Making Schools Spiritual: A TC conference | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation

Making Schools Spiritual: A TC conference is a coming out party for a national movement that’s rooted in science, not religion


At an all-boys school in Massachusetts, seniors serve as pall-bearers for people in the community who died alone. An independent school in Connecticut helps students work out disagreements at a “peace table” and takes them on trips into forests and marshes to connect with nature. The “Life 101” curriculum at an Episcopal school in South Carolina combines social-emotional learning, ethics and service projects. A charter school network in New York uses meetings and ceremonies to “build spirituality around citizenship.”

These and other initiatives, described at the inaugural Spiritual Child Conference, held at Teachers College in early November, serve notice that educators nationwide are embracing the spiritual development of young people and thus the spiritual character of schools as priorities. The day was highlighted by the announcement of a new National Council on Spirituality and Education (NCSE), as a center for the development and exchange of research, practice and policy on the mounting national movement to infuse spirituality into education. 

“Education has awoken to the deep need in students for a spiritual core, and without it we have an obvious crisis,” said Lisa Miller, Professor of Psychology & Education, who spearheaded the event.

The NCSE, housed at Teachers College, will help to guide what Miller calls an inclusive “sea change in education” based upon science and in accordance with the Constitution. The NCSE will distribute position papers, support broad research initiatives and, collaborate in holding an annual national conference as well as regional professional workshops led by a steering committee of school heads and educational activists.

The day also included the presentation of the first William Leroy Stidger Award for Spiritual Activisim to TC alumna Dr. Dale Atkins, the psychologist and media personality who works with individuals and groups to develop and sustain mental and emotional health consistent with their life purpose and values. The award is named for the early 20th century preacher, who was a pioneer in using modern marketing and publicity tactics. Atkins was presented the award by TC Board of Trustees Co-Chair Jack Hyland, who is Stidger's grandson and the author of Evangelism's First Modern Media Star: The Life of Reverend Bill Stidger.

“The ice age has melted, and we are now in a blossoming spring,” Miller told listeners. “The practice of spiritual development is taking place in most, or all, of your schools.”


Driven by Research

Until recently, there was no overarching framework for educators to think theoretically or exchange practical experience and suggestions about spirituality. Now, driven by two decades of research in psychology and education, the notion of the spiritual development of children and adolescents is gaining scientific currency, particularly as society increasingly understands “spirituality” as something that is not solely religion-based.

Much of that research has been led by Miller, the founder of TC’s Spirituality and Mind-Body Institute and the author of the New York Times bestseller The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving, which catches up a general audience on the work of educators, psychologists and neuroscientists to demonstrate the existence of “inborn, natural spirituality” and the mechanisms through which it develops. Miller also edited the Oxford Handbook of Psychology and Spirituality and is Co-Editor-in-Chief of Spirituality in Clinical Practice, a peer review journal published by the American Psychological Association.

Opening the conference, Miller recapped findings that spiritual self-realization – which for some takes a religious form, but for many others, not at all – offers adolescents protection against substance dependence, major depressive disorder, or sexual risk-taking, and additional benefits well into adulthood. Ultimately, though the focus of the day-long event was not theory, but implementation in schools, which, Miller pointed out, are the setting that most shapes life outcomes.

“The spiritual ecology in your school is game-changing,” Miller said. The 400-odd participants – heads of leading school heads, policy makers and foundation presidents from states that included Washington, Arizona , California, South Carolina, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Georgia and Louisiana, as well as from around the world – seemed enthusiastically on board with that premise.

“There was such a buzz of energy in the hallways from so many senior eminent educators,” Miller said afterwards. “That shows you that there is a vital hunger to work together, informed by the science of spiritual development, collaboration in the innovation of practice, and most of all the connective tissue of colleagues. One professor and leading educator who had traveled from Mumbai pulled me aside to say that she intended to bring the ideas on spirituality back to India, which is widely considered to be a spiritual place and a great potential collaborator in this direction. Then she thanked us for serving a ’spiritual lunch,’ which for her meant vegetarian.” 

Educators at the conference who work closely with families said they were often the first to identify a need and offer the right response for their specific communities.


Grit and Grace


“Parents’ eyebrows would rise” at the word spirituality, said Nancy Heuston, former head of the Waterford School in Salt Lake City, Utah. “But if I were to bring parents around the table, the things they would talk about are the ones Lisa is writing about.” The challenge framed by the conference was how to realize this shared educational priority at schools with widely varying resources and cultural orientations.

Speakers representing independent schools from mainline Protestant denominations shared their work to foster spiritual development for students of all backgrounds. At the Westminster School in Connecticut, students gather for chapel services beneath flags of six world religions, said headmaster Bill Philip, but the values of resilience and empathy embodied in the school’s motto, “Grit and Grace,” have a spiritual worth that requires no theology to justify it. Chris Tate, middle school dean of the episcopal Porter-Gaud School in Charleston, South Carolina, described how the school’s Life 101 curriculum involves the whole school community, including parents, and features service projects that have included middle-schoolers sending bicycles to communities in Africa. “It’s important that you make it like a regular class,” Tate said. “It’s really not that hard – you just do it.”

Secular schools can be spiritual places, too. TC alumnus Kai Bynum, director of studies at the all-boys Roxbury Latin School in Boston, said his academic research, conducted in three secular schools in Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia, underscored that young men – perhaps contrary to stereotype – have a spiritual life. In his study, most students described themselves as spiritual and religious or as spiritual only, and others offered profound insights on values such as connection, inquiry, and self-awareness. The perspectives of these boys inform case studies that Roxbury Latin faculty use in advising students.

Bynum’s advice: “First create the mental and physical space to reflect,” he said. “Second, reconcile where you are, especially as a secular school. Do you feel it’s important for students to have a foundation in a particular faith, or an à-la-carte of spiritual ideals? Then allow them to evolve into their spiritual identity.” The third tip was for dealing with boys: “They want to talk about spirituality, but not be forced into talking about it.”

Miller said she was struck by participants appreciation for and respect for  the broad range of creative  spiritual practices and understanding of spiritual life in children already at play in schools across the United States.  “It was exciting that these seasoned educators were intensely interested in the range of spiritual expression as it varies by school culture, some secular and other schools religious in their charter.  The mix was revealing of what might be borrowed, adapted or unique to school mission.”

Suza Scalora, a TC doctoral student who helped organize the conference, said she “loved that spirituality had a different expression just right for each school’s microcosm, they each did it in their own way, all in service to support spirituality in youth.”  


Speeding Up by Slowing Down


“It all comes back to the necessity of slowing down,” said John Turner, head of the middle school at the Foote School, a K-9 independent school in New Haven, Connecticut. The school exposes its youngest students to a “peace table” and cultural exchange of foods from home, and then adds “concentric circles, year by year” to foster spiritual growth, including nature walks and service activities such as volunteering in soup kitchens. The school was an early member of what is now an 80-school data exchange, INDEX, that is working to study the development of key traits, such as curiosity, resilience, teamwork, and ethics.

Miller added that much of the day’s insight is potentially translatable to publically funded settings.   To launch reflection on the opportunities for publically funded spaces for youth, Seth Andrew, founder of the New York City-based Democracy Prep schools, described the charter network’s orientation in spiritual terms. (Andrew, now Senior Advisor to the U.S. Chief Technology Officer in the White House, was speaking in a personal capacity.) “School culture and purpose, not poverty, drive failure and success,” he said, adding that “culture is not immutable; it is created.” At Democracy Prep, “citizenship became the spiritual purpose of the school,” Andrew said. “We tried to bring in spiritual elements around citizenship through morning meetings, music, speeches, testimony, moments of silence.” Teachers and students were “on a forward path together, towards a culture we were co-creating.”

The conference was just a start – the first step in an exchange that Miller and colleagues hope to sustain through their newly-formed National Council. At the end of day, a group gathered around Miller to discuss next steps. The concept of a “spiritual audit” to assess the accordance of school lived practices with their own values, floated earlier by James W. “Skeeter” Lee, middle school principal at St. Martin Episcopal School in Atlanta, struck a chord. Some participants suggested schools could visit one another to carry out such an exercise and collaborate in building innovative practices. Others asked that the new council create internet resources and webinars to expand the scope of participants; and that it address teachers’ spiritual health, and community support against burnout.


The conference made clear that spirituality in schools is now on the table – much to the (happy) shock of many in the room. “Really? Spirituality? Psychology? At Columbia? Well, that’s about time, isn’t it!” said Dr. Dale Atkins. Later, an audience member who identified herself as a clinical treatment professional asked if it was really “safe in the education field to openly embrace spirituality.” Yes, several panelists answered – at least in their schools.

“We’re in a sea change,” Miller said. “We’re coming up with a new field inductively, co-creating. The work continues when you return to your schools, your clinics, your places of spiritual activism.” – Siddhartha Mitter

Published Friday, Nov 20, 2015

The Spiritual Child group shot
Left to right: Lisa Miller, Director of TC's Spirituality Mind Body Institute; TC alumna Dr. Dale Atkins, psychologist and media personality; TC President Susan Fuhrman and TC Board Co-Chair Jack Hyland. Fuhrman and Hyland presented Atkins with the inaugural William Leroy Stidger Award for Spiritual Activism. Stidger, an evangelist who was an early user of modern media, was Hyland's grandfather.
Group Shot
(From L-R) Kai Bynum, William Philip, Lisa Miller, Nancy Heuston
John Turner
John Turner of the Foote School in New Haven, Connecticut
Lisa Miller
Lisa Miller, Professor of Psychology & Education
 Nancy Heuston
Nancy Heuston, former head of the Waterford School in Salt Lake City, Utah