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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Spring 2009
Vol. 36 No. 1

Race through Religious Eyes: 
Focusing Teacher Reflectivity on Race, Culture, and Spiritual Beliefs

Ramona Maile Cutri


Traditionally the fields of teacher reflectivity and multicultural education have not encouraged teachers to examine and utilize their personal spiritual beliefs. Teacher reflectivity is a process in which teachers think deeply and critically about their own beliefs and practice1, yet teacher reflectivity work has been criticized for not focusing enough on issues of race and power relations.2  This study moves both fields forward as it explores the potential of teacher reflectivity as a process by which to connect the private spiritual beliefs of a sample of predominately white, Christian teachers to the public agenda of transformative multicultural education.  

Teacher education that prepares teachers to examine their own cultural identities, critique the institutional and personal inequalities embedded in current schooling and teaching practices, work toward social justice, and acknowledge the moral dimensions of such work falls into the category of transformative multicultural education.3 Tidsdell asserts that spirituality needs to be considered a component of a person’s cultural identity, along with his or her race, class, gender, etc.4  Though spirituality cannot be reduced to merely a socially constructed item, a person’s spiritual beliefs do contribute to his or her cultural identity and position in society. When educating for transformative multicultural education, it is not enough to ask teachers to engage in this type of work merely as concerned professionals, or even politically energized citizens.  Transformative multicultural teacher education is best accomplished if teachers are allowed and encouraged to use their intellect, emotion, body, and spirit as ways of knowing, teaching, and learning.5

The majority of practicing teachers and teacher candidates in the United States still come from white, middle class, Christian backgrounds.6  Thus it is important to focus teacher reflectivity on race, culture, and spiritual beliefs.  Mayes and Blackwell-Mayes offer the term spiritual reflectivity to denote teacher reflectivity that considers spiritual beliefs.7 This study offers a model of a teacher reflectivity exercise that can help teachers consider their personal spiritual beliefs as sources informing and possibly even facilitating their reception and interpretation of transformative multicultural education curriculum. 

Transformative multicultural curriculum sometimes encounters resistance by white teachers as they struggle with recognizing privileges and advantages that have been afforded them based on their race and class.8  Yet Tidsdell, when highlighting the spirituality of individuals ranging from Paulo Freire to Martin Luther King, Jr., poses this question:  “[O]ne might wonder why there has been relative silence about the role of spirituality in teaching to challenge power relations.”9  Transformative multiculturalism can benefit from including examinations of spirituality not only as a component of one’s cultural identity, but also as a motivating force for engaging in transformative multicultural education.  The process of teacher spiritual reflectivity can provide a context for studying the relationship between teacher candidates’ private beliefs and the public curriculum of transformative multicultural education. 

Literature Review

To properly consider literature on spirituality, a working definition of spirituality as it influences educationmust be established.  I define spirituality in educational settings as (1) a quality of personal reflectivity on and acknowledgement of a power higher than oneself,10 (2) a compassionate desire to connect with other people and oneself that contributes to a sense of a mission for a greater good,11 (3) a motivating and sustaining force for social action,12 and (4) a holistic consideration of people. 

The absence of spirituality in teacher education pedagogy or curriculum largely results from the fact that until recently spirituality has not been thought to be appropriate for consideration in relation to grades K-12 or academia.13  To an extent, spirituality has almost been considered taboo—unquantifiable, and implying affiliation with organized religion.14   Yet spirituality and religion exert strong influences on the type of moral decision making that transformative multicultural education seeks to promote in teachers.15  Brown reviews a significant body of literature that calls for more research “involving teachers’ understanding of their own moral traditions, such as the social, cultural, and religious influences that mold their moral identities.”16 This study attempts to engage pre-service teachers in this type of reflectivity.

Bull, Fruehling, and Chattergy define ethical issues in multicultural and bilingual education as considerations of what people should do:
These are ethical, not factual questions.  They ask what people should do from among the actions that the facts make possible—what responsibilities people have toward one another, what freedom they should exercise, how they should make decisions that affect themselves and others, what role tradition should have in people’s lives.  They demonstrate that the ideal of unity in diversity has a moral and not just a pragmatic meaning.17

Thus ethical and spiritual beliefs that pre-service teachers bring to their teacher preparation programs should be considered in relation to the curriculum of transformative multicultural education. 

Researchers have examined the role of spirituality in an individual’s efforts to teach for social transformation.18 Tisdell and Tolliver stress how spirituality and cultural identity are interwoven.19  But more research needs to be done regarding how articulated spiritual beliefs become part of an individual’s cultural identity and thus influence the person’s reflectivity and, ultimately, practice as a teacher.  This study examines the possibility that the spiritual beliefs identified by pre-service teachers as motivating them to enter the field of teaching can be used to connect their private beliefs and narratives about teaching to the larger curricular agenda of transformative multicultural education.

Teacher candidates in this study were enrolled in a mandatory multicultural education course and were in a process of developing their identity in terms of becoming teachers of diverse students.  During this process, they engaged in “knowledge production processes that are part of both spirituality and culture”.20The construction of their new knowledge included items such as embracing a stewardship for diverse learners and acquiring pedagogical strategies.  The construction of such new knowledge is related not only to the rational reception of the curriculum but also to the institutional context in which it takes place.21 Additionally, pre-service teachers’ construction of new knowledge is related to the learners’ private beliefs influenced by their cultural identity and their spirituality. 

Since such a large majority of the participants in this study were White Americans, it seems prudent to address the existence of different stages of White racial identity development.22 Assessment of these stages was addressed in the participants’ multicultural education class; however the author was not at liberty to match students’ racial identity development documents with their spiritual beliefs narratives.23 The author strongly agrees with Smith’s assertion that “[r]acial conditioning affects all American identities—white, black, etc and cuts across spiritual beliefs.”24

Marx asserts that Whiteness is connected with institutionalized power and privileges that benefit White Americans.25 Marx goes on to assert that “no White person can escape its influence, though they/we can learn to be critical of it and to work against the racism related to it.”26  The textual analysis of the narratives of pre-service teachers in this study explores the results of these predominantly White pre-service teachers using their spiritual beliefs as a means to approach Whiteness and other racial and socioeconomic issues involved in teaching diverse students.27


In this study pre-service teachers’ narratives  have been used to illustrate the potential of the spiritual reflectivity process as a means of engaging predominately white teachers with individual and systemic issues of diversity.  Using teachers’ narratives to generate research acknowledges the affective and cognitive dimensions of teachers as learners.28  Pre-service teachers’ narratives in this study were a means of expressing and exploring their private spiritual beliefs in relation to their multicultural education curriculum. According to Clandinin, Pushor, and Murray-Orr, in narrative inquiry the participants’ written reflections must be situated with regard to temporality, sociality, and place.29 

The pre-service teachers in this study were in their junior year at university and in their first year of the teacher education program.  They were predominately white, middle class women from Christian backgrounds who had had little experience with the topics of transformative multicultural education.  Like most pre-service teachers, the participants were expecting to learn strategies and activities to use with multicultural students rather than engage in critical cultural and spiritual reflectivity.30  These pre-service teachers strongly tied their spirituality to a specific religious tradition—The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons). Tisdell and Tolliver assert that “teaching for cultural relevance and drawing on spirituality can both be applied to adults who strongly tie their spirituality to a particular religious tradition…[and are] possible for the many adults who identify as ‘spiritual but not religious.’”31 The teacher education program in this study is located at a university that is affiliated with the pre-service teachers’ religion.  The way in which these dimensions of temporality, sociality, and place intertwine will become clearer through the analysis of the pre-service teachers’ narrative reflections.

The total number of participants was 70: 15 of whom were elementary education majors and 55 of whom were secondary education majors. Of this group of  participants, 65 were White and 5 were students of color (3 Asian Americans and 2 Latinas). Selecting a sample of pre-service teachers from a background of Christian faith was not intended to promote one faith over another or to promote any particular religious belief system.  Rather, the selection of pre-service teachers from a Christian background allows for a careful analysis of how pre-service teachers who mirror the demographics of most U.S. pre- and in-service teachers use their spiritual beliefs to reflect on working with diverse students. The fact that the participants in this study strongly tie their spirituality to a common Christian religious tradition yields a common vocabulary that they use to articulate their spiritual beliefs.  This commonality greatly facilitates the coding of the data because of consistency in vocabulary and phrases used by the students to articulate their spiritual beliefs.

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