Written by Jim Knight.

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.

When we have faith in our students, we see them as autonomous individuals deserving of our respect. William Isaacs nicely describes respect in his book Dialogue.

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.”


  1. Denise Lambert

    I can think of a few teachers that actually ‘saw’ me. They gave me confidence to try new things and take chances while in their classes.
    I can think of students who needed to be ‘seen’ within the school community and weren’t or were seen without respect or legitimacy.
    Unfortunately, many students are labeled and the labels stick from one year to the next.
    A small minority of our students are given faith, respect and legitimacy. They receive all the honors, win all the awards, and succeed. Many students feel invisible and limp with fractured self-esteem. Some are seen for what they are not instead of what they are.

    Oh, yes, we are powerful. We are more powerful than we can imagine. We have the power of acknowledging every student or only the few shining stars.

    As one of the invisible and a parent of one of the labeled and of one of the seen, I realize my power and influence in my classroom and beyond. I know that one kind word of acknowledgment or one demeaning label can make a lasting impression on the life of an individual who will then influence the lives of countless others positively or negatively.

    I reaffirm my commitment to ‘see’ all my students, to give them respect and legitimacy.

  2. Jim Knight

    Hi Denise, Thank you so much for this post. What a gift! I’d love to hear more about how your year is going as you progress. Your students are lucky to have you.


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