Over the last several years, I have found myself cringing when I hear educators and leaders speak about addressing the spiritual needs of learners. I do believe spirituality is an important component of being human, as is learning, so why do I have such a visceral response to this word in the context of education? . . . Well, I grew up in a zealously Christian household, and the word “spiritual” carries with it a whole host of memories and emotions around judgement, hypocrisy, and organized religion that does not often have much to do with spirituality.
In the context of education, where I believe in the importance of the separation of church and state because public school is not where we should be reinforcing religious beliefs, “spirituality” makes me even more uncomfortable. All of this said, I do believe that all humans have a spiritual aspect to their selves and identity and, if school is to be a place that nurtures students as whole beings, then educators need to be able to address spiritual facets of learning and being in a way that is not about religion but about being a human.
As I try to reconcile my discomfort with the term “spirituality” and what I know humans need, I have found Jennifer Katz’s and Brené Brown’s explanations of spirituality to be the most comfortable for me in an educational setting.
In Ensouling Our Schools, Jennifer Katz explores a few perspectives of spirituality in education:
“Freire argues . . . a spiritual education ‘challenges students to build a critical understanding of their presence in the world’ and helps them acquire knowledge and resources to engage in social activism.” (17)
“. . . spiritual education places a larger focus on an existential perspective; that is, it goes beyond human relations to relations with all living things and the planet, with a purposeful or meaning-filled life . . .” (18)
“As Hay (1998, 12) contends: ‘Spirituality is what goes on when a person becomes directly and sensitively aware of themselves and of themselves in relation to reality.’” (18)
Katz sums this up with this statement: “Within schools, experiences of connectedness potentially enable the individual to rediscover and/or interact with the spiritual dimension by promoting a sense of self and place, as well as meaning and purpose.” (18) This aligns with one of the First Peoples Principles of Learning which states “Learning is . . . focused on connectedness, on reciprocal relationships, and a sense of place.”
In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown describes spirituality as “the deeply held belief that we are inextricably connected to one another by a force greater than ourselves – a force grounded in love and compassion.” (151)
To me, spirituality is a search for meaning and purpose within a circle of interconnectedness, while acknowledging both our individual and our collective power and sacredness within that circle. Spirituality is connection. Learning doesn’t happen without connection; therefore, learning is spiritual. To be clear, this does not need to include a belief in God or some other deity; this is about an understanding of our selves in the greater scheme of our communities and our world.
In nature, everything is connected – the water cycle impacts the health of plant and animal life, while the actions of plant and animal life determine the quality of the water – for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction (Newton’s Third Law). In a classroom, the actions of individuals impact the progress of the group, while the routines and culture of the group impact the learning of the individual. Knowing our place in these connections is a spiritual understanding and contributes to our well-being and to our learning as we explore cause-effect relationships, while also empowering us to effect positive change.
If we are to decolonize our classrooms, we must bring humanity, including spirituality, back to the forefront of education. To do this, we need to have less emphasis on producing and creating that “one right answer” and instead focus on the exploration of learning and the journey of growth. We cannot be focused on maintaining the system, but on the higher purpose of learning which is intrinsically linked to the learner’s humanity, identity and spirit.
To do this, educators can start by asking ourselves, and each other, some questions which we answer openly and honestly:
How do our choices as teachers lead to development in students’ spiritual selves?
Is every experience and interaction formed from the intent of learning (rather than fixing or producing)?
Do our words and actions model how to be decent human beings who treat other human beings with dignity?
Are we all living up to our end of the social contract(s) in our classroom?
Are we honouring our own values in the way we teach and in what we teach?
Is every individual in the classroom community comfortable in the vulnerability of learning?
And, do we have evidence of our answers for each of these questions?
One of the most effective ways to shift or re-center my focus as a teacher has been to invite other teachers to observe my class and lessons with a specific purpose. This can be a scary process because of the inherent vulnerability; however, if you choose a trustworthy colleague and follow a clear protocol, both the observed and the observer will walk away with valuable learning. The National School Reform Faculty has a protocol for this type of observation process – you can click here to access the observation protocol and here for a list of all available free protocols. I have also found it useful to then report back to a larger group about the process and what I learned from it. In this way, we’re building connections with our colleagues which then develops our own humanity, identity and spirit.
I am not suggesting that addressing the spiritual facets of learning be “one more thing” on the teacher’s plate. Instead, I am suggesting that educators self-evaluate if where they’re putting their time and energy is contributing to the spiritual growth of all members of their classroom, including themselves. If no, then it’s time to shift energies and foci to activities and perspectives that feed the soul – a shift, a change, not an addition. If yes, great – keep engaging in those reciprocal relationships and keep building those connections, keep affecting your reality and empowering your students to affect theirs!
Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly. New York: Avery, 2012.
First Nations Education Steering Committee. "First Peoples Principles of Learning." n.d. fnesc.ca. 7 March 2023. <https://www.fnesc.ca/first-peoples-principles-of-learning/>.
Katz, Jennifer with Kevin Lamoureux. Ensouling Our Schools: A universally desiged framework for mental health, well-being, and reconciliation. Winnipeg: Portage & Main Press, 2018.
National School Reform Faculty: Harmony Education Center. "NSRF Protocols and Activities...from A to Z." 2023. 12 December 2023. <https://nsrfharmony.org/protocols/>.