Spiritual teachers, secular schools

The extremes to which public schools will go to keep faith outside their doors are well known--no nativity scenes or menorahs at Christmas or Hanukkah, no public prayer, and a reluctance to teach the Bible or Quran. But does this mean that schools are free of religion? What about the people who teach in public schools? Do they check their religious beliefs at the schoolhouse door?

Until now, no one has bothered to ask public school teachers about their spiritual beliefs and practices. Do they believe in God? Do they pray? How important is their faith to their personal image of themselves as public servants, and to sustaining their work as teachers?  Do they feel that teaching is a "calling"--a religious way of contributing to society?

We have some answers. In a confidential, anonymous survey of over 300 randomly selected teachers in Wisconsin, we asked about their religious faith, beliefs, and practices. Wisconsin--a state with rural and urban communities, and a healthy mix of liberal and conservative citizens--is representative of the general American population in many ways. And our results do not support the prominent view that public schools are religion-free environments.

First, most public school teachers in the sample (94%) believe in God or a higher power. Approximately half of the public school teachers surveyed consider religion to be "very important" to them, and an additional third feel that it is somewhat important. Thus public school teachers are only slightly less religious than the general national population, 60% of whom report religion to be very important. Over 91% of public school teachers we surveyed indicate that they pray, closely matching the national figure of 90%. Approximately 60% of the teachers in the sample claim to "pray regularly," with an additional 26% indicating doing so in times of need or at formal worship services. Thus, like the national population, the vast majority of public school teachers in this study are people of faith, and they take seriously their spiritual beliefs and practices.

Second, not only do many teachers personally believe and engage in spiritual practices, but many also implicitly connect their spirituality to their professional lives. Remarkably, over half of the public school teachers in the sample felt a deep knowing or mission to teach--or "‘called' by God," as the survey phrased it. Many public school teachers report praying about their professional lives, with over 60% indicating that prayer has benefited them professionally. Of the over 91% of public school teachers who pray, 93% believe that prayer has given them comfort during difficult times or professional crises, and more than three-quarters believe that praying has helped them foster better relationships with students.

Of the teachers who pray, 84% indicate that prayer has helped them to cope better with job-related stress; and approximately 70% believe that praying has enabled them to maintain enthusiasm for teaching and has reduced professional burnout. Thus, not only do teachers turn to their faith when faced with a professional problem, but most perceive that spiritual practices help them cope with job-related stress.

That teachers believe and pray is their business. But public schools and teacher education programs could be more sensitive in supporting devout teachers.

Just as some public hospitals and airports provide a quiet place for meditation, schools could also have a space where teachers could rest and pray. Spiritually inclined teachers might use a sacred space--e.g., meditation or prayer gardens, or just quiet rooms for contemplation--to connect with their spiritual center. Of course, teachers could decide for themselves what "sacred" means and would not be required to use these spaces. Teachers should have a place where they can connect with their spiritual lives.

The U.S. Armed Forces provides chaplains to support military personnel. Why don't public schools offer their staffs the opportunity to go on a spiritual retreat or a voluntary course in spiritual development? Such activities would be designed to help teachers draw on their inner lives to rekindle the passion for teaching and to manage the stress of their work. And because we found that many teachers felt "called" to their profession, teacher (and administrator) education programs might consider offering elective spirituality and education courses. These would acknowledge the importance of teachers' spiritual motivations and their commitment to the profession.

While many teachers draw strength from their religious beliefs and practices, others do not. We realize that some critics might resist these sacred spaces, voluntary retreats, and elective teacher education courses designed to address the spirituality of teachers. But none would be compelled to participate. Involvement would be based on the inner compass of individual teachers. Why not give such interested teachers support in using their personal spirituality to benefit themselves, their work, and ultimately their students?

More By Author