Vol. 28 No. 1  Spring 2001

Spiritually Committed Public School Teachers: Their Beliefs and Practices Concerning Religious Expression in the Classroom

Clifford Mayes and Scott Ellis Ferrin

Some researchers have suggested that public school teachers occasionally have incorrect views about the place of religion and spirituality in the classroom, believing that legal and institutional constraints are either more or less rigorous than they actually are.1 The purpose of this study was to discover what a group of veteran public school teachers in a masterís program in educational administration believed regarding religious expression in the public school classroom.

There has been a growing call for more research into public school teachersí spiritual commitments and how those commitments might impact their classroom practice in either useful or questionable ways.2 In response to that call, this study examined how, if at all, a teacherís spiritual commitmentsóor lack thereofómight relate to a teacherís views and practices regarding religious expression in the classroom.3 "Religious expression" was operationally limited for the purposes of this study to include these issues: Whether a teacher has a right to express his or her spiritually based perspective on an issue under analysis in the classroom, and, if so, under what conditions; whether or not the student has a right to express his or her spiritually based perspective on an issue under analysis in the classroom, and, if so, under what conditions; and whether or not the student has a right to pray in the classroom and, if so, under what conditions.

Another reason for examining a teacherís spiritual commitments is that these commitments may be significant if that teacher engages in "reflectivity"óor deep introspective processes about oneís sense of calling and actual practice as a teacher.4 For certain teachers, reflectivity may need to include spiritual considerations if is to be descriptively rich and existentially valid.5 Indeed, in the United States, spiritual commitment tends to be widespread, with fully 94% of the people believing in God, 69% believing in life after death, 60% having a formal religious affiliation, and 40% attending a religious service on any given week.6 There is no reason to suppose that these numbers would be lower for teachers. Given the service orientation of teaching, these numbers may even be higher; however, the growing movement toward reflectivity in both teacher education and teacher development tends to encompass only the biographical and political domains.7

Biographical reflectivity encourages teachers to examine the experiential determinants of their sense of calling as teachers, their classroom practices, and their overarching goals for both themselves and their students.8 Critical reflectivity, rooted in the Marxist critique of United States education,9 encourages teachers to examine their conscious and unconscious political assumptions and how those assumptions might be shaping what and how they teach.10 These are important modes of reflectivity which have done much to broaden and humanize teacher education in recent decades. However, for the teacher whose sense of calling and purpose also has a spiritual component, "spiritual reflectivity"11 may need to supplement biographical and critical reflectivity in order to address more fully the question of what makes that person "tick" as a teacher.

Spiritual reflectivity defines "spiritual commitment" broadly as "the pursuit of a trans-personal and trans-temporal reality that serves as the ontological ground for an ethic of compassion and service."12 This pursuit may involve a specific religious commitment, and for the respondents in this study it did in all but one case. A better sense of the salience of such formal or non-formal spiritual commitments among teachers will allow those of us involved in teacher reflectivity to know how prominently, if at all, "spiritual reflectivity" should figure in our work with spiritually committed teachers. And, as in this present study, it can also play a crucial role in examining how a teacherís spiritual commitments may be affecting that teacherís practice in productive or problematic ways.

Before turning to how the teachers in this study responded to questions about their spiritual commitments and their classroom practices regarding religious expression, it will first be useful to summarize some of the most important legal cases and principles that inform this topic.

[Spring 2001 Issue Contents]