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Faith Traditions As Medicine for an Ailing Educational System

Updated: Nov 17, 2019

My Education Manifesto

Every day for the last three years, I’ve carried in my backpack a 30 page quantitative research study. Given that the average dissertation is only read by seven people (Achor, 2010), I’m going to venture a guess that not every teacher is doing this. But this study on school climate by Albert Jones and John Shindler, entitled ‘Exploring the School Climate—Student Achievement Connection: Making Sense of Why the First Precedes the Second’ was so good I read it like a self-help handbook on everything from my teaching and parenting to my marriage.

So when it came time to write my master’s thesis, I wanted to produce something like Jones and Shindler’s paper and study how the emotional climate of a school affects academic outcomes. My quixotic plan was to conduct a quantitative research experiment with 1200 people. After writing the literary review, my professor told me to change course because the study would have too many uncontrollable variables. I needed a more manageable topic. My dreams of writing a paper that was so good teachers would carry it around in their backpacks, was dashed. Now there was no more time for dreams. This was a matter of survival. It was now hurry up and find a new topic, read twenty new peer reviewed articles, and write a literary review, while teaching full time, coaching two hours every day, and raising three children. Let’s just say it wasn’t the best two week stretch of my life.

Based on manageability alone, I chose the topic of how self-reflection might affect academic outcomes. At the time it felt like a break from one topic to the next, but I’ve since begun to see that self-reflection and climate may be completely interconnected when it comes to real academic growth. But that realization has a twist. Self-reflection isn’t just something students should do to increase their academic achievement. More importantly perhaps, teachers should engage in self-reflection in order to become more self-actualized. After reading other studies by the likes of Albert Bandura and Barry Zimmerman, I began to wonder that if self-reflection improved learning outcomes for students and teachers, might it not also improve the learning climate as a natural by-product.

Pushing Kites

I realized from my experience, the teaching profession goes at this from the opposite direction. Schools generally ask, “What do we need to do to improve the learning climate?” We hear about some school that is making innovative strides in developing a positive climate program. Then we watch their flashy promo video on YouTube and hear how their climate techniques improved test scores. Then we scurry to adopt those techniques. While imitating success is certainly not wrong, I believe that something is missing. Trying to create a positive learning climate in order to increase student achievement is like trying to push a kite. It’s not that a positive climate won’t improve student achievement. There are numerous studies that would support the claim that climate dramatically affects achievement. My question is more fundamental. Where does climate come from?

I suspect that climate does not ultimately originate from a technique. In other words, ‘Do x, y, and z, and we’ll have a positive learning environment.” In fact, the frantic scramble itself, of focusing on getting get x, y, and z done under some arbitrary deadline, may end up inhibiting the very thing we were trying to do. That’s because climate isn’t a deed or a thing to do on a check list. Climate is an atmosphere—a spirit. Climate is an intangible internal reality that tangibly manifests itself in the external world. If climate is something we are aiming to improve, then we should realize that it is a kite that can’t be forced to fly out in front of us. Instead, climate is something that takes off and flies behind us. In other words, the emotional and social climate in any organization is nothing more than the result of the internal climate of the leaders in that organization. If we want to create a loving, affirming, growth-based learning environment steeped in intellectual curiosity and passion for discovery and learning, then we teachers must first cultivate this type of environment in ourselves—away from the hustle and bustle of all the noise and shuffling.

Transactional vs. Transformational Leadership

In the process of reading about the topic of self-reflection in peer reviewed articles, I came across the idea of Transactional vs. Transformational Leadership in an unexpected place—a dissertation by my pastor. Pastor Anne Dilenschneider’s dissertation on the problems and solutions in spiritual leadership struck me as a new paradigm in thinking about leadership in education.

From an educational perspective the Transactional Leadership model starts from a place of organizational programming. The question is, “What do we need to do to get students to have good test scores?” Based on cutting edge research, transactional leadership declares, “If we do x then students will get better test scores. Then we’ll publish the results and everyone will be happy.” This approach makes the study of climate nothing more than a matter of organizational tactics. We see this with a particular behavioral support system called PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention Supports) that is currently in vogue. It probably has a thirty page bibliography, complete with data, graphs, and tables, supporting an elaborate three tiered system of behavioral intervention that takes years to implement. But at the end of the day it is another thing to put on the overwhelming To Do list.

Transformational Leadership starts from a different place. It doesn’t ask, “What do we have to do to get students to be successful?” It asks, instead, a radically different question: “Who do we have to become in order to get students to be successful?” That question is self-reflective by nature and crucial to building a transformative learning environment.

When I think back about why I became a teacher, it didn’t have as much to do with what my teachers did as who they were as people. We must fully come to grips with the notion that true education is transformative and not transactional. In other words, education is not about checking off lists of things to do, but rather it’s about working on becoming the most self-actualized people we can be as leaders. Education is not about the program. Programming is for robots. Humans run on passion, purpose, meaning, connection, and a sense of belonging. In short, humans run on socio-emotional climate. Building a climate that is conducive to human growth, starts with leaders becoming more fully human and developing their own internal climate of growth.

It strikes me that our profession collectively scrambles around the edges of real education, while too often it seems we miss the real reason behind all that frantic scrambling? The real purpose behind all this scrambling and societal investment in education, is nothing short of transformation of self and society.

But can we transform others if we aren’t into the work of our own personal self-transformation?

Get Happy and Then Get Effective

A recent study, researchers asked what makes some teachers more effective than others? The number one thing this study found was that the quality of a teacher’s life outside the classroom had more impact on the classroom than what they did in the classroom. More specifically, the study determined that single greatest factor in determining the effectiveness of a teacher was his or her own personal happiness (Klusmann, Richter, & Lüdtke, 2016). Therefore, if we want to improve the quality of education we have to improve ourselves. In short, we have to get happy. Perhaps teacher training in the university and professional development within the field, should focus less on techniques and more on how do we become happier people. In his book The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor notes that the common notions of happiness and effectiveness are backwards. We tend to think that if we achieve, then we’ll be happy. It is actually the exact opposite. If we are happy we will achieve more (Achor, 2010).

Achor points out that we may need to redefine happiness. Interestingly while Achor is known for his research in positive psychology, he started his academic career at the Harvard School of Divinity. He openly admits that he has fused ideas he gained from his religious studies into his understanding of human psychology. Achor’s quantitative research in positive psychology has recontextualized the ancient religious pathways into more modern terms that we can intellectually accept. Such a philosophical fusion of the ancient spiritual focus on formation of self with the rigor of modern scientific psychology is needed in our profession. Take for instance Achor’s study on happiness. The Harvard researcher is not interested in the modern notion of happiness which is often understood as a feeling of momentary pleasure. Instead Achor explores the Greek understanding of happiness. The ancients had a much deeper understanding of happiness than we often have today. To them happiness was the pursuit of self-actualization (Achor, 2010).

This is a powerful definition of happiness. We tend to think that happiness is based on conditions. If everything is going favorably then we can be happy. Happiness in those terms seems elusive and out of our control. But if happiness, and the effectiveness that goes along with it, are about our pursuit of self-actualization, then true happiness is under our control. This kind of happiness can transcend conditions—favorable or otherwise. Anchor spells out seven important steps toward happiness that blend his background in the School of Divinity and the School of Psychology. His research has shown these practices to be important in developing a habit of happiness:

1.)Daily meditation.

2.)Finding something to look forward to.

3.)Committing conscious acts of kindness.

4.)Infusing positivity into our surroundings.

5.)Engaging in daily physical exercise.

6.)Spending money on experiences with other people.

7.)Exercising our signature strength (Achor, 2010).

While teachers, or the teaching industry as a whole, might say that Achor makes some valid points, it doesn’t mean that what seems like common sense is common practice. Is this how we train teachers? Is this how we teach students? Instead of meditation, we celebrate quantity of tasks completed. Instead of finding things to look forward to, we give tests. Conscious acts of kindness? There isn’t time. We’ve got to get through the curriculum. Infusing positivity? We’ve got the PBIS team working on that. Physical exercise? That’s on your own. Spending money to create experiences? There’s either not enough money. Exercising our signature strength? “That’s great kid. You can draw. But what really matters is can you solve for x using this quadratic formula?”

The cancer of busyness

Without trying to sound too dramatic, I believe there is a malignant tumor growing inside of modern education. That cancer is busyness. Unless we teachers make a conscious personal and collective commitment to self-growth, which may include implementing some of those pathways to happiness found in Achor’s research, (which take time and energy) then we run the risk of not reaching our highest potential. And nothing will affect the education of the next generation more than that.

Getting Nibbled to Death

Instead of a task-based paradigm of busyness, we ought to be chasing the Greek version of happiness in our profession. Teachers generally come from a similar emotional gene pool. We tend to be nice people who like to please others. Of course, I may be projecting here, but I’m going to venture a guess that I’m not the only one like this in education. As Pastor Anne pointed out in her dissertation, the same is true for ministers who are also in the business of working with people. According to William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, ministers “are generally nice people [who] want to please and be liked. So it almost becomes impossible for them to say no. As a result, being a minister today is like being nibbled to death by [thousands of] ducks" (Swears, 1991).

Getting nibbled to death is both self-inflicted and structurally woven into the very fabric of teaching. When our work environment is transactionally oriented around an endless list of logistical things to do, teachers are faced with an external and internal dilemma. On the outside there is giant mass of emails waiting for us. Each one involves some demand on our energy. On the inside there is a compulsion to please and say ‘yes’ when we should say ‘no.’ At the same time, this state of internal and external chaos produces thoughts like, ‘Wow, I got into teaching to do x, but actually I’m spending my time and energy doing y.”

What it’s like on the inside

We go home having been on our feet all day, having walked well over ten thousand steps, having made thousands of up to the second micro decisions based on should we engage or let it go, and we can’t shake that nagging thought about that stack of unchecked assignments, and yet tonight we have to work the football game. And pretty soon it all runs together in one giant blur of busyness.

And we have a sore throat coming on. We pop a Vitamin C, and we fall into bed after a Thursday night game. It dawns on us that we started this day at 6:00 a.m. and it’s now 10:00 p.m. and that nearly every single second of that day was dedicated to some school related task. And then a nagging feeling overcomes us. We remember tomorrow we have class and frankly tomorrow’s lesson plan sucks. So we lay awake wondering how that lesson plan should be tweaked, but after we’ve given nearly every shred of energy to our job bouncing from one task to the next, vibrant creative ideas for tomorrow’s class don’t come to us. Instead we fall back on some old thing we’ve done in the past. There isn’t anything left in the tank to imagine new possibilities. There isn’t any time or energy to indulge ourselves in our own reading and writing or staying abreast with the latest research in our field—let alone contribute to it. Instead, at some point we have to unplug and dose off.

But we’re not the only ones dosing off. Because of this continuum of busyness, tomorrow in class, student’s minds will be put at risk of dosing off because they will be watching a teacher run on auto-pilot.

To everyone outside the teaching profession all this scrambling seems like a lot of motion headed nowhere. Inside the profession we are told that all that scrambling is paying off because every year we are shown graphs of near perpetual academic growth trending up and up year after year. Yet the public perception of education has a trend line that keeps going down and down. Could it be the public doesn’t care much about our test scores? Could it be they want more? Could it be they want well-rounded people with social and emotional literacy, who graduate with confidence, empathy, curiosity, creativity, collaboration and communication skills, grit, and self-discipline? Could it be they want all that while we’re saying, “Look everyone, our kids are improving on their multiple choice tests.”?

The Burn

In this rat race is it any wonder the teaching profession is steeped in burnout? According to Richard Ingersoll’s study on education that has spanned three decades, nearly half (44%) of all teachers get out of the profession in the first five years (Ingersoll & Strong, 2018). But that doesn’t mean that the ones who make it past the five year mark aren’t burned out as well. Many of them quietly carry burnout around and go through the motions of teaching based on rote memory. Too many teachers are counting the years until retirement and hoping they can squeeze out x more years. John O'Donohue observes: "Often people's identities, that wild inner complexity of soul and color of spirit, become shrunken into their work identities. They become prisoners of their roles. They limit and reduce their lives. They become seduced by the practice of self-absence. They move further and further away from their own lives.” (O’Donohue, 1997). The practice of self-absence happens when too much of our time is spent doing y, when we got into teaching to do x. It was x that made us come alive. But then the busyness continuum hit and our jobs became more a more about y than x. And like O’Donohue said, we moved, ‘further and further away from our own lives’ (O’Donohue, 1997). When this happens to leaders, Dilenschneider & Parrott argue, we can only manage logistics; we cannot lead with imagination (Dilenschneider & Parrott, 1999).


Given these conditions in the profession, it seems to me that we have to start taking care of ourselves. No one is going to do it for us. The districts are not doling out sabbaticals or longer planning periods. If anything we are getting squeezed harder and are expected to produce more each year, while the public keeps saying that we are getting less and less done.

It strikes me that no one really talks about self-care in our field. It is mandatory that we get training on the prevention of slips and falls in the workplace (something that may not happen even once in our career), but there is nothing about taking care of ourselves on a daily basis. The former could result in a lawsuit and the latter is just a matter of burnout. They feel compelled to tell us to not slip and fall, but when it comes to burnout they’re either completely silent or it’s like they’re saying, ‘Suck it up or get out.’ And, well, many do. Has anyone noticed, young people aren’t lining up to become teachers? From the outside, the profession looks haggard and run down. By the way, the lack of gloss and sheen on this profession is partially a product of our culture. I taught creative writing and American Literature in Mexico for one year. I couldn’t believe how well I was treated. When I crossed the border headed north to teach in the United States, it felt as if I went from a rock star to something just slightly better than a bottom feeding leech.

Teaching in this busy and unappreciated field, self-care is viewed as little more than a quaint little thing. Self-care is not only absolutely essential to ourselves but also to our students’ learning. For many, self-care may entail a nice coffee after work, or a massage once a month, or a visit to the nails salon for a little self-indulgence. But taking care of ourselves as academics and leaders of the next generation, involves more than just some temporary self-indulgence.

Teaching in the transformational sense is a total existential package that involves the whole teacher. I believe that self-care of the whole teacher does not just mean taking care of the body and mind. It also includes taking care of our emotions and spirit. And here is where some of you may stop reading. Taking care of our emotional lives is associated with psychology and psychology is scientific. So that’s okay. But the spirit? Taking care of the spirit? What does that even mean? Besides, it sounds religious. Okay, I’m out. Bye.

But if you’re still here, check this out.

As our profession heads more and more toward scientific data to guide us, it seems to me that if we were truly scientific we would explore all the avenues for growth that are available to us—i.e. the big faith traditions of humanity. Buddhism, for example, has been around roughly 2500 years. There must be something in Buddhism that continues to offer humanity something or it would have been discarded long ago. Nearly all of the old faith traditions offer us insight into self-care. Some call it prayer. Others call it meditation, emptiness, going into the wilderness, or quite time. Whatever it’s called, it’s generally some sort of time intentionally set aside for quietness, new input, and self-reflection. In each faith tradition, the concept of self-growth and self-care involves much more than a temporary shot of physical self-indulgence.

Too often people confuse meditation, for example, as some ephemeral search for nirvana or heaven. The self-care and self-growth ideas that come out of the old faith traditions are not necessarily about getting to heaven or about trying to find the right dogma. These traditions challenge us to come to terms with the fact that we are not human doings. We are human beings. And to reach our potential as beings, we have to do work on being itself. Many psychologists and spiritual gurus would say that unless we take care of ourselves first, we will not be able to take care of anyone else.

Yet that is not how we do it in education. In many cases, we teachers stumble out of bed and throw ourselves into a long list of things to do and then we fall back into bed at the end of the day with very little deep thought and self-reflection along the way. If that is happening on the individual scale, it is probably also happening on the corporate scale as well. Educational leaders are under the curse of results. We are scrambling to show how cutting edge we are, but really it’s just another to do list with very little reflective thought and soul care put into it. Ministers who also work with people have also noticed that there is a tendency to throw everything into programs and structures that are intended to facilitate learning and growth. But this all-consuming logistical program based approach to other’s growth, often leaves too little time or space for the leader’s own personal growth (The United Methodist Church, 1999). When our mindset gets engrained in management thinking, which focuses on instructional techniques, overall logistics, and monitoring achievement; the development of ourselves as learners becomes just one more thing to do in an already crowded agenda (Dilenschneider & Parrott, 1999).

But that is not how the greatest te