Belief systems have a role in shaping the performance of teachers and principles – that’s what MU researcher Noelle Witherspoon-Arnold has found. According to Witherspoon-Arnold, educators with strong belief systems are more connected to their work and their students, and they are more likely to be social justice-oriented than educators without strong belief systems. But “belief system” doesn’t always mean religion – and whatever that system is, there are often tensions at play.
We sat down with her to find out more. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Tell me about your research.
A: I was part of an informal group of black female principals, and I noticed during our conversations something about faith or spirituality would always come up. For my dissertation I started delving into the history of the role the black church played in education issues, social justice issues … so (I’m) really approaching it from that standpoint: How does faith and spirituality influence principals’ practices to achieve just outcomes for students who have a variety of social problems?
One of the things I’ve found is that faith and religion and spirituality sort of become this tool kit that they draw from. It’s sort of this impetus that informs what they do on behalf of typically underserved students.
Q: So you found that teachers with a strong religious affiliation were the best teachers?
A: Or those teachers who had some type of belief system they bought into. So it was not always “This is my religious belief.” You had some teachers who were really committed to environmentalism, and this is a really big belief of theirs. That influenced how they approached their classroom.
Q: What’s the most compelling thing you’ve found in your research?
A: I’ve always been interested in belief systems. Particularly, when we usually talk about spirituality or belief systems, everybody’s head automatically goes to separation of church and state. “Oh, that’s taboo, we can’t talk about that.” But the thing is, people bring their beliefs through the schoolhouse door whether people say anything about them or not.
People automatically think of belief as fundamentalism. So just the positive aspect that when your worldview is grounded in something you believe, that typically is displayed in how you do your work.
Q: What happens when a teacher’s belief system conflicts with a student’s belief system or a student’s rights?
A: Teaching at LSU, in a university setting, all of my classes have practitioners in there, so they’re either teachers or principals. We would actually look at real case studies that happened within their schools. What’s the tension between your belief system and how you every day do your job? We had one principal who canceled the prom because a same-sex couple wanted to go. So yeah, there are tensions.
Q: What’s the best way to confront those tensions and make sure students’ rights are protected?
A: It takes some constructive conversations about not encroaching on those rights. People aren’t immune from making people feel uncomfortable or encroaching on their rights. So of course as school officials you have to be really, I think legally, be really careful of that.
Consequently, I’ve found in rural communities this is more accepted. You can pray before a football game because that community considers themselves Christian. And I found that in communities of color, (and) Hispanic communities, if a kid comes home and says “Yeah, we read the Bible today in class,” because there’s a cultural tie there, it’s OK. So you see these differences across communities.
Q: But even with some these issues, you’ve found that teachers and principals with strong belief systems are, overall, good for schools and students?
A: It’s been overwhelmingly positive, which is really interesting considering the religious climate right now – you know conservative, liberal. And again, it’s not all about religion. But that’s automatically what people think about, and they think about it negatively. But in terms of specific outcomes, or specific practices, or the way they engage with their students, it’s been largely positive.
Q: Do you have any practical recommendations for how our school system can apply your research?
A: I think community partnerships is the biggest thing that I’ve seen. A lot of my work has been in the South and the Midwest, so you have churches that partner with schools, that kind of adopt schools. I’ve seen other types of organizations like sororities and social clubs and service organizations that actually partner with the schools. Even with these types of organizations, they do have a mission and vision, and that mission and vision is largely translated into “How can I help?” It’s an untapped resource, I think.
In my research I talk about parachurch organizations, and parachurch organizations are those kinds of organizations in communities that almost do serve a spiritual function but they’re not necessarily a faith-based organization — do, like Boys and Girls Clubs. They serve as this surrogate spiritual place.
Q: How do you think Columbia residents would react to more church and parachurch involvement in the schools?
A: We have an office of faith-based initiatives in the U.S., so we recognize the value of certain groups and their importance and the positive things they can bring to the table. We have to ask, “Is there a constructive way we can include them in the process of schooling, without it turning into this big religious issue?” In Columbia in particular a lot of community-based types of initiatives are going on. And all these different kinds of groups need to be brought to the table in finding solutions for schools. And I think Columbia is actually doing that.
Q: What’s the main takeaway from your research?
A: It takes a village, you know. That’s long been a saying: It takes a village to raise a child. So, not just your individual household, which is important, but we all have to care about kids. We all have to care about education for things to happen.
Bridgit Bowden edited/produced the audio version of this report, with voicing by Kelsey Kupferer. This story was produced in partnership with Columbia Faith & Values.