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Present to Possibility: Spiritual Awareness and Deep Teaching

by Lisa J. Miller - 2009

This article is an introduction to the Teachers College Record special section, "Present to Possibility: The Classroom as a Spiritual Space."

One can, I think, listen someone into existence, encourage a stronger self to emerge or a new talent to flourish. Good teachers listen this way, as do terrific grandfathers and similar heroes of the spirit.

Teaching has much in common with the ancient art of spiritual guidance.

—Mary Rose O’Reilly, Radical Presence; Teaching as Contemplative Practice

Students, observed Mary Rose O’Reilly (1998), often are not heard “into existence.” I suggest that often in the classroom, students are not welcomed wholly to exist. Students are asked to check the vast majority of their inner life at the school entrance—relationships to each other, concerns quite immediate about their feelings, the purpose or meaning of life, death of loved ones, justice and compassion for themselves or others they know. The heart of living, as it is being experienced right now, in the here and now, is not discussed. In that we ask students to leave much of their awaking selves behind, it hardly seems surprising that often students are not wholly present in class. The classroom chair has been occupied, but the spirit lives elsewhere; a disintegrated presence is created. This particular form of student disengagement does not emanate from the curricular level, nor does it entirely overlap with mental health issues. This crisis of education is spiritual. O’Reilly continued in Radical Presence to suggest an alternative vision of teaching: “Some pedagogical practices crush the soul; most of us have suffered their bruising force. Others allow the spirit to come home: to self, to community and to the revelations of reality” (p. 41). This special section explores the possibility for the spirit to be welcomed into the school setting, namely the classroom as spiritual space, for which help readily can come from us as educators through an invitation to ourselves to be wholly present.

Philip W. Jackson (1968) referred to a broad sociomoral component of education, often left willy-nilly in disregard and not made explicit, as the “hidden curriculum.” With this insight, Jackson ignited several decades of discussion and research (for a more recent review with respect to mainstream public education, see Wren, 1999). I wish to extrude the discussion within nonreligious education to the spiritual realm, specifically as it exists in the daily lived experiences that fill the classroom. By the term spiritual is meant our relationship to the great surrounding world, absolute values experienced personally, and ultimate connection to meaning and transcendence, as expressed in every moment, most importantly right here and now. These matters cannot be transmitted or posed to our students, but they can be witnessed and listened into existence. A student-centered approach locates the germane spiritual question or crisis within the student, and the possibility to hold a spiritual space in the teacher.

Why not leave spirituality out of education? Recognizing the spiritual reality in the classroom and allowing it into the professional awareness of the teacher urges teachers to use the fullness of themselves, their wisdom, and often some of their strongest motives. When asked why they teach, most educators respond by sharing a sense “of mission,” to include imparting to students “the courage to challenge mainstream knowledge and conventional wisdom: improvisation: a passion for social justice” (Nieto, 2005, p. 8). The possibility to teach at this level exists every day, but to welcome students into existence, it must be explicit and considered the professional task at hand, not hidden in recesses of the teacher’s private motives for initially joining the profession. So too this set of goals reframes the focus on the endowment of the student to include the vast inner wisdom, irrespective of academic standing. This is the work of deep teaching.

Honoring the spiritual space of the classroom as it is discussed within this special section does not challenge the important United States constitutional prohibition against public school teachers transmitting personal views about religious denomination or spiritual cosmology. Rather, spiritual awareness in the classroom starts with an augmented perceptual space within the teacher, which then can sustain the spiritual possibility within the classroom. The way into spiritual awareness is to be present, and listen. The student brings the material, and we have an opportunity to reach our students right where they live.

Is appreciation of these moments the legitimate work of our profession? Should our students go to school to be “listened into existence”? We might consider several different justifications. First, if a teacher is present to the student, the student, fully witnessed, will be more engaged. Research shows that student engagement predicts academic achievement (see Wentzel & Juvonen, 1996, for an overview). Another response is that the “hidden curriculum” already exists in every school, even when left willy-nilly, such that something about living is being taught to students at every moment. In some cases, the implicit pedagogy is that what matters is separate from that detected in your inner wisdom. What matters does not concern the great world around you. Rather, what really matters is individual achievement on preordained tasks provided by authority. Finally, the most crucial form of response is an expanded discussion on the ultimate goals of mainstream education. Is our highest priority to educate citizens who are prepared to inherit the world?

Potential deep teaching moments can be left fallow or cultivated for all students in attendance. Tobin Hart (2004) offered the possibility that teachers encourage students in the process of contemplative knowing, in contrast and in addition to rationale or sensory knowing, as a means for tapping the inner wisdom within students. Taken together with the possibility that teachers be more present, the students can be encouraged to participate in deep teaching.

Here is the challenge: The spiritual clock always runs at the ontological level, revealing deep teaching opportunities. Left de facto as part of the “hidden curriculum,” we teach children to turn a cheek to the wonder of life’s gifts, challenges, and mystery. We teach our students to educate themselves by ignoring the sacred ground of living. Checking our deep self at the front door of school is perhaps deadening to the heart and, as Mary Rose O’Reilly (1998) asserted, “crushing to the spirit” (p. 2) for teachers and students alike. In this sense, is our attention to addressing the spiritual component of the “hidden curriculum” not merely legitimate, but an urgent and foremost concern to the vitality of education? How might we get moving?

Each of the authors in this special section offers a unique perspective on the spiritual possibility in the classroom. All explicitly or implicitly work from the perspective that spiritual possibility exists, ready to be realized, awaiting our attention as educators for deep teaching. For the first step, we must be present to see these moments. Then we must honor deep teaching as part of our professional work. For instance, a spiritually aware teacher might regard it as a surprise goal, of utmost importance, to address the profound grief or sudden insight brought unexpectedly by a student to class that day—even if it upsets the working plan envisioned by the teacher. Herein lies the modesty to dialogue with the world, rather than control the flow of life. Elaborating on Parker Palmer’s awareness that “teaching is creating a space,” Mary Rose O’Reilly expanded,

Most of us believe, at some level, that what happens in the classroom is caused by the teacher. In reality, we cause or control very little. To “create a space” acknowledges both our sphere of responsibility and lack of control. The idea of filling students, well-intentioned and nurturing as it may be, rests on the conviction that we know what they need, that their hunger is like our own, or something like the hunger we felt. . . . This may or may not be true. . . . How do we find out? Probably by keeping quiet much more than we have ever imagined possible, and by listening more astutely than we have before, even if we have listened long and hard. We plan lessons with a notion of what students need. But here is Jim, who unexpectedly needs to love that sentimental poem; here is Sylvia, whose block about math holds her together while her spirit heals some painful abuse. Respect the block. Respect the stutter. We know so little about what really is going on. (p. 2 )

Knowing what “really is going on” in the classroom is an initial step toward spiritual awareness for our students and the grounds of deep teaching. In this special section, each author approaches the work of being present to the sacred classroom with methods derived from practice, individual experience, and research, sharing classroom moments.

Frances Schoonmaker (2009), emeritus professor of education at Teachers College, starts her article “Only Those Who See Take Off Their Shoes: Seeing the Classroom As a Spiritual Space” by citing these lines from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem, Aurora Leigh (1864):

Earth's crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware.

Schoonmaker explained the decision to open with these lines: “It seems to me that the classroom is a spiritual space, but we do not always recognize it as such.” From this vantage point of possibility, she explores spirituality as “a way of being that includes the capacity of humans to see beyond ourselves, to become more than we are, to see mystery and wonder in the world around them and to experience private and collective moments of awe, wonder, and transcendence.” A series of her powerful teaching experiences and research findings follow, as illustrative moments present to the awakened mind of a teacher. The capacity to be present for the sacred moments to be shared by students, Schoonmaker urged, is facilitated by “the teacher’s own practice.”

In “Toward a Pedagogy of Self,” C. Edward Richards (2009), former chair of the Department of Organizational Behavior and Leadership at Teachers College, suggests that to be capable of generating a “spirited” educational space, a truly effective educator, teacher, or administrator must work through the self as an instrument, relying on self-knowledge and indeed mindful awareness of the self and its responses. Self-awareness serves as the bedrock for educational leaders to respond constructively to teachers, students, and new educational possibilities, in part by decentering from our own rigid perspective:

Decentering occurs when the normally tight focus we maintain on our own needs, wants, and interests loosens sufficiently that we are capable of experiencing phenomena from the viewpoint of another. Typically, our experiences “orbit” around us (we are at the center of our universe). When we manage to decenter, we can view experiences as if we were watching them from outside our own emotional solar system. With sufficient practice, we can actually experience a happy person from his or her point of view. When we do this wholeheartedly, isn’t it the case that we enter into the person’s happiness with him or her and experience it as our own? Even soldiers can spontaneously laugh with the children of their enemies. Think about the implications for children, teachers, and schools if we were to develop our capacity to appreciate the happiness and good fortune of others. Also, consider how it might improve our decision-making to be able to decenter sufficiently to see things from the parent or teacher’s perspective when he or she is unhappy or suffering.

Richards has developed and now directs the renowned national Principals Academy, located at Teachers College, based upon self-awareness training. Self-awareness involves a dispassionate clarity derived through the practice of meditation. From the place of a fuller and a less ego-invested awareness, Richards claims, emerges the possibility for depth:

Depth is one of those words that have special meaning for practitioners of self-awareness. It signifies a sharply altered state of consciousness. For example, if we are attending to the sensation of the breath as it passes in and out over the edges of the nostrils, we start to notice that the surface sensations of the air molecules and the skin molecules commingle. The separation between what is solid (flesh) and what is subtle (air) evaporates. This is a peculiar experience, and it may shock you the first few times you have it––almost certainly knocking you right out of the experience. After such an experience, again we spend the rest of our meditation going, “Wow! Was that cool or what?” and then thinking, “Who can I tell about this? Who will believe me? Oh, oh, I’ve totally forgotten about my practice again.” And so it goes. Just as the Inuit people of the Arctic can identify more than 50 types of snow, a practitioner of self-awareness develops an acute sensitivity to the varieties of the moments of the mind, seeing ever more deeply into the nature of mind. Skillfulness results from keeping the same equanimity and poise no matter how dramatic the nature of the observation becomes.

Spiritual awareness, being present to the student, derived either through the teacher’s “own practice,” as suggested by Schoonmaker, or through meditation and self-awareness training, as proposed by Richards, is viewed as teachable to educators. This special section offers examples of programs being tested for use in schools to enhance spiritual awareness in educators and in the classroom. Ultimately, as the number of studies grows, the research may suggest that spiritual awareness should be offered as part of routine training and continuing education of school-based professionals such as teachers, administrators, advisors, and school counselors.

Three brief research reports describe findings from pilot intervention studies investigating ways of supporting, teaching, and augmenting spiritual awareness in educators, school psychologists, and more generally for those professionals working in educational settings.

Mindfulness practice, focusing on interpersonal mindfulness, was tested as part of the graduate training of teachers and other education-related professionals such as counseling or clinical psychologists. Jeanette Sawyer Cohen trained graduate students in psychology and education in interpersonal mindfulness, a form of mindfulness focusing on attunement and awareness of other people (Sawyer Cohen & Miller, 2009). Findings from the study suggest that interpersonal mindfulness indeed can be taught and can improve attunement in professional relationships as well as overall well-being.

Elizabeth Reid, building off a previous school-based study she conducted with Randye Semple (Semple, Reid, & Miller, 2002), developed a mindfulness curriculum for delivery in school classrooms through a workbook for students and teachers (Reid & Miller, 2009). When piloted within a low-socioeconomic status (SES) school setting, mindfulness was shown to improve the spiritual awareness of the teachers, to include increased focus on the classroom relationships and a greater focus on deep teaching. Low-SES students showed an augmented sense of personal and educational possibility, a broadened identity, and greater academic originality and innovation, and held greater respect for fellow students in the classroom.

Lydia Cho designed and tested a synchronicity awareness group as a means to help emergent professionals toward spiritual awareness  (Cho, Miller, Hrastar, Sutton, & Younes, 2009). Cho’s group intervention aimed to increase spiritual awareness in graduate students of psychology and education through encouraging attention to synchronicity and specific daily synchronistic events (striking concomitant events that reveal ultimate purpose or meaning). Through greater awareness of daily synchronistic events, these graduate students came to view daily events to carry spiritual significance and meaning.

Taken together, these three intervention pilot studies offer impetus for further intervention focused on spiritual awareness in teachers and professionals in educational settings.

The unifying vision in this special section, “Present to Possibility: Spiritual Awareness and the Classroom,” is the opportunity for spiritual awareness in teachers to generate deep teaching in nonreligious mainstream classrooms. It is my hope that the ensuing five thoughtful, highly original, and visionary articles illustrate pathways to spiritual awareness for teachers and highlight the related great benefits to students.

Taken together, the ideas shared in this special section highlight the spiritual dimension of education and bespeak an opportunity for deep teaching. Why should concern for this fall within the province of mainstream education?  It is for deep teaching that many educators enter the classroom; by it do students feel wholly welcomed into the classroom; and from it do students ultimately emerge as citizens interested and engaged, and honoring of the world.

Might we then offer our students an education into the fullness of human existence?


Cho, L. Y., Miller, L. J., Hrastar, M. G., Sutton, N. A., & Younes, J. P. (2009). Synchronicity Awareness Intervention: A Pilot Study. Teachers College Record, 111(12).

Hart, T. (2004). Opening the contemplative mind in the classroom. Journal of Transformative Education, 2(1), 28–46.

Jackson, P. W. (1968). Life in classrooms. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Nieto, S. (2005) Why we teach. New York: Teachers College Press.

O’Reilly, M. R. (1998) Radical presence: Teaching as a contemplative practice. Portsmouth, NH: Bonton/Cook.

Reid, E., & Miller, L. (2009). An  exploration in mindfulness: Classroom of detectives. Teachers College Record, 111(12).

Richards, C. E. (2009). Toward a pedagogy of self. Teachers College Record, 111(12).

Sawyer Cohen, J., & Miller, L. J. (2009). Interpersonal mindfulness training for well-being: A pilot study with psychology graduate students. Teachers College Record, 111(12).

Schoonmaker, F. (2009). Only those who see take off their shoes: Seeing the classroom as a spiritual space. Teachers College Record, 111(12).

Semple, R. J., Reid, E. F. G., Miller, L. F. (2005). Treating anxiety with mindfulness: An open trial of mindfulness training for anxious children. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy: An International Quarterly, 19, 379–392.

Wentzel, K., & Juvonen, J. (1996). Social motivation: Understanding children’s school adjustment. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wren, D. (1999). School culture: Exploring the hidden curriculum. Adolescence, 34, 5–22.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 12, 2009, p. 2705-2712
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15781, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 1:56:12 AM

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About the Author
  • Lisa Miller
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    LISA MILLER is associate professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research involves school-based interventions for children and adolescents of low socioeconomic status, teacher training, mental health in parents and children, spiritual development across the life span, and spirituality and resilience in youths. Professor Miller has received numerous awards and research grants for her work, to include funding from the NIMH, the William T. Grant Foundation Faculty Scholars Award, the Klingenstein Fund, the Pritchard Foundation, and the van Ameringen Foundation. She has a B.A. from Yale College and a Ph.D. from University of Pennsylvania. She is past-president of the American Psychological Association, Division of Religion, Spirituality and Psychology, and Associate Editor of the APA journal, Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.
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