Lecturer Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Emily Hargroves Fisher Professor of Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education; Commentator James Forman, Jr., Professor of Law, Georgetown Law Center. This event is part of the Taube Discussion Series in American Values.
Lawrence-Lightfoot opened her lecture by challenging the notion that respect is defined by "deference to status and hierarchy." She pointed out that this archaic characterization is particularly detrimental in the context of school environments. Having visited hundreds of classrooms across the country and around the world, Lawrence-Lightfoot has acquired a unique understanding of how children judge their instructors. She noted that students identify their best teachers as those who make them feel valued and who persistently hold them to high standards. On the other hand, students feel disrespected by teachers who let them off easy and who do not believe that they have the capacity to succeed.
Lawrence-Lightfoot drew upon her experiences with families, schools, and communities to identify six distinct dimensions of respect: empowerment, healing, dialogue, curiosity, self-respect, and attention.
Probing deeper into the dimension of curiosity, Lawrence-Lightfoot asserted, "When we are respectful of others, we are genuinely interested in them." She demonstrated this point through the work of Dawoud Bey, a photographer who seeks to build relationships with his subjects and to make them feel seen. "Our view of knowing – really seeing the people in our lives – might be informed by Dawoud Bey's masterful and compassionate lens," Lawrence-Lightfoot affirmed.
A consummate teacher, Lawrence-Lightfoot concluded her lecture with eight lessons for those who want to strengthen communities on the basis of respect:
- Respect must be symmetrical and reciprocal.
- We must appreciate the immediate and visceral way that respect is conveyed through nuance, tone of voice, and figure of speech.
- We must not confuse respect with civility. Respect must go deeper than the decorum and politeness that characterize surface interactions.
- Story-telling is at the center of respectful encounters. We must approach one another with genuine curiosity, authentic questions, and attentive listening.
- We must get rid of code labels – like "inner-city," "at-risk," "disadvantaged," and "urban" – that mask the racial and economic realities that define contemporary social issues.
- We must anticipate moments of misunderstanding and prepare ourselves to navigate moments of distrust. We must welcome the dissonance of voices and perspective.
- Family origins are fundamental to shaping the ways we negotiate respectful relationships. When generational echoes are harsh or challenging, we must not unleash on others the assaults our parents and caregivers wittingly or unwittingly inflicted upon us.
- Sometimes, the most respectful interaction is an engaged silence that enables another person to communicate what he or she needs.
In his response to Lawrence-Lightfoot's lecture, James Forman, Jr. spoke about her conception of respect in the context of his own work with youth who have been incarcerated or who have dropped out of school.
Forman suggested that schools neglect Lawrence-Lightfoot's definition of respect because it is harder to achieve. It is easier for principals to command respect through intimidation and fear than through compassion, connection, and trust. Schools undoubtedly need authority, Forman maintained, but, too often, the idea of reciprocal respect is left out of the conversation.
Forman reinforced Lawrence-Lightfoot's argument that "respectful educators must retain their own curiosities" about where their students come from, how they learn, and what their interests are. He concluded by offering the example of a school counselor Lawrence-Lightfoot had written about who said her goal was "helping the student to see a future, to perhaps see a greatness that might be hidden." He enjoined the audience, "let us all seek to be so respectful toward, so curious about, the students we are blessed to teach."
By Megan Sigovich
Sonya Michel, Director, United States Studies