Skip to Content


Virginia Journal of Education

That's the Spirit!

The spiritual dimensions of learning are what breathe life into your teaching and your students' learning.

by Betty K. Garner

In my doctoral research, I was doing case studies with struggling students to assess causes of learning difficulties. Tom, a 10-year-old boy who had multiple learning disability labels and behavioral issues, was recommended by his teacher. He came into my office and slouched down in the chair and looked at me intently without saying a word. I welcomed him and spread some brightly colored papers before him. Instead of looking at the materials, he kept staring at me with a penetrating gaze. I smiled and said, “You know I like you.” He was a little taken back, not expecting me to say something like that. I asked, “When you look at someone like that, what are you looking at?” He blushed and said, “I look behind the teacher’s eyes.” Tom expressed what most students do when they first enter the classroom and connect with the teacher. From my experience, students listen more with their hearts than with their heads.

“What are the critical elements of teaching and learning?” That’s a question I pose during professional development sessions to encourage teachers to reflect on the dynamics of the instructional setting. Once they get past all the physical “stuff” related to teaching, they enter another dimension that focuses on essential characteristics of the interaction between students and teachers.

I challenge participants to imagine they’re assigned to a place where they didn’t have books, paper, technology, standardized tests, or all the usual materials and supplies we associate with the classroom. Then I ask, “Could you still teach?” Without hesitation, most teachers nod assent and begin to discuss things like relationship, communication, trust, respect, patience, creativity, humor, enthusiasm, cooperation, flexibility and love.

Within a short time, long lists of intangible elements emerge. I call these the “spiritual dimensions” of learning. They transcend the physical and organizational issues that demand so much of our time and energy. These elements re-direct our focus to what really matters if teaching and learning are to be effective.

The spiritual dimensions of learning go beyond the observable, measurable standards associated with instruction. The spirit, as defined by Webster, comes from the Latin word, “spiritus” meaning breath. It is that inner, life-giving energy that is accommodated and nurtured by the body and mind. The spirit makes us who we are – it gives us vision and courage to reach beyond our limitations. It can also be broken and discouraged by circumstances, interactions, hurtful words, or a sense of hopelessness and failure.

We all have personal perspectives on spiritual matters which form the basis of values, beliefs, biases and assumptions that influence our decisions and actions. Because these are so personal and diverse, we as educators usually avoid dealing with anything remotely “spiritual” even though it permeates every aspect of life. However, when we reflect on these issues, they compel us to ponder the “big questions”: Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose in life? What is right and wrong, good and evil? What matters in life? What happens when I die? Why do I have to keep learning and how does that affect who I am? Although we may think parents should deal with such things, these issues are embedded in our literature, science, technology, history, arts, math and social interactions. Without imposing our values and beliefs, our job is to equip students with the critical thinking skills and opportunities to be aware of their own spirit, to seek truth and make judgments based on reflective awareness and adequate information.

We are teaching the whole child – not just the mind. This approach emphasizes the importance of meeting students’ physical, emotional, academic and social needs within the context of meaningful relationships among parents, students, community and educators. The spiritual dimension provides the underlying essential elements of meaningful relationships.

During pre-service training, we learn what to teach. We also learn about how to teach. We often reflect on why we teach and think about the significance of our position. However, we seldom discuss or consider the question, “Who am I who teaches?” This requires deep, reflective soul searching. We teach who we are. Students can relate to teachers who are genuine and accept young people for who they are.

In a recent seminar, I met teachers as they came in and they told me their names and their subject or grade. Only one of the 98 participants said, “My name is Mary, I teach students.” I was thrilled to meet someone who understood the difference between teaching the content and teaching the person.
 To help teachers better understand the relationship between the spiritual dimension and everyday instruction, I encourage them to become reflectively aware of their own spiritual well-being, to monitor their thoughts, words and actions and identify how these align with their beliefs and values. Inconsistency or misalignment among these causes stress. For example, we may say that we believe “all kids can learn,” yet attitudes toward students or talk about them can reveal a disturbing disconnect between beliefs and actions. A simple standard like the “Golden Rule” reminds us to treat the students the way we would like to be treated.
I ask teachers to write down what they frequently say to themselves, especially in stressful situations. It takes courage to document and analyze this self-talk in order to identify underlying beliefs and values that influence practice on a daily basis. For example, frequent negative thoughts drain energy, wound the spirit, and impede development of trusting relationships, while frequent positive thoughts empower and energize the spirit to create meaningful relationships that foster learning. Teachers who keep a reflective journal stimulate their personal and professional growth by becoming more aware of who they are and why they do what they do. This awareness facilitates a deeper understanding of the spiritual dimensions of teaching and learning and how our thoughts affect our actions.
One of the students I worked with, an 8-year- old boy, had a terrible reputation for fighting, causing disruptions in the classroom, and being generally defiant. When he came to work with me for a case study, he was rude, angry and uncooperative. As he gradually became involved in the assessment activities to help him understand how he perceived and processed information, he sat back in his chair, cocked his head and said, “I think I’ve got this figured out. If I change my thoughts, my actions change themselves. You know it is easier to change my thoughts.”  From that day forward, he was rarely in trouble. I didn’t change him, he changed himself by becoming aware of how his thoughts and beliefs affected his actions.

Every bit of information, verbal and non-verbal, we present in class is being filtered through the students’ spiritual dimensions of learning, such as their values, beliefs and feelings which determine how they process information and form what I call “concept motifs” – intuitive judgments based on their perceptions, prior knowledge and ability to make sense of what they see, hear and do. If there are 25 students in class, there are 25 different motifs being formed every minute while we teach. These motifs often become the basis of life-long, unspoken influences on how future information is processed.
Calvin, a sixth-grader, was referred to me because he hated school and rarely did assigned work. He lacked social skills and was shy and withdrawn.  Although he was very reluctant at first to share his thoughts and feelings, Calvin gradually warmed up and began to explain how he made sense of information. He said, “When I was in first grade, I didn’t know how to play the games the other kids played, and I didn’t know the answers to the questions the teacher asked, so I decided I must be bad or dumb, and I was afraid to ask, because I was afraid I might be right.”

Calvin made a judgment, formed a concept motif that filtered how he saw the world. As we worked together and he began to unpack how he processed information. He realized that he was using the lens of a 6-year- old to filter everything he saw and heard.  Once he realized what was happening, he was able to take a different perspective and be aware of how he could change his concept motifs to feel comfortable asking questions and socializing with others.

I have mentored many teachers who suddenly become aware of concept motifs they formed as children that still permeate their fears and stressors. Andrew, an eighth grade science teacher, shared in a seminar how he had decided as a young child to never look forward to anything so he would not be disappointed. When he realized his concept motif prevented him from enjoying the expectation of good things happening, he was able to change his motif. Carol, a ninth grade math teacher, admitted that she had formed a motif in elementary school that still affected her. She had decided not to try anything new unless she could immediately do it perfectly. Because of this, she was constantly afraid of taking risks and making mistakes. The awareness of her own motifs gave her the insight to see how each of her students was filtering what she presented in class. It also helped her realize the importance of the spiritual dimensions of teaching that focuses on intangible critical elements within the teaching-learning dynamic.
When I teach beginning teachers, I tell them there are two very important things to remember: first, get a good night’s sleep; second, take care of yourself in body, soul and spirit. I encourage them to stay healthy, to keep learning, and to take time each day to renew their spirit with quiet reflection and meditation.

Personally, I take an hour each morning for prayer and meditation. Teachers tell me they don’t have time to do that. I tell them I don’t have time not to do it, because everything goes so much better when I am spiritually “re-charged” and “centered.” Learning to do this was a challenge. When I started, I could not sit still for five minutes, because my mind and my spirit were racing and constantly concerned about all the things I had to do. It took practice, just like learning any new skill, before I could still the voices in my head and experience the inner peace that comes with communing with my Source, whom I choose to be God. In addition to quiet meditation, I pray for wisdom to know what to say to each student, how to help them and relate to them in a meaningful way.
Teachers who understand the spiritual dimensions of learning operate from a center of peace, strength and joy that permeates all they do. They are able to see beyond the outward appearances and behaviors of the students to the precious person entrusted to their care. The “Golden Rule” becomes a simple standard to remind us to treat our students the way we want to be treated – with love, respect, acceptance and willingness to challenge them to believe it is possible to be a well-balanced person and to excel in what they do. Our children are sacred. When we are aware of the spiritual dimensions of learning, we focus on the critical elements of teaching and learning.
Suggestions for nurturing the spiritual dimensions:
• Discuss with colleagues the “critical elements” of teaching and learning to identify what matters and where you put your time and energy.
• Keep a reflective journal to analyze mental self-talk and document positive insights.
• Consciously choose to focus on what matters and what you can do.
• Love yourself --take care of yourself
     o physically  (rest, exercise, healthy eating);
     o mentally (continued learning, positive attitude); and
     o spiritually (quiet prayer, meditation)
• Treat others the way you want to be treated.

Garner ( is an educational researcher and international consultant with 45 years of experience as teacher, psych examiner, programs coordinator, action research trainer, university instructor, and professional developer. She is the author of Getting to “Got It!” – Helping Struggling Students Learn How to Learn (ASCD, 2007).


E-mail your members of Congress:


Subscribe to the Works4Me newsletter and never miss a great tip!

Enter your e-mail address:

Embed This Page (x)

Select and copy this code to your clipboard