How can we understand and help each other?

Accounting to my spiritual self in my educative relationships and
loving communities

Ben Cunningham

Action Research in Educational Theory Research Group, School of Education, University of Bath. Bath BA2 7AY, U.K.. November 1995

Action research and meaning

What is your aim in your action enquiries?,
my previous employer asked me (August 1994).

A number of things. I want to enable teachers to have the courage to question what they're doing and how they're doing it. When meeting them I like to take time to get to understand who they are and they, me. It is only later that we discuss, for example, the how, using Jack Whitehead's action research cycle. In a way, we try to spend time examining the why of action research; the values and what you hold and what I hold. And how these might be contradicted in our practices. This in turn energises us anew to try and do something about that state of affairs.

And he went on to ask: What does it mean to you personally?

Well, it means all of the things I said already. ... it also offers me a chance to re-look at meaning, what meaning has my life? What is the great priority I would want to spend the rest of my life working at?

His reply didn't hold out much hope: Don't you think ... that the rest of your life is going to be one of continual disappointment?

Well, that hasn't been my experience. I invite you, the reader, to walk with me and the friends who graciously received me and listen to what they have to say.

Valuing the spiritual

Meeting my friend, Larry, on 28 August, 1995.

Larry Yes, I have cancer. I have been given three months to live but I may die sooner. Funny, it wasn't until a past pupil commented that I had lost a lot of weight that I found out.

Ben And how are you now?

Larry Well, I have accepted it. The way I see it is that I am lucky to have had fifty- one years; many others don't. So I feel I haven't done too badly at all.

Ben And when you look back what do you feel about your life?

Larry I enjoyed it. And I did what I was asked to do in school and I'm happy to think I did it well. What more could you ask?

Ben And what is it like for you at the moment?

Larry Well, I eat a little at 8.00 a.m. and get up at 10.00 a.m. It's good to be able to look after myself still. I take a rest at 1.30 p.m. in the afternoon.You see, I have to be at my best when many people call to see me from about 4.00 p.m. onwards!

Thinking of others

I was astounded by the matter-of-factness with which Larry had accepted the inevitability of his own death. He was ready. He was satisfied with how he had led his life. He had accomplished what he had set out to do. His main worry now was that he would be in a fit state to receive his friends in these latter days. His mind was on others rather than on himself.

Larry's profound values

So how would I now characterise him? I had always considered him to be a highly intelligent man. Now I could also see he was a man of profound simplicity. He seemed to have achieved enormous freedom, freedom from sadness and from terror. It was a freedom, a liberation unconstrained by any contingencies. And there was peace! How could he be so peaceful - I wondered - in spite of the turmoil of his illness? From whence did it come?

What had he done throughout his life to merit it? And courage! There it was: courage and simplicity combined; peace and freedom. And all these aspects of his being combined together made him God-like in my eyes.

When I look back now I see he was always at peace. No, he had little ambition to do other than teach and to do it well. No, he had no ambition to climb promotional ladders. And here he was now working on achieving transcendence one last time. And he would succeed!


His life wasn't guided by 'technical rationality' nor competition, nor over-consumption, nor ambition. Rather, it seems to me now that he had an over-riding purpose in his life and it had to do with his own desire for transformation - transformation not only for his own sake but for the sake of his pupils. And transformation or spiritual development was not for him about the power to define, which is the power of the word or mind. Rather was it about the power of love, which is the power of the heart.

Learning by example?

How can we too, in developing spirituality with our students, involve them in the mystical, that is, in the power of things unseen? How can we show them that this is indeed greater than the power of things seen? And is there something about us that will show our pupils that the power of simplicity, of giving, is more significant than the capacity for acquiring? How can we show them, get them to experience the holistic, the mysterious, the awe-inspiring, the beautiful?

And solitude!

As well as engaging relationally with our students and showing them the power of relationships, how can we show them also the importance of solitude? How can we show them, get them to experience the emotional significance of what goes on in the mind? How do we show them that imagination has a central place in creativity?


And what about eschatology, that is, ultimate goals and the ends of human life? So in our teaching and learning how are we going to find space for simplicity, freedom, peace and courage and for living relationships and for understanding and experiencing solitude? And how are we going to live these as we offer it to our students / pupils? (Valuing the Spiritual. Abridged paper delivered at C.A.R.N., Nottingham Trent University, 12.9.95).

Spiritual transcendence is also about joy!

For me spirituality and spiritual values are not about morbidity and sadness. Rather are they about reverence and compassion, love and adoration, mystery and awe and, yes, joy. We need joy in our lives. Listen with me to Sue (not her real name), an action researcher in Ireland, as she described her own encounter with the mysterious, with the spiritual, with transcendence - and the joy of it:

Sue Can I tell you what it was like for me leaving you after my first visit to you? I was driving home; I was driving up the avenue and I felt so great.

Ben Em

Sue I had this amazing experience where there was a light and it was the most beautiful; it was like something, a yellow light from the the side window of the car and I was just driving in this light for some time and I said: "Wow!" ...... And I looked out and there was this light coming from behind the clouds and I thought: that's God. And I was just totally bathed in this light and I was so extremely contented. And, ah, I had a smile on me. I had this beautiful experience. The next thing I thought was: if anybody sees me they'll think I'm gone totally mad.......

Ben (Laughter)

Sue .... Because I thought that everybody must have seen it it was just so, the experience was so beautiful that I thought that everybody driving in their cars must really wonder what's going on with her? And, then I think it stopped once I became ...

Ben Conscious and aware of it...

Sue ... Yes, conscious and aware of it. It was definitely, it was God behind the clouds.

Ben Yeah, right, yeah ......

Sue It was a very spiritual experience.

Do you think we could describe this experience as a description and an explanation of a state of being? I do. A state of being in which Sue and we too can marvel at the glory of being human (Skolimowski, 1992). We can experience human beings and the world as endowed with grace because we ourselves are endowed with grace! We can experience the world as a mysterious, uplifting place! Maybe we need occasionally to try'to grasp the stars, even if only to understand where our feet are.' (op. cit.).

Giving accounts of who we are

Writing to Ron (not his real name) on 12 Sept 95

... That is why I welcomed your input. It was the input of someone who was really struggling wholeheartedly with real live life issues. That is what I saw you attempting to do. You problematised your work in a very personal way. You allowed the real you to be seen in all the messiness of your work situation. You are really struggling to make meaning of your work and to attempt to bring at least partial solutions to bear upon it.

... you are acutely aware of your humanity in your dealings with your clients. You are not just a robot to them! And so, I found you to be a real person and a sincere person with real problems to do with real people. The heartfelt way in which you came across to me indicated how sincere you were. You really wanted solutions to real human problems. You weren't just dealing with paper problems, you were dealing with real live flesh-and-blood people. And, naturally, you were wondering about your effectiveness. Were your clients getting anything useful from your efforts? Was there any improvement in their condition as a result of your efforts? And I felt there was frustration too. Time was passing by and there was so much to be done. You are in a hurry and action research didn't seem to be able to keep up with you! ........

Ron's reply on 1 Oct. 95

'... the problem is, how do you introduce the personal into academic discourse and remain confident that it (i.e. you) will be treated with sensitivity?

'My feeling is that to be honest in research means not only telling the full story of my struggles, warts and all, but also "telling me" - giving an account of who I am so that the reader (audience) can judge my biases....' .....

'... all the careful analysis in the world won't get you to the 'objective facts', 'cos they ain't there. All you can do is tell your story, tell yourself and let the reader (audience) judge.' ...

'Interestingly, I am moving towards a more spiritual dimension although no clear idea or directions yet. Just straws in the wind, noticing the 'otherness' of experiences and a feeling that that's the next phase ...'

Who am I then?

V, a teacher-researcher in Australia, said to me in her recent airmail letter:

I fear that I will find it difficult to understand you. Your letter ... says little about how you came to be the way you are. Perhaps you could tell me more about yourself ... Is your interest in spirituality influenced by Christianity?

A reply to her query

Yes, I am a Catholic Christian. And I am also a member of a Catholic Religious Congregation of Teachers. And I sincerely hope all of that information doesn't put you off. It could, and I hope it doesn't. So please suspend judgement - if you can! I have been struggling all my life with the question, not so much of belief, but with the question of how do I live it and manifest it in ways that are ordinary, humble and sincere? I no longer talk about religion, which seems to have more to do with the organisation of belief. I talk about spirituality because I want to get to the heart, to the soul and to the spirit of things. And now my question is: how could it become alive and meaningful to me and to you? How could it mean something that gives direction to our lives regardless of whether we are religious or non-religious? How could we live it in an inclusive way, side by side with materialism?

Answering questions to help me move my enquiry forward

Did you experience empathy (in-dwelling, belonging, sharing, a giving / taking?) in the case studies above? If not, what would have to change for it to happen?

Is there a sense of communion between me and my fellow researchers? If not, why not, in your opinion?

Do I use the 'language' of the researchers? If not, how could I do so, in your opinion?

Have I been able to transform my consciousness sufficiently so that it becomes the consciousness of my fellow researchers; that there is identification?

Your own practice: two questions

And in relation to your own work may I now put Jack Whitehead's questions to you as he asked me to put them to him:

How can I enable you to have the courage to question what you're doing and how you're doing it?

And how are you answering the following question with your pupils?: How can I help you to improve the quality of your learning?

Your own work: more questions (the AR cycle of Jack Whitehead)

In the form of statements

1. I experience a problem / concern when some of my educational values are denied in (my) practice.
2. I imagine a solution to the problem / concern.
3. I implement the imagined solution.
4. I evaluate the outcome of my actions.
5. I re-formulate my problem / concern in the light of my evaluation.

The statements formulated as questions

1. What is your concern?
2. Why are you concerned?
3. What do you think you could do about it?
4. What kind of 'evidence' could you collect to help you make some judgement about
what is happening?
5. How would you collect such 'evidence'?
6. How could you check that your judgement about what has happened is reasonably fair
and accurate? (McNiff, 1988).

Finally I offer here one illustration of the sacredness of the moment when one action researcher, James Finnegan, reveals his ethical values (3/3/95), even though both he and I know that their meanings are yet to emerge in the course of his attempts to overcome their negation in his work in the classroom:

'Quality of communion'

Ben What are the things deep down that move you so strongly.... why are relationships so important that you feel you are devoting so much time to it....?

James .... I suppose I am in a way trying to live out more fully something that I really believe. Now, whether I can actually put words on those values or not.... I don't know... I know, at a philosophical level, I am coming in touch with the ground of my being. I know, it's part of that. And I know it's touching on something that I will learn to articulate more fully over time, you know.

Ben Would you even tentatively say something.......

James ... I think routine can hypnotise people, you know. And it's part of me - like ice and water - it's breaking the ice. And I was thinking of another thing there: shaking myself out of a routine and help myself become more fully alive. And, I think, that questioning is one way of getting into that. I know that I mentioned yesterday about how do I change from being a teacher to becoming a teacher researcher and I know that I don't like to over-associate with my role as teacher, you know. If somebody asks me what I do I say I teach. I don't say I'm a teacher. It's just one thing that I do. But now, I teach and I research ... I wouldn't mind being called a teacher researcher, I suppose. But I'm more than that!.... My job is part of my identity, but I don't want to over-identify with my job. At the same time, there is a certain change, if you like in my identity taking place.

Ben And what kind of changes do you think are taking place in your identity - if you were breaking the ice you were talking about earlier on?

James Really, it's a question of what does it mean ... what is it to be a human being? How can I be as caring as possible within a particular situation? I think so often I can become constricted by settling into a role. So. I want to care for students, their persons. They are individuals and to care for them and, within whatever situations I am interacting with them, to be as helpful as possible.

Note: Following several conversations between myself, James and Jack Whitehead during the week 30 Oct - 3 Nov 1995, James formed the question, How do I communicate my developing professional educational knowledge to my students and colleagues through my loving service in education?

Whilst James will be enquiring into his meaning of 'loving service' I feel it is in keeping with the form and content of this paper to acknowledge the sacredness and importance of my own loving relationships in education and my search for appropriate forms to show the meanings of their expression.