the lifespan. He proposed that each stage ‘is characterised by its own particular developmental task’ (Barnes, 1995, p.304). He proposed that the penultimate stage spans middle adulthood to maturity and is characterised by the need to create or nurture things that will outlast one’s life. Successful ‘generativity’, as Erikson termed it, results in feelings of usefulness and accomplishment, whilst failure results in ‘stagnation’ and shallow involvement in the world. Meanwhile, the final stage spans maturity to death and is characterised by reminiscence. Erikson proposed that the older adult needs to look back and feel a sense of fulfilment. Successful ‘ego integrity’, as Erikson termed it, results in feelings of wisdom and satisfaction, whilst failure results in regret, bitterness and despair. I propose that the edges and ages of these stages are not as clear and stable as Erikson prescribed. Erikson suggested that the stage of ‘generativity versus stagnation’ is between forty to sixty-five years of age and that the stage of ‘ego-integrity versus despair’ stretches from sixty-five to death. Alternatively, I suggest that the developmental tasks of these stages are not separate and that the approach of retirement can transplant them one-on-top-the-other. In other words, the need for ‘generativity’ can find expression in reflection. 

In the 1960s Robert Butler described a process called life review whereby people can give meaning to their lives.  It is a purposeful, reflective, retrospective process which dwells on the past in order to come to peace with it and the present. Although the normal life review process is brought about by the realization of one’s approaching dissolution and death, I believe mature teachers would benefit from a similar process of reflection by which we could tell our authentic stories of self and finally voice the many theories our years in the profession have inspired. Alongside the living theories of colleagues seeking to accomplish an improvement in the world, these living legacies would be the stories of the embodied and lived knowledge of a generation (Schon, 1995).  I believe that this would be of true value and virtue.


In this paper I have explored my struggle to connect consciously with the values that inspired my best practice. It was necessary to do so to understand the process by which practice may become divorced from virtue. In doing so, the idea of a living legacy was introduced. It was argued that a living legacy may provide an alternative means of acknowledging the embodied knowledge and experiences of ordinary practitioners and of imparting these to their and future generations. In addition, the hope that it would be the means to realise a sense of achievement and fulfilment that would sustain interest and enthusiasm in practice was expressed. Finally, in conclusion, I would like to support these arguments with the following words:

‘We would do well to regard ourselves as characters with an experience of life and a unique knowledge of the world which, far from hiding it in a shamed silence, we should be ready to impart to those less expert than we. Only you have been where you have been and only you know what it felt like: you are indeed the expert in your own existence and it may well be the case that there are things others could usefully know which only you could tell them.’
(Smail 1996, p. 118)

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