Faith in [people] is an a priori requirement for dialogue; the ‘dialogical [person]’ believes in other [people] even before [meeting] them face to face. Paulo Freire
What does it mean to teach with faith in our students? When I teach with faith, I truly recognize that the students I teach are equal to me, and I work from the assumption that they hold within them wisdom, knowledge, ideas, and gifts. Of course teachers have a structurally unequal position–the teacher holds tremendous power in the classroom. But if we confuse structural power with real power, that is, if we actually think we are better, more valuable human beings than our students, we do a great disservice to the children we have the opportunity to teach.
Respect is not a passive act. To respect someone is to look for the spring that feeds the pool of their experience… At its core, the act of respect invites us to see others as legitimate. We may not like what they do or say or think, but we cannot deny their legitimacy as beings. In Zulu, a South African language, the word Sawu bona is spoken when people greet one another and when they depart. It means “I see you.” To the Zulus, being seen has more meaning than in Western cultures. It means that the person is in some real way brought more fully into existence by virtue of the fact that they are seen.
Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot, in her wonderful book, Respect, tells a story from her childhood that captures the impact we can have when we respectfully have faith in others. Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot describes how she felt and what she learned when a family friend sketched a picture of her as a young girl. At its heart, Dr. Lightfoot’s story also depicts why teachers should truly have faith in their students:
The summer of my eighth birthday, my family was visited by a seventy-year-old black woman, a professor of sociology, an old and dear friend. A woman of warmth and dignity, she always seemed to have secret treasures hidden under her smooth exterior. On this visit, she brought charcoals and a sketch pad. Mid-afternoon, with the sun high in the sky, she asked me to sit for her . . .
What I remember most clearly was the wonderful, glowing sensation I got from being attended to so fully. There were no distractions. I was the only one in her gaze. My image filled her eyes, and the sound of the chalk stroking the paper was palpable. The audible senses translated into tactile ones. After the warmth of this human encounter, the artistic product was almost forgettable. I do not recall whether I liked the portrait or not . . . This fast-working artist whipped the page out of her sketch pad after less than an hour and gave it to me with one admonition: “Always remember you’re beautiful,” she said firmly. To which I responded—beaming with pleasure and momentary embarrassment—“Now I know I’m somebody!”
In the process of recording the image, the artist had made me feel “seen” in a way that I had never felt seen before, fully attended to, wrapped up in an empathic gaze.
When we have faith in our students, there is a much greater chance that they will trust us. And a trusting relationship is essential for opening the door to real, meaningful learning. More importantly though, by having faith in our students, we can help them know for themselves, as Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot says, that they are indeed “somebody.”