Skip to main content

Spirituality and English Language Teaching: Religious Explorations of Teacher Identity, Pedagogy and Context

Mary Shepard Wong and Ahmar Mahboob, eds.
Published by Multilingual Matters in 2018

Reviewed by Michael Lessard-Clouston, Applied Linguistics & TESOL, Biola University

Mary Shepard Wong (Azusa Pacific University) has co-edited two volumes on Christians in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), one on pedagogy and ethical dilemmas and the other presenting empirical studies on Christian faith and English language teaching (ELT).1 For this edited volume, she teamed up with linguistics professor Ahmar Mahboob (University of Sydney, Australia), who has co-edited books on language and applied linguistics. Spirituality and English Language Teaching focuses on the role of spirituality in TESOL, particularly in relation to religious faith and teacher identity, pedagogical practice, and language learning contexts.

The book begins with a foreword by Suresh Canagarajah, of one Wong’s previous co-editors, who offers three reasons why spirituality is important for educators, arguing that “human inquiry always draws from our experiences, beliefs and social collaboration,” teachers “bring with them beliefs about good teaching that are motivated by their spiritual experiences and values,” and their “religious beliefs and spiritual experiences” can be resourceful dispositions that are important to students (xvii-xviii). Wong provides an introduction in chapter 1, indicating the current volume “seeks to make a meaningful contribution by exploring how spirituality affects language teaching and learning” by expanding the conversation and integrating those who draw upon “Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, non-religious and other perspectives” (1-2). Wong defines spirituality broadly as “a search for transcendence” (4) and includes a chapter-by-chapter overview of the rest of the book.

Part I, Religious Faith and Teacher Identity, includes three regular chapters and one response chapter. Wong begins chapter 2 by drawing upon both a course she teaches and the scholarly literature to outline eight sources of influence concerning ethical and moral decisions in teaching, followed by three delights and three dangers of teacher spiritual identity as pedagogy. She ends with a list of thirteen questions that might inform teacher spiritual identity, plus two sample scenarios that relate to colleagues and students with particular religious views. In chapter 3, MaryAnn Christison writes about “Buddhist Principles and the Development of Leadership Skills in English Language Program Administration and Teaching.” Using the Eightfold Path, she gives personal examples dealing with “right” understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration as she dealt with colleagues, students, and programs. Chapter 4 presents a duoethnography (two authors working together to critique and question issues/constructs) attempting interfaith dialogue by Joel Heng Hartse and Saeed Nazari. The former self-identifies as Christian and the latter Muslim; they reflect upon their beliefs and life histories to consider differences and commonalities. Sections are labeled “Joel” or “Saeed” as they discuss how religious experience is shaped by culture, language, and literature, as well as their roles as native and non-native English speakers. Chapter 5 by Ryuko Kubota responds to these three contributions. After considering religious identity and respect for difference, Kubota suggests that exercising nonattachment can help us focus on the affective dimension and enable “us to make an effort to step outside of our own convictions and enter into others’ worldview” (69).

Part II, Religious Faith and Pedagogical Practice, also includes three regular chapters and a response, beginning with Sid Brown’s “A Buddhist in the Classroom Revisited.” Discussing her teaching in a religious studies course, Brown emphasizes recognizing “beginnings, middles, and endings” (76), such as pausing, taking a deep breath, and becoming aware of the beginning as she first enters a classroom. Chapter 7 by Bal Krishna Sharma introduces Hinduism and its relevance to English language teaching and learning, such as through a view of learning that forms connections among mind, body, and spirit (90) and student-teacher relationships that require good teachers “to be role models in their virtues and morality” (95). Sharma discusses social responsibility dimensions of TESOL and offers questions for reflection on what one’s beliefs say about issues in both life and learning (98). In chapter 8 Stephanie Vandrick contextualizes religion in society, noting that Christians and others have been both critical of Western English language teachers but also the “many good things that religion has done in at least some settings” (107). Using insights from her own spiritual journey and examples from others she consulted, Vandrick discusses three assertions: 1) educators can be spiritual without practicing a specific religion; 2) people can also be spiritual without necessarily being religious, recognizing that “there is something transcendent in our lives, something beyond the mere physical facts of life” (112); and 3) those in TESOL can be ethical and committed to social justice without being religious. David I. Smith responds to these three chapters by summarizing fives ways he sees them expanding connections between faith and pedagogy: 1) with an emphasis on the teacher’s inner self, 2) how that self can frame teacher-student interpersonal interactions, 3) ethical commitments which help educators tie their faith to action or resistance in their work, 4) philosophies of life that provide teachers with questions for thinking about education in particular ways, all of which 5) help shape educators’ pedagogical practices in broad and yet specific ways (123). Smith argues that “consideration of how faith informs pedagogy can press beyond the incidental into a more systematic and concrete consideration of embodied classroom practices” (125).

Part III, Religious Faith and Language Learning Context, is the book’s longest section, with three regular chapters, one response, a concluding chapter, and an afterword. In chapter 10 Kassim Shaaban uses an ethnolinguistic vitality framework to outline connections between language and religion in constructing Lebanese identity, complexifying it in relation to political history, intergroup relations between Muslims and Christians, identity maintenance and shift, and religious faith and foreign language education in Lebanon. Shaaban discusses a case study conducted by a student and considers personal examples, concluding that “only multilingualism will do” (147). Chapter 11, by Deena Boraie, Atta Gebril, and Raafat Gabriel, introduces an interview study on eight Muslim and Christian teachers’ perceptions of the interface between religious values and language pedagogy at one university in Egypt. Using helpful examples and quotations, the authors suggest a number of themes that emerged which indicate “a clear link between faith and instructional practices and beliefs” reported by participating teachers, a link that overall appeared to be viewed positively (170). Chapter 12, by Carolyn Kristjánsson, describes a case study of church-sponsored English as a Second Language (ESL) classes in western Canada as both spiritual and social practice. Using wonderful excerpts from interviews with the directors of three church-based ESL programs, Kristjánsson not only offers insights regarding the programs and the providers’ perspectives, but also how program practices reflect interpersonal relationships and faith values. The sociocultural framework that Kristjánsson uses to discuss her findings is well suited to expanding upon the various expressions of spiritual and social practices outlined in her data.

In his response to part III in chapter 13, Brian Morgan first observes ways that the three previous chapters reflect numerous contexts, including intra-personal, inter-personal, and community dimensions, as well as broader city, region, and nation-state topics. He takes issue with a quote equating secular humanism with religion in the West that Kristjánsson references in the background to her study, suggesting that it exaggerates the situation in Canada; as a Canadian reading both her study and his reaction, I observed how we all bring our individual perceptions, as well as national ones, to our processing of what we read, including the topic of spirituality. In the concluding chapter 14, co-editor Ahmar Mahboob and Eve Courtney summarize ways that they see contributions in the book exemplifying faith beliefs and identities, values and practices, and how they connect with language teachers’ religious convictions and language policies. They also introduce a framework for identity management to help evaluate whether it is conforming (promoting dominant beliefs) or contesting (encouraging other ways of thinking), at micro individualized levels and macro institutionalized ones (213). They rightly state that the volume does not address student issues in any significant way, and suggest that further research is needed in studying “how teaching resources such as textbooks play a role in identity management” (214). The afterword by Henry Widdowson observes that ELT has a track record of imported beliefs, but he proposes a potential connection to the teacher cognition literature. In one sense, “a religion is a theory” (217), and Widdowson argues this collection is about “what we might call applied religious belief” (218). Noting the book’s title, he states that it “is about spirituality, but the different parts of the book, according to their titles, are about religious faith” (220).

The editors of and contributors to Spirituality and English Language Teaching should be commended for expanding the discussion to additional religions and TESOL, and for their efforts to address topics of personal yet significant importance for language teachers and teacher educators. I especially appreciated contributors’ vulnerability (Wong, Kubota, Brown), and resonated with the comments in many chapters, including those of Vandrick’s colleagues. Yet while this is a ground-breaking collection, I noted glimpses of hesitancy in moving such issues forward. Morgan’s response chapter, for example, ends with the suggestion that ways in which perspectives reiterate previous religious beliefs “may be a core challenge for all devoutly religious language teachers in negotiating their professional identities and their relationships with students” (203). Yet is that point not true for all teachers, regardless of religion or devotion?

As with any edited collection, this one has challenges. Some chapters are short (10 pages) while others are much longer (as much as 23), which affects the depth possible in discussions. Having regular chapters and response chapters is a device Wong used in previous collections, but it is a very different task to contribute a regular chapter compared with writing a response to three chapters. I appreciated Brown’s chapter, yet it seems out of place given that it concerns religious studies, not TESOL. The book incorporates personal narratives of experiences and opinions, but includes some empirical research. On this count some chapters are open to further criticism, since, for example, the duoethnography by Heng Hartse and Nazari is innovative yet impossible to replicate without a detailed discussion of research methods and clear conclusions.

This book is well suited to the publisher’s New Perspectives on Language and Education series. I am grateful for all I learned through this collection about Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity as they relate to TESOL, and, while there are obvious differences, I was encouraged by how much religious or spiritual language teachers and teacher trainers actually have in common. This book is highly recommended and should be in the library of every CCCU institution with a TESOL program; it might also serve as a guide for those wishing to reflect on religion and spirituality in other disciplines.

Cite this article
Michael Lessard-Clouston, “Spirituality and English Language Teaching: Religious Explorations of Teacher Identity, Pedagogy and Context”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 49:2 , 206-209


  1. Mary Shepard Wong and Suresh Canagarajah, eds., Christian and Critical English Language Educators in Dialogue: Pedagogical and Ethical Dilemmas (New York: Routledge, 2009); Mary Shepard Wong, Carolyn Kiristjánsson, and Zoltán Dörnyei, eds., Christian Faith and English Language Teaching and Learning: Research on the Interrelationship of Religion and ELT (New York: Routledge, 2013).

Michael Lessard-Clouston

Biola University
Michael Lessard-Clouston is Professor of Applied Linguistics and TESOL at Biola University.