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Steve Haberlin is a Ph.D candidate at the University of South Florida, where he also works as a teaching assistant, supervising and teaching pre-service teachers. Steve holds a master's degree...
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Teaching Spirituality

I recall when teaching an undergraduate course, asking the pre-service teachers in the class to narrow down a chapter on student engagement and management to a single word. Not an easy task, but the group managed to list a series of words that encapsulated the concepts that would make teaching meaningful. Nowhere on the list were terms like assessment, targeted instruction, or remediation. Instead, the list looked this this: Love, Caring, Passion, Connection, Creativity, and Compassion. It was amazing to see that these aspiring teachers saw teaching as aspiring to embody and instill in their students many of the qualities that are considered “spiritual.”

These qualities, and others such as tolerance, patience, and a sense of responsibility, are the type that scholar bell hooks (2010) writes about when introducing the risky notion of infusing spirituality into classrooms. “These qualities lay the groundwork for self-determination when they are cultivated in the classroom and outside in other areas of life. Students who are self-determining assume responsibility for their learning and are able to engage the teacher as a facilitator. Understanding the inner life, they have a sense of what is sacred that emerges from their own process of self-realization. These are students who, with like minded teachers, bring spirituality into the classroom” (p. 150). Interest in spirituality in U.S. classrooms has experienced an unprecedented increase and has undergone a growing acceptance in secular educational settings (Fraser, 2004; Kessler, 1998; Pava, 2007; Sisk, 2008). I know, the idea of spirituality in classrooms scares teachers. It’s pushing the limit, testing new ground. The separation of church and state. We can’t teach religion in schools. But, according to many scholars and educators, teaching religion and teaching spirituality are not the same.

While Hart (2003) described trying to define spirituality like “trying to hold water in our hands” (p. 8), some scholars such as Claxton (2002) have boldly listed spiritual qualities that can be taught to students, including aliveness, belonging, an affinity with the unknown, and peace of mind. Piechowski (2003), who conducted numerous studies involving gifted children and spirituality, presented “spiritual themes,” such as timelessness, oneness with nature, God in all things, and a sense of self beyond physical reality. Scholars, such as Pava (2007), assumed a more direct approach, claiming “to my mind, the word spirituality most usefully describes a quality of everyday experience, an experience of growth and oneness, a feeling of being at home everywhere in this vast universe.”

How to teach spirituality in the classroom becomes an even more unexplored area. Discussions, readings, service projects, and studying biographies of those who seem to exhibit strong spiritual qualities show promise. For instance, Sisk (2008) researched the impact of the teaching of spiritual intelligence to gifted secondary students, who studied the lives of spiritual pathfinders, including Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Hildegarde de Bingen, and grappled with moral dilemmas, such as conflict in Iraq and issues of the use of torture, kidnapping, and ransom to develop students’ decision-making abilities and help them become aware of their “knowing.” Studying eminent, spiritually developed people within the curriculum allowed students to see how these leaders pursued issues and carried out global endeavors and recognized that these individuals all shared the desire to make a difference. Fraser (2004) writes that “[i]f we include a moral perspective and propose that the spiritually gifted are virtuous (as Emmons does), not just for personal gain but for the larger social good, then it is readily apparent that those with such gifts have walked amongst us and shaped history and culture in unforgettable ways (e.g., Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Robert Coles.... What are the common qualities that such eminent people demonstrated? These people have entelechy, a vital sense of a force directing one's life combined with self determination to fulfill one's destiny” (p. 260-261).

While it’s difficult to present a clear roadmap for teachers on this topic, my purpose in writing this blog is to continue to conversation on teaching spiritual qualities in the classroom. Educators will hopefully see the value in these discussions centering on why we should consider this idea and how we might make it happen. I will leave you with one last thought: if we develop patience, tolerance, compassion, a sense of oneness, and other spiritual qualities in children and help them nurture these qualities as they grow to adulthood, what might this do to our world?


Steve Haberlin is a graduate assistant and Ph.D. student at the University of South Florida and an educator with 10 years of experience.


Claxton, G. (2002). Mind expanding: Scientific and spiritual foundations for the schools we need. Paper presented at the Graduate School of Education Public Lectures, University of Bristol, UK.

Fraser, D. (2004). Some educational implications for spiritual giftedness. Gifted Education International, 18(3), 255-265.

Hart, T. (2003). The secret spiritual world of children. Novato, CA: New World Library.

hooks, b. (2010). Teaching critical thinking: Practical wisdom [electronic resource]. New York, NY: Routledge.

Kelser, R. (1998). Nourishing students in secular schools. Educational Leadership, 56(4), 49-52.

Pava, M.L. (2007). Spirituality in (and out) of the classroom: A pragmatic approach. Journal of Business Ethics, 73(3), 287-299.

Piechowski, M. M. (2003). Emotional and spiritual giftedness. In N. Colangelo & G. A. Davis (Eds.), Handbook of gifted education (3rd ed.) (pp. 403-416). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Sisk, D. (2008). Engaging the spiritual intelligence of gifted students to build global awareness in the classroom. Roeper Review, 30(1), 24-30.