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A Teacher’s Appeal to the Heart – Does Spirituality Have a Place in Schools?

By Marah Barrows, CEI Intern, and Christine Mason

Does spirituality have a place in schools? A tough question. Particularly since we have been ingrained with the separation of religion and state and also because we are acutely aware that we do not want to impose our religion or spirituality on others. But what is spirituality? Is there value in considering spirituality or even students’ sense of awe and connectedness, or a student’s individual spirit, as we instruct? We are emboldened to consider these issues by an article from a decade ago published by the Greater Good Science Center (Zakrzewski, 2013).

Good vs. Great Teachers. Take a few seconds, close your eyes if you need to, and think about a teacher who inspired you to be who you are today. Good teachers are skilled at teaching their students a specific content area, classroom management, and increasing student performance. Great teachers are able to appeal to a student’s sense of purpose, inspire students to embrace the content, extend their learning into personal growth, and make permanent changes that will impact them well into adulthood. We all have had both types of teachers, right? No matter if you’re a teacher reading this blog or another professional, you can name the teachers that inspired you in your career endeavors, who helped you define yourself, and reach your potential. Those are the teachers we remember.

In the Flow. What was the difference between the good and the great teachers?  The great teachers who motivated us often tapped into the things that may be hard to insert into a lesson plan. These teachers seemed to understand us at a deeper level. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2008) explains how people are often the happiest when they are completely absorbed by their activities and in a state of fulfillment’“ he called this being in the ‘flow.’ According to Csikszentmihalyi, during these times, individuals seem to be autotelic ‘“ deriving meaning and purpose from within.

While Csikszentmihalyi describes letting go of external concerns and focusing on the task at hand,

others explore topics such as achieving meaningful connections with students or finding an inner joy or sense of enthusiasm or well-being. Sometimes we may feel a sense of awe ‘“ this might even happen as we gaze at a sunset or look out at a valley from a mountaintop. We might feel a sense of happiness in almost a kinesthetic way when we understand that we are part of this universe and are breathing in these amazing moments.

Connecting. These experiences seem to fit well with the concepts of believing you are acting in accordance with your highest values, that somehow you are ‘at the right place at the right time,’ that there is a synchronicity between your beliefs and your actions, or even that you are ‘closing the gap between your values and your actions’ (Maio, 2012). If you have experienced any of these, you may be able to connect with a sense of joy, excitement, or even the thrill and sense of self-satisfaction that you are doing exactly what you are meant to do at that moment.

As teachers you may have observed some of the outward signs that students are in the flow.

  1. Some student athletes may feel the adrenaline rush of winning a race or making a touchdown. Others will soar with the music they play.

  2. Yet others will be totally involved in an science experiment, writing a report, creating a website or providing community service.

Yet, you may find that for some students this never seems to happen.  Does any of this matter?

Students are Thirsting for Something More

Students are thirsting for something more. How many times do students ask if they will use something in real life? By linking individuals to their own mountaintop experiences, their sense of awe or connection to  a greater purpose, students have the opportunity to learn more themselves and to experience the deep satisfaction that comes from connecting to their own inner wisdom.

Spirituality and Inner-Directness. Vicki Zakrzewski (2008), the education director at the Greater Good Science Center,  raises the question of spirituality in schools. She suggests that teachers might help students hone their own inner-directness through:

  1. ‘Providing experiences of awe for their students through art, music, nature, or studying great people are helping their students connect to something larger than themselves.

  2. Teaching prosocial skills such as gratitude, compassion, empathy, mindfulness, and altruism are helping their students develop positive relationships.

  3. Relating the content of their classes to students’ lives and who take the time to get to know and cultivate their students’ interests and passions are helping their students develop meaning and purpose.

  4. Incorporating service learning into their curriculum are providing opportunities for students to make a worthwhile contribution to society and grow their empathy and compassion for others.”

Studying Spirituality in Schools. Zakrewski (2008) in that same article reports on a study of spiritual and religious development of 7,000 persons ages 12-25 across 8 countries. In her article, Zakrewski both makes the distinction between spirituality and religion and also compares spirituality to some of the concepts we discuss above such as a sense of connection and purpose. Yet, we know that this is approached very cautiously in schools that strive for a separation of religion and state. We are using the word ‘spirituality’ here to help you understand the concepts we believe should be integrated into classroom instruction. However, we are not necessarily suggesting that you use the term in your discussions with your class. Rather, we are asking you to contemplate what a sense of spirituality means to you and the implications for your instruction.

As Zakrzewski indicates, spiritual development gives teachers another tool to hone the ‘whole being’ of their students, not just the academic side. As we know, students are more complex than just the left-side of their brains (Price, 2018). They have emotional, social, and cultural needs that cannot be addressed simply by teaching them math, science, or history. Teachers have the responsibility to teach them how to feel, how to value their personal talents, and how to trust their inner-being (Price, 2018).

Our most at-risk students come from homes and backgrounds that constantly tell them they are less than, not good enough, etc. If teachers can help students consider their passions, their inner-most belifefs, in essence their spiritual side, they have the potential to teach self-love, intrinsic motivation, and a sense of self-worth (Price, 2018). Having a personal consciousness allows individuals to identify a grander purpose for their lives. We know the world is a harsh place. Students need to be able to trust their internal voice, their intuition. They can only do this if they have self-esteem and the willingness to act (Price, 2018).

How is this Done in a Classroom Setting?

Odds are, aspects of spirituality are already being incorporated into your classroom (Zakrzewski, 2013). When students are able to grow personally, understand content for its greater purpose, and foster a level of internal-motivation, the essence of spirituality is already in practice. Despite varying cultural, religious, and emotional backgrounds, all students can benefit from considering their life purpose or the relationship of what they are doing to the larger whole. And it is important to consider that this is very different than bringing religion into the classroom. One is not synonymous with the other.

So . . . we should strive to be the great teacher, the one our students will think of when they are faced with life’s toughest decisions . . . the one who appeals to a student’s consciousness, values, passions, the spiritual side of our students, the one who teaches them they are worthy and that they have potential. Students should leave knowing that while they may not be able to control the world around them, they can control what they do for the world, they can listen to their inner voices and strive for consistency between what they believe and what they say or how they act. Call this teaching with spirituality in mind . . . or call it something else. Approach this cautiously — we are not urging you to stir up a hornet’s nest or to create conflict. However, consider your own sense of spirituality– of connection to something beyond our day-to-day lives. And as you do this, find time and space to help students connect with their inner selves, their essence, and their moments of awe.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Perennial Books.

Maio, G. (2012). Closing the gap between values and actions. Psychology Today.

Price, L. (2018, Feb. 4). The one question that could change your life. The Greatest Connection.

Price, L. (2018, Feb 10). How to trust your intuition and higher guidance. The Greatest Connection.

Zakrzewski, V. (2013, Jan. 8). The case for discussing spirituality in schools. Greater Good Magazine.


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