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Reverence in Classroom Teaching

by Jim Garrison & A.G. Rud - 2009

Background/Context: Our article develops insights from Paul Woodruff’s book, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue (Oxford University Press, 2001), to discuss reverence in teaching. We show how reverence is both a cardinal and a forgotten virtue by situating it within the philosophical tradition of virtue ethics, which involves traits of character as embodied predispositions to act in certain ways in concrete contexts. Virtue ethics sometimes conflicts with abstract, rule-governed ethics, much as the ethics of care does. Virtue ethics appeals to emotional conviction in ways that rule-governed ethics does not. This article looks specifically at the emotions of shame and respect that are associated with reverence for the high ideals that may bind together an otherwise diverse, even diverging, schooling community.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The purpose of this article is to understand spiritual dimensions of teaching by elucidating the cardinal and forgotten virtue of reverence. Reverence has a power beyond a typical understanding of it as something religious. The article shows reverence in a wider context that does not diminish its spiritual connotations, but rather shows its importance and relevance to teaching in today’s classrooms. The study considers how the virtue of reverence is supported by appropriate classroom ritual and ceremony and discusses several examples of reverence and irreverence in classroom teaching.

Research Design: Philosophical analysis combined with qualitative case study analyses as illustrations.

Conclusions/Recommendations: To be reverent is to realize that we as humans are limited and imperfect, and the proper reaction to this state is humility, awe, and wonder. In subsequent articles, we will examine reverence in educational leadership and in a school’s community. Our goal in this article and those to follow is to restore reverence to its rightful place in the ordinary daily activities of teachers in relation to administrators, students, and parents in school and in the community.

For many, reverence is too exalted a word to associate with the practical and often mundane activities of teaching. We routinely think teaching is about imparting skills and knowledge that will serve students well in career and life and that there is no need to think of teaching as a venerated activity beyond these goals. However, although teaching students involves imparting knowledge, it is also a calling with other dimensions beyond the cognitive (Hansen, 1995; Garrison, 1997; Palmer, 1997). It is about the formation of minds, the molding of destinies, the creation of an enduring desire in students not only to know, but also to care for others, appreciate beauty, and much more. In some sense of the word, teaching is a spiritual, although not necessarily religious, activity. When done well, it cultivates human intimacy and allows teachers to find creative self-expression in classroom community. In this article, we turn to the idea of reverence as a way to understand some of the spiritual dimensions of teaching. We believe that reverence is a “forgotten virtue” (Woodruff, 2001) in teaching and learning and that we would do well in the education and support of teachers to recognize the power of this cardinal virtue.

At some level, reverence eludes definition, although it is still important to intuit, describe, and delineate the idea. In part, because reverence is characterized by such vague feelings as awe and wonder, it is difficult to define concretely. Next, we explore reverence as a virtue; this requires some discussion of virtue ethics, which involves traits of character as embodied predispositions to act in certain ways in concrete contexts. It sometimes conflicts with abstract, rule-governed ethics much as the ethics of care does. Virtue ethics appeals to emotional conviction in ways that rule-governed ethics does not. This article looks specifically at the emotions of shame and respect that are associated with reverence for the high ideals that may bind together an otherwise diverse, even diverging, schooling community. It considers how the virtue of reverence is supported by appropriate classroom ritual and ceremony and discusses several examples of reverence and irreverence in classroom teaching before concluding.


Reverence is just as much an intuited feeling as an idea that can be known. Let us begin by probing the meaning of the word reverence through examples and descriptions to develop a fuller and richer understanding. Before trying to define the term, let us consider its affective quality in three commonplace depictions by teachers of teaching acts and occasions:

Then I look them over and thought, This is my destiny, to have this group of children before me. As they are growing, aging to be fifth graders, I was training, and now we meet, in this unique place and time. The moment felt holy. (Codell, 1999, p. 26)

The kids educated and enlightened me. The stories they told, while often quite personal, allowed me to see more clearly the larger picture, the struggles and triumphs that had shaped their lives and those of their families. They also forced me to take a fresh look at how I fit into that bigger picture—to step back and look at my own hands. It was a reawakening for me, really, but it was only a beginning. I knew I had a lot yet to learn about the kids who called me their teacher. (Michie, 1999, p. 85; see also pp. 6 and 89)

Right at the entrance to Stephanie’s room was a sign:

Each child is sent into this world with

a unique message to share . . . a new song

to sing . . . a personal act of love to bestow.

Welcome to Grade 1.

I’m glad you’re here. (Rose, 1995, p. 107)

These three statements show teachers being open to the emotions of their students, as well as to the important work of both teachers and students. What can we learn when we examine these statements as expressions of reverence?

Detecting reverence can be more a matter of emotional and imaginative perception than cognition, although that too is important. It is more about being somebody than just knowing something; nonetheless, we need some definite idea about what we mean when we speak of reverence. Here is one definition:

Reverence is comprehension of human limitation, imperfection, and our appropriate place in the cosmos as a consequence of the humility that arises from feelings of awe, wonder and admiration before something or someone that meets at least one of the following conditions: (1) Something or someone that cannot be changed or controlled by human means; something we are powerless to alter. (2) Something or someone we cannot create. (3) Something we cannot completely understand. (4) Something or someone transcendent; something supernatural.1


Reverence is a state associated with the capacity to have various thoughts and feelings such as awe, wonder, admiration, respect, and shame. A few examples of “something” that meets one or more of these conditions are the preciousness and frailty of life, justice, truth, ideas, ideals, love, death, nature, the creation, creativity, possibility, and human potential. Examples of “someone” include various notions of a Supreme Being, a hero or heroine, or an ordinary human, such as Gandhi or Mother Teresa, whose capacity for noble acts exceeds the ordinary.

We will reference these passages to exemplify and expand on the conditions of reverence while examining the feelings they invoke and the understanding they bring. Consider the passage by Codell (1999, p. 26); clearly, she is overcome with awe and wonder. Many teachers reading this article may feel something similar every year on the first day of class or, equally likely, on the last. It is possible that this passage meets all four conditions as just defined. The “unique place and time” of Codell’s classroom encompasses a gathering of disparate ethnicities and nationalities. Besides those born in the United States, there are students in Codell’s fifth-grade class from Mexico, Pakistan, and the Philippines. She passes out her list of required supplies in English and Spanish. The events leading to this remarkable convergence of language and culture reside beyond her control, as they do for any educator. Teachers might admit a student or two in, and move another out of, their classroom if they have the proper connections, but eventually they must accept the abundance of human life that arrives at their door. Many teachers have felt something overpowering in those penetrating, staring eyes that confront them every day; sometimes it is almost enough to physically push one backward. At times, it can be frightening, but it can also fill the teacher with reverent awe and wonder. As Codell wrote, many times in the ensuing year, control of the class would slip out of her hands—sometimes into a teachable moment, sometimes into uncontrolled rage and violence. Codell, or “Madame Esmé,” as she had the children call her, perceived the class as a gift, not something she created, but something she could creatively mold—something, perhaps, like that stone in Florence that Michelangelo and da Vinci fought over and that Michelangelo sculpted into his famous “David.” Infinite human potential in a vibrant class of students, like the limitless possibilities in the stone, can occasion reverence.

Of course, understanding students is an important, and, we suggest later, a critical part of reverence in teaching. Nonetheless, no one ever fully understands another, and certainly it is impossible to fully understand an entire class the first day, much less the forces that have brought so many people together from such diverse places. Many teachers find their vocation, their call to teach (from vocare, to call), somewhat incomprehensible; if asked, “Why do you like to teach?” they cannot provide a completely “rational” answer, but often they can reply with the kind of inarticulate wonder and silent awe characteristic of reverence. Those who can and do teach well often cannot articulate what possesses them to do it. The greatest reverence lies beyond the power of words to express. Codell feels that her first class on the first day of her career was holy; this could mean that it was a spiritual experience, perhaps even the work of God.

We do not at all wish to denigrate this reading of a holy, and we believe reverent, experience, but we do want to remark on something. Woodruff (2001) wrote, “Reverence has more to do with politics than religion” (p. 4; see also p. 5). What he meant is that reverence has more to do with the affairs of the polis, meaning literally the affairs of the city, the state, and, most explicitly, communion within the community. Codell might have had a reverent experience of a community bound together by higher powers, such as shared ideas and ideals that include the realization of human potential. We just do not know, or need to know. We do believe, however, that reverence for such things as truth or justice can overcome profound differences in belief and value, including religious belief.

Let us look at Gregory Michie’s (1999) remarkable admission as told in his book, Holler If You Hear Me: “The kids educated and enlightened me” (p. 85). Here we have an unmistakable comprehension of human limitation and imperfection. He realizes that the story of his life intersects creatively with that of his students. It allows him to learn from his students, and, as we shall see, a teacher learning from students is one sign of a reverent classroom. Reverent recognition of human limitation allows teachers to comprehend that they are needful, incomplete, and unfinished and will never be perfect. Michie recognizes that although we all have the potential to tell unique stories, all stories are ultimately cocreations. We need other human beings to help us author our story and tell it well.

We cannot make students share their genuinely heartfelt personal stories, although we can perhaps coerce poorly composed fictional work. Michie did not create the stories that his students told. The students’ stories are gifts; good ones cannot be taken. They are something that Michie cannot control or alter, although he can somewhat mold their meaning in the future. He may or may not be able to fully understand these stories, but that is not the thing of utmost importance. Michie eventually spent a great deal of time learning the language that the stories are best told in (Spanish) and comprehending the culture from whence they came (Mexico and the Mexican American experience in Chicago), and this is as much their gift as anything. All this learning helped him find his proper place in the classroom, school, and community. Perhaps he can come to understand these stories at least well enough to work with his students in coauthoring some new,  and possibly better, ones, but again, that is not the whole of the matter. Is there transcendence in the supernatural sense? We do not know, and reverence urges us not to judge. It suffices that “something” more than a mechanical action has occurred.

The sign posted at the entrance to Stephanie’s classroom remarked on by Mike Rose (1995, p. 107) is wonderfully elusive. One of the most powerful ideas in the entire history of the West is the Christian ideal of love as agape. Desire (eros) is possessive and friendship (philia) is conditional, but agape is a form of love unconditionally given by the Creator. When it enters this material realm, it bestows value upon all who receive it regardless of their worth as normally judged. Ideally, agape love should circulate within the community and return to its source uncorrupted. Stephanie may well be seeking to extend God’s love to all who enter her classroom, or she may just stand in reverent awe and wonder at all children’s unique human potential, their unique destinies, the unique song they have to sing and personal acts of love they and she have to bestow. Either way, it is reverent.

In Kahlil Gibran’s (1923/1992) The Prophet, a young mother bids the Prophet to

“Speak to us of Children”;”

he replies:

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s

Longing for itself.

They come through you but not from


And though they are with you yet

 they belong not to you. (p. 17)

We think that Stephanie has the Prophet’s reverent sense of children. She did not create them, at least not in the profounder sense that grasps the miracle of life, ultimately she cannot control them, and she cannot completely comprehend them.


Woodruff (2001) argued that reverence is a “cardinal virtue,” by which he meant that like courage, justice, or temperance, we can find forms of it in many, though perhaps not all, cultures.2 Virtue ethics is concerned with the quality and content of our character. The organizing question of modern ethics has tended to be, “What are we morally obligated to do?” Answers to this question yield “duty” ethics or “consequentialist” ethics. We will concentrate on the ethics of duty. The organizing question of ancient ethics was usually, “What kind of person is it best to be?” Answers to this question yield virtue ethics (see Sher, 1998). There has been a renaissance in virtue ethics over the last few decades.

Virtue ethics concerns itself with attitudes, values, habits of action, imagination, emotions, interests, perceptions, and desires that serve as motives for individual action. We are particularly interested in the feelings of awe, wonder, and humility associated with reverence. As Woodruff (2001) stated, “Virtue ethics takes feelings seriously because feelings affect our lives more deeply than beliefs do. . . . You may learn rules intellectually, and therefore you may learn or forget them very quickly” (p. 6). Virtue concerns itself with the concrete particulars of specific situations and even one-time-only decision making. It emphasizes three things: Arête, phronesis, and eudaimonia. Arête refers to excellence or virtue; moral virtues include honesty, generosity, care, compassion, toleration, preservation of well-being, and many other traits of character. In a virtuous person, these traits blend and balance each other in ways that vary according to the context of action.3 Virtue ethics also emphasizes phronesis, or practical wisdom. Such practical wisdom depends on worldly experience. Phronesis involves moral perception—that is, sensitivity to the concrete particulars of a situation as well as moral imagination that grasps the best possibilities within the given situation. The goal is to live a fulfilled and happy life (eudaimonia) of meaning and value to one’s self and community. We believe the virtue of reverence contributes greatly to fulfillment in teaching. Though virtue ethics is often criticized for being culturally relative, excessively situational, without systematic justification, and unable to provide the kind of action guidance associated with rules and regulations, we believe that its emphasis on qualities of character, embodied disposition, practical wisdom, and happiness are valuable and too often overlooked.

Duty ethics (along with utilitarian consequentialism) dominates public morality in the modern age. Duty ethics places a strong emphasis on abstract, decontextualized moral rules, laws, oughts, and rights, whereas utilitarianism emphasizes quantitative analysis to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Anyone familiar with educational bureaucracy understands how rules regulate and govern that sphere and how numbers (e.g., test scores) are used to maximize perceived utility. Duty ethics emphasizes cognitive understanding. Taken too far, it becomes hyper-rational, legalistic, and insensitive to concrete situations and individual persons. However, Immanuel Kant, with whose name duty ethics is most associated, developed three versions of his “categorical imperative” to secure the claims upon us of others to whom we are bound in reciprocal social relationships.4 For instance, one formulation yields the following standard of right action: “Act as if the maximum of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature” (Kant, 1781/1964, p. 30). Kant realized that his abstract maximums were without content, but that only meant the content derived from concrete social relations. Dewey (1932/1985), for instance, thought that the function of such imperatives was to “operate to induce the individual to feel that nothing is good for himself which is not also a good for others” (p. 225). Kant sought universal laws and obligations that secure equal human rights and mutual respect for all.

We think that virtue ethics, duty ethics, and consequentialism, when applied in balance, complement each other and allow each to avoid unnecessary excesses.5 Virtue ethics emphasizes the proper motives to action, whereas duty ethics provides intelligent guidance. Once we recognize that the consequences of our actions rebound to form the content of our character, we can see that consequentialism can also complement virtue ethics. We believe that in our time, the recovery of virtue ethics is especially important to the educational conversation because, like other modern institutions, the field tends to be dominated by the ethics of duty and consequentialism in the form of utilitarian cost/benefit calculation. The intent here is not to marginalize the ethics of duty; many of the examples and issues we discuss could be informed and more fully filled out by considering duty ethics, or consequentialism for that matter. However, we want to emphasize how virtue ethics, and especially the cardinal virtue of reverence, may provide guidance when other forms of ethics fail.

Virtue ethics is ancient; most contemporary versions of it trace their origins to Aristotle, who provides a rational argument identifying the limit of abstract, universal rules (see Swanton, 2003, p. 1).6 The ideal of those overly fond of rules is that in even uniquely particular cases (e.g., a classroom discipline problem), there are always rules that we can apply to determine our action. Ultimately, everything is rule governed. If so, then we may ask how we know when to apply the rule. The answer for the extremist is that we need more specific rules, but then how would we know when to apply these more specific rules? We would need rules that are still more specific, and so on forever. This is known as an infinite regress argument and was used by Aristotle over 2,300 years ago to conclude that “these are matters of perception. If we are always deliberating, we shall have to go on to infinity” (Ross, 1941, p. 970). In the examples that follow, whether virtue ethics, duty ethics, or even consequentialism is the best way to understand the example is a matter of perception. As already mentioned, we think that all three should work to balance one another, although again, our stress is on the importance of virtue ethics.

Virtuous people do the right thing, at the right time, in the right way, even if they do not know the right reason, because that is who they are. They are self-motivated, and right action comes naturally to them. More completely virtuous people also know the right reason for their acts. Further, wholly virtuous people have the habit of critical reflection and creative imagination. They do not always follow a rule just because it is the law, or assume that something is a virtue just because everyone in their culture strives to practice it. Indeed, too many people obey rules, laws, and customary practices without intellectual reflection. Such blind obedience allowed Jim Crow laws to receive court approval in the United States for decades until they were challenged by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and others who practiced civil disobedience to overturn them. Those possessed of the virtue of critical and creative reflection will use it to question whether something that many proclaim is a virtue or a right rule truly is one.

Virtues do not replace rules. A complete ethical theory includes rules, rights, duties, caring, and concern about the nature of the truly good. Virtuous persons, however, obey appropriate rules, carry out right action, and execute their social duties because of the constitution of their character, as opposed to external imposition or sheer force of inner will.7 Virtue involves moral perception. As teachers, we cannot respond properly unless we can see clearly what needs doing in any unique situation with unique people (teachers, teacher aides, administrators, secretaries, students, lunchroom personnel, and parents). It also involves moral imagination. We cannot act properly unless we can grasp all the possibilities of the situation. For instance, to teach well, we must be able to grasp human potential, or what Rose (1995) called “possible lives.”

The ethics of abstract and general rules, laws, and judgment may conflict with the concrete, sometimes one-time-only requirements of the ethics of care (compassion, connection, personal response) and the ethics of virtue. Teachers are members of a caring profession that is nonetheless obligated to the rules of whatever public or private bureaucratic institution wherein they may find themselves. In institutional settings, virtuous teachers must sometimes break rules to save children. Ohanian (1999) wrote, “But idiosyncratic kids, unique circumstances, and aberrant behavior require individualistic solutions, which is why behavior checklists and schoolwide discipline policies, matched with steel-encased consequences to match every student misdeed, are a terrible mistake. We must never forget that when we pass a rule, we have to live with it” (p. 127). Virtues often operate in the gaps between rules. They also help us apply rules correctly.8 This application involves the moral perception to respond to individual idiosyncrasy and the moral imagination to see consequences that rule-governed systems sometimes cannot.

Rules alone will never secure those goods for which institutions such as schools are established. Rose (1995) believes the most “vital” classrooms are democratic in the sense that they express “a faith in the capacity of a people, a drive toward equality and opportunity, a belief in the intimate link between mass education and a free society . . . . The democratic ideal” (pp. 412–413). Reflecting on democracy and democratic education, Rose remarked that the attempt to identify democratic institutions “by procedural criteria” can lead “to reductive definitions of democracy” that harms “the experience of democracy” (p. 413). To secure the experience of democracy, we must establish a democratic ethos, including reverence for the ideals of democracy, and not just its formal rules.

For example, the federal educational accountability measure No Child Left Behind (2001) is at best an instrument of formal democracy designed to secure abstract ideals of equability and justice that may, on occasion, inhibit the concrete virtuous practices of the democratic ethos. That is why critical-creative reflection is always a virtue of democratic teaching. It is what helps validate Codell’s (1999) complaint: “Rules made for one are for everyone . . . blablablablaBLA. Whose rules? His Rules? . . . God’s rules? I thought, I wanted to teach so I could lead, not follow” (p. 132). In themselves, such attitudes could be far from reverent. When, however, teachers defy bad rules out of a sense of awe and wonder for the sake of developing a student’s unique potential, liberating classroom possibilities, or the highest ideals of the profession, such as care, compassion, or the pursuit of truth and justice, they may express the virtue of rightly placed reverence. When someone like Codell (1999) feels a sense of the “holy” or remarks, “I watch them, mine, the ones I loved, I overflow with the joyous greed of a rich man counting coins” (p. 194), we may at least suspect that her defiance arises out of reverence.

Reverence for something such as cultural tradition or God’s authority may prove appropriate, but it should never lead to narrow patriotism or blind obedience. Woodruff (2001) called attention to what he calls “imposter virtues,” which he defines as “ideas that make us feel good about doing bad things” (p. 70). He commented, “Imposter virtues generally cloud the mind” (p. 71). Those who believe that human customs are the will of God can too easily follow a false prophet just as free peoples who do not question their country’s leaders fail in their democratic duty and may fall into tyranny even as they think they are defending democracy. Another example is the false courage of individuals who take foolish chances by not considering the consequences of their acts. Woodruff suggested that we may avoid imposter virtues by never suspending “our own moral judgment or closing the lid on our own moral compasses” (p. 72). We agree with Woodruff when he insists, “Reverence sets a higher value on the truth than on any human product that is supposed to have captured truth” (p. 39). We also concur when he suggests that reverence “cherishes freedom of inquiry” (p. 39).9 Reverence requires that we respect such things as a school’s tradition or its leadership, but it requires more of us than that. We must also examine and criticize our leaders and values and, when necessary, imaginatively reconstruct them. Reverence for reflection, truth, and inquiry is always higher than reverence for one or another dogmatic assertion of truth. We believe that Codell’s previously stated complaint is reverent, but if she is just protesting good rules used to restrain irresponsible egotism and actions damaging to students, the protest is an expression of an imposter.

Reverence is often more a matter of emotional and imaginative perception than cognition, although that too is important. Reverence involves awe, wonder, and imagination regarding something or someone, though the object of reverence may vary. Woodruff (2001) observed, “The principal object of reverence is something that reminds us of human limitation” (p. 65). For our purposes, we are primarily concerned with reverence for life, justice, love, truth, possibility, ideals, and human potential; however, that simply represents our interests on a particular occasion. Reverence for God, nature, death, and much more are perfectly appropriate for other discussions and situations.


Virtue ethics appeals to emotions in ways that the ethics of duty and consequentialism do not. Besides the emotions of awe, wonder, and admiration, Woodruff (2001) examined two other feelings especially associated with reverence: respect for other people, and shame at our own failures and shortcomings. Both are important to teaching. Shame and respect are intimately connected: “You cannot feel shame without feeling respect for something larger than yourself” (Woodruff, p. 72). We are interested in the larger ideals and values of teaching, such as a reverence for the lives of students, actualizing students’ full potential, dedication to self-transcending (but not self-eradicating) care and compassion for students, and commitments to the truth of what we teach. Teachers who revere these and other ideals of their profession will feel shame when they fail to live their lives according to their values. In reverent classrooms, teachers and students alike may feel shame when they fail the higher powers of their community. Shame is not, however, the same as guilt, which may not be such a useful emotion. Like reverence itself, we should inquire into whether we should in fact feel shame at some act. We should not let others shame us unquestioningly.

Feelings of respect arise from reverence as naturally as awe, wonder, and admiration. When the members of a community share reverence for something greater than any of the individuals who constitute the community, then the individual community members should show a degree of respect for every other member. For instance, we all share human life; we are all mortal, we all know love, joy, and sorrow, and we all hope and dream. Reverence for the human condition can unite us across vast differences of culture and religion. It may well be the supreme virtue of the multicultural classroom. Albert Schweitzer talked about reverence for life and the fellowship that bears the mark of suffering (Rud, 2007). Still, part of the human condition is that we all feel pain, suffer, grieve, and die; of course, we may also all know peace, joy, and enduring life through our children. Reverence for life must express care and compassion for suffering while seeking and celebrating joy and peace. A teacher’s reverence for life in the classroom will compassionately ameliorate suffering while seeking to bring about and celebrate joy.

Mutual respect in devotion to a shared ideal may bind people together even when it is obvious that some should be held in much higher esteem than others because of their superior wisdom, moral character, or ability. All are equally humbled before the might of the mystery. Even criminals or classroom mischief makers deserve a modicum of respect when it comes time to distribute justice. That is why we should ameliorate the severity of our judgment when the transgressor is contrite. Just law transcends all our actions. Classroom discipline should be reverent; it should never be an ego struggle between teacher and student. Teachers must show special respect for the ignorant who only require education to come to a better understanding. In the classroom community, it is possible for all to share reverence for learning, the quest for meaning, human potential, the ideals of human flourishing, reverence for life, and democracy, even though some realize these things better than others. After all, overcoming ignorance is perhaps the central task of teaching. Teachers may surpass students in knowledge and wisdom, yet all are due respect. Teaching is a knowing and caring profession wherein we must be willing to acknowledge occasions when our students know more and practice compassion better than we. We all stand to learn something from one another in a truly reverent classroom. However much we may know, it is but a drop in an endless ocean. Reverent teachers will acknowledge their own limitations.


Recall that reverence is a virtue and that virtues are embodied habits of action that guide appropriate feelings to their proper objects. Like any other habit, practice helps make perfect. Reverent practice involves rituals and ceremonies that properly orient the practitioner toward right action in accordance with the reverenced object (e.g., idea, ideal, and so on). Social rituals orient the entire community in respect for the object of reverence and for each other.

Classroom teaching is full of small rituals. Here is one: “A sign, curled at the edges, was taped across the top: AUTHOR’S CHAIR. At least once a week, each student in Stephanie’s class had the opportunity to sit in it and read something he or she had written, the rest of the class listening and responding” (Rose, 1995, p. 112). This simple ritual shows reverence for possibility, creative human potential, and self-expression. One of us volunteered for many years to assist a fourth-grade teacher in a reading and writing workshop in which this ritual was employed. Reverent silence attended the ceremony; no one, including the teacher, could speak when an author was reading his or her story. There were other rituals that all or most participated in that involved writing, editing, and, once every 6 weeks, publishing a story in the class publication. Anyone who has ever written for publication (whether in the school’s newsletter, a newspaper editorial, or an academic journal) knows that it involves not only technical skill, but also an element of risk and vulnerability. The ritual of the author’s chair expresses reverence by invoking awe, wonder, admiration, and respect for the miracle of narrative creation, and the creator. It helps students and teachers become the coauthors of each other’s lives.

There is an important difference between humility and humiliation. Students will work hard to correct grammar and spelling when it is their story. They do not want to shame themselves either privately or publicly. It is, of course, wrong to humiliate anyone. If even criminals deserve a modicum of respect when we distribute justice, we must avoid humiliation at all costs in the amelioration of ignorance. If everyone, including the teacher, must participate once a week in the ritual of the author’s chair, then they too may acknowledge risk, vulnerability, ignorance, and imperfection.

Rituals and ceremonies that appeal to our common humanity may bring a community together in shared feelings of wonder, compassion, and gratitude, and sometimes even grief at the losses that are our common lot. Common classroom rituals can hold students and teachers together across significant differences in culture, language, and belief by orienting everyone to the higher values that they do share, such as peace, happiness, and health. Rituals without reverence become empty of deep meaning. They become mere routines. Meanwhile, even the most technocratic of administrative routines, such as taking roll or collecting lunch money, can be entered into with a sense of reverence. After all, the gathering of the faithful and the breaking of bread are often profound rituals.

Irreverence means showing a lack of respect for something that or someone who is generally taken seriously by others. Reverence is a virtue, but sometimes, so too is irreverence. If, upon careful reflection, something is not deserving of reverence, we should not act reverently toward it. Sometimes, irreverence is the proper attitude; indeed, it is what true reverence demands. Reflective inquiry should lead to irreverence when something is an imposter, when something claims it is worthy of reverence when in fact it is not. On the other hand, in our times, there seems to be a tendency to mock even the highest and best. On such occasions, irreverence is the greatest folly. It destroys individuals and communities by corrupting virtuous action. We fail to feel shame when we should, our rituals become empty, and we do not respect others with whom we share values. When irreverence overcomes everything of worth, we have entered an era of nihilism that destroys all values human or transcendent and all of life’s existential meaning.

Virtues such as reverence belong to communities as moral customs just as they belong to individuals as habits of good conduct. Although we are interested in the community of practice designated by the occupation of teaching, especially the classroom community, we are also concerned with the school and the larger community. Virtues are oriented toward what are considered the ideals, goods, and values of a practice, whether it be firefighting, finance, or teaching. Teachers commonly find creative autonomy, used to connect to students and to make a difference in their lives, the most prized good of their profession.10 Reverent classrooms cultivate appropriate awe, wonder, admiration, respect, and shame, often by proper ritual, in pursuit of shared ideals of human flourishing. In the next section, we look further at reverence and irreverence in teaching and the classroom.


One of us spent part of a year observing and interacting with a teacher and her students in a classroom full of animals. This classroom buzzed with activity as the children cared for the pet gerbils, snakes, hamsters, and guinea pigs. These pets were not simply there as diversions from the teaching and learning activities of a structured, state-mandated curriculum. Rather, the teacher involved the students in caring for the animals. Students needed to learn that animals require constant and systematic care and attention. But what allowed reverence for the mystery of life to erupt in the classroom was unexpected. “She had babies last night,” the children shrieked as they noticed the mother guinea pig nursing her young one morning. The children took care of these babies, and even learned how they could sell them and use those funds to purchase food and litter for the mother. Later, when one of the other animals, a hamster, died, the class held a funeral for the animal, complete with a ceremony and short testimonials. They learned some lessons in biology and economics in caring for the pets, but they also enacted reverence for the mystery of birth and death. Many, if not most, of these children had no firsthand experience in seeing another creature give birth or die. But their reactions to these life-changing events were entirely appropriate; spontaneous joy at birth, and respectful silence at death. Why? How did these children know what to do? We submit that both their joy and respectful silence exhibit reverence and that the children felt safe and secure in this particular classroom environment to show these feelings. Thus, the teacher, by setting up her classroom in this way and allowing the natural world to be part of it, captured the mystery and awe of life that so many of us have felt but maybe could not express. The teacher was able to use these reverent moments and turn them into teaching moments. The birth of the babies occasioned a tie into an age-appropriate lesson in the biology of reproduction, and the demise of the hamster allowed the children to see what a body looks like dead and to understand how it decomposes and returns to the earth (Rud & Beck, 2000).

The example of a hamster’s life cycle is similar to what Mike Rose (1995) noted in a classroom observation:

The frog and the hermit crab and all the other creatures in Mrs. Terry’s class live in multiple domains: they live in their aquatic or blue gravel or leafy habitats; they live in books; they live in the children’s discussion of them—“science talk,” Stephanie called it—and, subsequently, they live in the writing that emerges from talk and observation. They live in ear and eye, narrative, in fantasy. Think of Stephanie Terry’s curriculum, then, as the overlay of domains usually separate. (p. 100)

This sense of awe and wonder permeates all the realms where these animals “live,” and to recognize these feelings is reverence.

Sadly, there are also many examples of irreverence in classroom teaching and learning. Recall that irreverence is often attention paid to an imposter virtue, which is a mockery of reverence. One of the authors worked for a number of years at a retreat center for teachers. Located in the North Carolina mountains, the center honored teachers through extended hospitality rituals, including such seemingly mundane things as an emphasis on good food and lodging. Teachers expressed that they felt honored by the setting and by the hospitality shown to them (Rud, 1992, 1995). The three buildings all had Cherokee names to honor the land where they were located and to signal what they stood for: Katusi (mountain), Ahysti (place of exploration), and Atanto (human heart or spirit), which the staff roughly translated as: A place in the mountains to explore the human spirit.

The sacralizing of these buildings by this naming ceremony did not, however, deter some seminar presenters from being irreverent. One presenter in a seminar on democratic education put forth a strongly left-wing ideological position. Many teachers who heard him came from more conservative backgrounds, and any sympathy they might have had for these new and bold ideas was destroyed by the presenter’s rigid, self-righteous tone. One of this article’s authors coordinated this program and was approached by several teachers who said they wanted to leave because of the hard-line left ideology and blunt manner of this presenter. This ideologue was not reverent toward the teachers and their own needs for learning in that setting. But then the teachers who shut their ears and their minds and did not try to engage the ideologue were also irreverent. Ideologues of the left or right may be comforted in preaching an idea to others and demanding adherence. Theirs is a smug self-satisfaction that all is good and there is no need to question further. Reverence for truth teaches us that there is always a need to question and inquire further. But we do not want to let the teachers off as “victims” either. They closed their minds and did not engage the ideologue. These teachers too easily chose not to extend themselves to him to allow themselves to see what value there may have been in what he said. There is almost always something of worth in what anyone may say. At the very least, these teachers could have learned how to deal with ideologues and even, perhaps, to guard against dogmatism in their own teaching.

Both the ideologue and the teachers had the courage of their convictions but fell victim to the imposter virtue of false courage, letting it cloud their minds and block the road of free inquiry. Susan Ohanian (1999) aptly discussed one of those narrowing visions:

The truth will set you free is a slogan that should freeze any teacher’s soul. As often as not, all truth does is complicate your life. Every day a teacher works with difficult children in difficult circumstances. Every day she must decide if she has any business trying to peel away any of those layers of protective coating that wound(ed?) children wear . . . . I can’t pretend I have ever believed in a master plan—not in the classroom, not in life . . . . [E]ven when we do recognize Dame Truth she doesn’t set us free . . . . To be a teacher means to confront the dark ambiguity of not having clear landmarks of success and failure. (p. 138; see also pp. 126 and 137)

Ohanian writes to make us turn and listen. She questions the value of truth in a teaching moment with certain children and says we must dwell with ambiguity and darkness when we teach. Truth is a high ideal and worthy of our reverence, but there is a wisdom that seeks the morally good that lies beyond knowledge alone. Recognizing that sometimes there are no clear answers while persevering in the face of ambiguity is often the higher reverence.

But it is not only perseverance in the face of ambiguity and darkness that reveals a reverent teacher. Teaching has traditionally been about telling, whether that be in mathematics, sciences, or literature. Teachers exhibit their knowledge through communicating, usually through speech, to their students. Students show that they have mastered this knowledge through behavior, usually oral or written communication, to the teachers. Classrooms can be places of much chatter and many words. But they can also be silent places, and Woodruff thinks that the silent teacher is such an exemplar of reverence that he devoted an entire chapter to the topic.

What Woodruff (2001) means by silence in teaching is not muteness. It is important to realize that “great human silences are made inside frames of words, and the silent teacher cannot create a wonderful silence without speaking” (p. 188). This wonderful silence can be as simple as a pause to allow students to take ownership and mastery over a concept rather than having the teacher spoon-feed the idea and hear it parroted back. This is very difficult for many teachers; they want to present themselves as knowledgeable to their students and in control, because that is what is expected, or at least what they think is expected. Although showing reverence by respecting silence often facilitates student inquiry, it does open up the teacher to abuse by the loud, dominant students, as Woodruff noted. Both the dominant teacher and the dominant student are irreverent because they do not respect or show interest in the words and silences of the other. They only have time and attention for themselves. They are both deceived into thinking that they know better than the other and thus have no need for the other’s views. Woodruff asks in one of his section titles, “Why not dominate, if you are right?” His answer to this question is instructive: “Every honest scholar knows that he too will die, that future generations will know more than he, and that someone will sooner or later refute him on some point or other. Knowing this—really knowing it in a way that enables you to feel respect for the faltering efforts of beginners in the field—is reverence” (p. 195).

Being right is always provisional, and apodictic certainty is a fiction. We must be open to what the future will bring, what a better equipped mind can discover. Dewey knew this well; his theory of truth held that epistemological judgments are merely the warrantable products of inquiry into a particular situation. Whether teacher or student, the ideologue in the classroom spouting his or her viewpoint to the exclusion of others is irreverent in not respecting the silences of those who withhold assent to have more time to think and explore.


We began by probing the meaning of the term reverence. To be reverent is to realize that we as humans are limited and imperfect, and the proper reaction to this state is humility, awe, and wonder. In subsequent articles, we will examine reverence in educational leadership and in a school’s community. Reverence is part of the implicit background of a healthy school and community. Many educators today deal with pressing issues of accountability measures such as No Child Left Behind (2001) and myriad other state and local standards. The accepted focus is on what we can test and quantify, namely on explicit knowledge. We push teachers, administrators, and schools to be competent and knowledgeable. This is fair enough, but we must be careful. We must reverently recognize that we are all limited and imperfect, that there is always something more to learn, and that sometimes knowledge is beyond our grasp. Our goal in this article and those to follow is to restore reverence to its rightful place in the ordinary daily activities of teachers in relation to administrators, students, and parents in school and community.


1 We owe this definition largely to Paul Woodruff (2001), especially p. 117.

2 Woodruff devoted chapters to showing the similarities between reverence in ancient Greece and ancient China (especially Confucianism) and how those influences continue into the modern East and West. He also noted that although the cardinal virtues may be found in different cultures, the objects toward which they are directed often vary.

3 John Dewey (1932/1985) stated, “The Greek emphasis upon Kalokagathos, the Aristotelian identification of virtue with the proportionate mean, are indications of an acute estimate of grace, rhythm, and harmony as dominant traits of good conduct” (p. 271). Dewey recognized that virtue ethics has an aesthetic dimension not often associated with duty ethics.

4 The utilitarians Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are most associated with consequentialism, although there are other varieties. Dewey (1932/1985), for instance, put a good deal of emphasis on consequences, although he emphasized that the consequences of our action return to form the content of our character. For more on Dewey as a virtue theorist, see Rice (1996).

5 For instance, Onora O’Neill (1998) argued that there are some vulnerabilities common to all human beings and that the ethics of duty, with its abstract, universal categorical imperatives and such, are valuable for establishing rights that all humans should have in social relations. Other vulnerabilities are unique to particular individuals, although all individuals have such unique vulnerabilities. Moral response to these vulnerabilities is based on special relationships—for example, lovers, parents, and concerned citizens, and, of course, there is the student and teacher relationship. Recognizing these unique vulnerabilities often requires moral perception, and ameliorating them often calls on moral imagination. Our obligation to respond to any particular individual on any given occasion is indeterminate, yet a virtuous person is often obliging. It is here that O’Neill thinks “social virtues” such as (1) care, compassion, and solidarity for individual others, (2) toleration, participation, and social justice for preservation of the “social fabric,” and (3) preservation and cultivation of the “material basis of life” close the moral gaps that the ethics of duty leaves open (see pp. 192 and 205). Swanton (2003) thinks that “Onora O’Neill,” among others, has “done much to establish Kant’s emphasis on relationship, humanity, emotions, love, respect, and virtue” (p. 5).

6 Swanton (2003) develops modern, “pluralistic” challenges to the ancient sources of virtue ethics. In the entry for “virtue ethics” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Confucianism is mentioned as another ancient source of virtue ethics in which there is renewed contemporary interest; this makes Woodruff’s cross-cultural comparisons to Confucianism even more interesting.

7 Most moral theories acknowledge the “is” versus “ought” distinction. Virtue ethics can close the gap between the actual “is” and the moral “ought.” A genuinely virtuous person is somebody who wants to do what he or she ought to do anyway.

8 See O’Neill (1998).

9 The pursuit of truth involves intellectual virtues such as open-mindedness and impartiality. Reverence is an unusual virtue in that it can unite moral with epistemic virtues.

10 See Lortie (1975).


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University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 11, 2009, p. 2626-2646
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15446, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 8:53:30 AM

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About the Author
  • Jim Garrison
    Virginia Tech
    E-mail Author
    JIM GARRISON is a professor of philosophy of education at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. His work concentrates on philosophical pragmatism. Jim is a past winner of the Jim Merritt award for his scholarship in the philosophy of education and the John Dewey Society Outstanding Achievement Award. He is a past president of the Philosophy of Education Society and current president of the John Dewey Society. He is author of “Teacher as Prophetic Trickster” (forthcoming in Educational Theory).
  • A.G. Rud
    Purdue University
    E-mail Author
    A. G. RUD is an associate professor of educational studies at Purdue University. His research interests focus on the philosophy of education, particularly the moral dimensions of teaching and learning. He edits the journal Education and Culture (http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/eandc) for the John Dewey Society and authored a chapter on Albert Schweitzer and education in Ethical Visions of Education: Philosophies in Practice (Teachers College Press), edited by David T. Hansen.
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