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date: 25 September 2018

Relational Pedagogy

Summary and Keywords

One could easily argue that the pedagogy of relation is not new: a genealogy of the approach would send us back to the ancient Greek philosophers. However, in recent years relational pedagogy has been taken up in novel and ever-deepening ways. It is a response to ongoing efforts at school reform that center on teacher and administrator accountability, based on a constraining view of education as the effective teaching of content. In this view, methods, curricula, and high-stakes testing overshadow the human relationship between teacher and student that relational pedagogy theorists place at the center of educational exchanges. When relationships are secondary to content, the result can be disinterested or alienated students and teachers who feel powerless to step outside the mandated curriculum of their school district.

Offering an alternative vision of pedagogy in a troubling era of teacher accountability, contemporary relational theorists take inspiration from a range of philosophical writings. This article focuses on those whose work is informed by the concept of caring, as developed by Nel Noddings, with the critical perspective of Paulo Freire, or the ethics of Emmanuel Levinas. Although these approaches to ethical educational relations do not necessarily mesh together easily, the tensions among them can bear fruit that informs our pedagogy.

Keywords: relation, pedagogy, ethics, caring, responsiveness, Levinas

Each student-teacher relationship is a unique pedagogical space: it is a one-on-one teaching situation, a partnership of sorts, that can lead to learning exchanges that enliven both individuals. However, in the United States, ongoing efforts at school reform and a culture of teacher and administrator accountability take a limited view of pedagogy as the effective teaching of mandated content. This approach is particularly troubling in an era of deeply inequitable educational access, resources, and outcomes that disproportionately affect the poor and students of color. Further, student demographics are becoming more and more diverse, while those who teach them are still likely to be members of the culturally dominant Euro-American background.

Relational pedagogy is a response by contemporary philosophers of education to ongoing efforts at school reform based on a constraining view of education that revolves around methods, curricula, and high-stakes testing. Instead, relational theorists invite us to place the human relationship between teacher and student at the center of educational exchanges and to deeply question both the nature of that relationship and what that relationship might mean to teaching and learning. Intuitively, we understand the centrality of student-teacher relations at all levels of education; to question their importance seems somewhat foolish. But relational theorists also emphasize the notion that learning happens in and through relationships: “knowing arises not merely as a function of an individual consciousness at work, but as a by-product of the interaction, the relations, between and among persons in particular contexts” (Stengel, 2004; and see Thayer-Bacon, 2003, for an interesting study on relational epistemology, which is closely connected to relational pedagogy). This being the case, a close examination of the relationships themselves becomes necessary.

This essay offers a philosophically based overview of relational pedagogy, including a brief genealogy, and a look at new perspectives in the field. There are pathways into a philosophy of relational pedagogy using, for example, Martin Buber’s theory of the I-Thou relation (Aspelin, 2010), or Kenneth Gergen’s Relational Being (Aspelin, 2011). However, because it is a route followed by numerous North American and European philosophers of education, we will focus on the literature on caring and discussions of Levinasian ethics. Given shifting U.S. demographics, as we proceed I will try to delineate key concepts in relational pedagogy, while keeping one eye on what it means to develop pedagogical relations across difference.

Important tenets of relational pedagogy that will take shape in the following sections include: the teacher is also a learner; openness to the unknowableness of the Other is vital; asymmetrical power dynamics, and the educational histories of exclusion and marginalization of certain groups trouble our ability to nurture relations; a willingness to be self-reflective generally precedes the ability to develop fruitful learning relations across differences. Rather than give prescriptive advice for managing day-to-day classroom affairs or rules for ethical relationships with students, the concern here is to introduce an educational theory. Even though this is necessarily a rather abstract undertaking, I will close by offering a few suggestions regarding qualities educators might cultivate if they wish to take up the challenges of relational pedagogy.

An Ethic of Care

The words care and caring often arise in discussions of teaching, and perhaps not surprisingly, we can trace the roots of relational pedagogy to the literature on caring. Carol Gilligan’s landmark work In a Different Voice (Gilligan, 1982) offers a woman’s perspective on moral responsibility, one based on caring and relationship. She writes, “The ideal of care is … an activity of relationship, of seeing and responding to need, taking care of the world by sustaining the web of connection so that no one is left alone” (Gilligan, 1982, p. 62). The women in her study maintained that we are each responsible to care for others because we are all interdependent. Gilligan opened the door to discussing emotion, relationship, and personal responsibility as vital components of our morality, and educators can learn from her work. In the classroom, Gilligan-inspired teachers would be academic examples of responsibility to others. They understand the interdependent nature of their relationship with their students, and do not leave their students alone to navigate a sometimes arduous educational path.

Nel Noddings moved our understanding of the caring relation further along, deeply developing the concept in her groundbreaking work Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (Noddings, 1984). Importantly, as a philosopher of education, she explicitly applied her ethic to the relation between teacher and student (Noddings, 2005). Noddings states that schools should be caring places, and teachers should care for their students. But what does this mean, exactly? “When we see the other’s reality as a possibility for us …, when I am in this sort of relationship with another, when the other’s reality becomes a real possibility for me, I care” (Noddings , 1984, p. 14). As she develops her thoughts on caring, Noddings notes the importance of receptivity in the caring relationship: the one caring (e.g., the teacher) must be receptive to the cared-for (the student). She further asserts that the cared-for must receive the caring for the circuit to be complete, and that the ability to sustain the reciprocal relationship over time is an essential element of caring.

There is much to be said for the fact that Gilligan and Noddings initiated the discussion of care and responsibility as central to our moral relations with others, however, there are also valid critiques of their work. One concern when we consider the classroom or a one-on-one teaching relation, such as tutoring or mentorship, is Noddings’ contention that caring is only complete if the cared-for apprehends and receives it from the one caring. What if a teacher genuinely cares, but that is not the student’s perception? An even more troubling difficulty with Noddings is the fact that she models her teacher/student caring on the caring of a mother for her diverse family. In both Gilligan and Noddings, there is a sense of the home, of intimate relationships, as the ground on which we build a morality based on caring. Noddings states: “We learn a moral way of life in the inner circle. It is … essential that children be cared for and that they recognize and respond to care” (Noddings, 2005, p. 110). Only when this is accomplished will children –and we—follow through on the promise of the ethic of care: “to meet each living other in a caring relation” (p. 110). In an ideal situation, students of all ages should, feel cared for by their teachers, but when teaching takes place across the many dimensions of difference there are minimally two issues with Noddings’ approach.

First, there is an implicit normalizing and privileging of white, middle-class values of home and family life (Thompson, 2003). Eurocentric middle-class values displace or ignore the home values of students who may come from a different culture. That is, we find ourselves in a troubling situation in which a normalized Euro-American model of caring may usurp the model of motherly caring in the child’s home. (To put it bluntly: No matter our own social background, our students already have mothers and other caregivers. Caring classroom relations should be modeled on a different ideal.) Additionally, students’ homes may offer more than an internal difference in caring. As Audrey Thompson critiques in her Black feminist treatment of the caring literature, in other cultures “love and caring do not step back from the world in order to return to innocence, but step out in the world in order to change it” (Thompson , 2003, p. 9). Although Gilligan speaks to our responsibility to the wider world, and Noddings comes to include this broader perspective in her later work, their original understandings of responsibility and caring do not encompass nonwhite perspectives.

The normalized white middle-class home may provide one model of caring, but it is not enough. In Angela Valenzuela’s study of Mexican American high school youth (Valenzuela, 1999), we find a more active, multidimensional caring built on Noddings’ foundation. Rather than teachers merely seeing students as part of a large, extended multicultural family, and assuming that because of this attitude the school will run more smoothly and the students will want to learn, Valenzuela asks us to also examine our students’ cultural world and structural position within society. She compares Noddings’ ideal of education based on caring relationships to the Mexican concept of educación. However, to care in this context can mean more is required of the teacher than some may wish to give; indeed, it violates a closely-held belief that professionals must maintain certain social boundaries in relations with students. As one student poignantly remarks, “It almost seemed … like the teachers didn’t want to know us, or too much about us.… Maybe it was like the more they knew us, the more they’d be responsible, and their problems were so big, big! What would it mean in that situation to genuinely care for us? It would mean caring for the big problems” (Valenzuela, 1999, p. 60). These students want to be known, to be cared for, but it means also caring for the problems of their larger community. Valenzuela elaborates: the students “view caring, or reciprocal relations, as the basis for all learning. Their precondition to caring about school is that they be engaged in a caring relationship with an adult at school” (Valenzuela, p. 79). When they receive this more encompassing care, they will invest themselves in school; they will enter into a reciprocal relation of respect and care with those teachers who are able to embody their culturally based understanding of care.

The concept that caring must precede learning heralds an important feature of relational pedagogy: learning only takes place within and through relationships. But caring is complicated, especially when we are in relationships that cross the many dimensions of sociocultural difference: race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, gender, and/or ability. In U.S. schools, the imperative to take into account these demographic realities will only grow more pressing. When teachers from dominant backgrounds assume Noddings’ mothering stance in relation to their students, they risk alienating some students from marginalized groups, while simultaneously assimilating those who seek to excel into the dominant, normalized, Eurocentric values of the academic space. The latter would result in drawing students away from their families and home cultures. Valenzuela offers her wisdom on these concerns. Teachers must:

embark on a search for connections where trusting relationships constitute the cornerstone for all learning. A sincere search for connection will reposition the ill-informed teacher as ‘student’ of the [students’] community, … majority teachers … will become reflective and arrive at an awareness of their own contradictory position vis-à-vis the community.

(Valenzuela, 1999, p. 263)

Here, Valenzuela anticipates another vital concept of relational pedagogy: in some interactions, the teacher becomes the learner. There is an ebb and flow to the pedagogical relation and, at any given time, either person may take up the role of “teacher.”

Applying Valenzuela’s directive to pedagogical relations, we can easily see that understanding the social and political tensions inherent in any teaching relationship is vital, especially one that takes place across difference. Valenzuela’s culturally sensitive caring pedagogy can lead to a deeper relationship between teacher and student. However, it is a balancing act: while deliberately dealing with sociocultural and power relationships is important, the teacher is simultaneously an academic guide who must help the student learn the required material. Valenzuela exhorts us to develop a trusting relationship by sincerely searching for connection; but how do educators accomplish this? Moving deeper into the theories that give rise to relational pedagogy can help deconstruct what it might mean to create caring and trusting relationships.

The Ethics of Emmanuel Levinas

Charles Bingham and Alexander Sidorkin introduce their edited volume on relational pedagogy by informing us that “the authors of this book try to understand human relations rather than educational processes, behaviors, methods, curriculum, and so on. We are interested in how interhuman relations affect and define teaching and learning” (Bingham & Sidorkin, 2004). Jointly written by all of the essayists in Bingham and Sidorkin’s book, the chapter “Manifesto of Relational Pedagogy” includes a number of key principles. Those most pertinent to this article include: the self is a knot in the web of multiple intersecting relations; human relations exist in and through shared practices; relations are complex; relations are primary, actions are secondary; teaching is building educational relations; educational relation exists to include the student in a wider web of relations (see Bingham & Sidorkin, 2004). These tenets echo Valenzuela’s position that relations are primary to her Mexican American students, and that relations necessarily precede action within a teaching context. But Valenzuela’s students asked to be “known,” and before proceeding further, we must complicate the idea that we can truly know another person.

Perhaps one of the most vital concepts underlying the work of a number of relational pedagogy theorists is otherness, or alterity. It is a difficult concept to hold on to: that ultimately any person with whom we enter into relationship is always a mystery—no matter how well we think know her, no matter how similar our lives may have been, we can never truly know another person. A brief look at the work of Emmanuel Levinas is essential to better understand this foundational notion. Levinas discusses alterity using the metaphor of the face: “… the face is a meaning all by itself. You are you” (Levinas, 1985, p. 86). When we are in the presence of the face, we are called into relationship and become responsible to the Other. And yet, “the Other remains infinitely transcendent, infinitely foreign; his face in which his epiphany is produced and which appeals to me breaks with the world that can be common to us …” (Levinas, 1969, p. 194). Clarence Joldersma offers a very accessible explanation of Levinas’ Other:

By ‘other,’ Levinas means to say not merely another person, one who may well turn out to be very much like me, but that person in his or her strangeness, alterity, difference, foreignness. The other does not fit within my categorization and expectations, my totality and economy, my sameness. The other is a stranger that I welcome into my home.

(Joldersma, 2001, p. 182)

Although some might think it goes without saying that each person is unique, a singular being, I would say that most of us do not deeply consider what alterity means. Furthermore, if we truly behold the Other’s face, we are called to an ethical relationship with her, which, according to Levinas, must be nonviolent. Our infinite, ethical responsibility to the Other is “an imperative obligation that seeps into our consciousness before we are totally aware of it” (Joldersma, 2014, p. 14). For Levinas, our responsibility for the Other compels our ethical response, and this response constitutes us as subjects. We continually become ourselves through each and every relational event. Using philosophical language, this concept can be stated as ethics precedes ontology; our ethical response to the Other, given in each specific event of relating to that Other, brings our very selves into the world. That is, our ethical relation with the Other precedes our very being: we become who we are in the moment of relating.

By ethics, I want to be clear that I do not mean a set of rules for how to behave toward the Other; rather, Levinasian ethics arise from the shifting ground of our moment-by-moment face-to-face relation to the Other. This understanding of relationship is demanding. It requires us to remain open to being addressed by the Other through the constant stream of momentary interactions, and we must also respond to being addressed, while remaining aware of the Other’s alterity. Further, in a very deep way, we do not exist apart from our relations with the Other: for Levinas, we are not autonomous, sovereign subjects who occupy one side of relationship, but our subjectivity arises in the event of relating to the Other. The “between-ness” nature of subjectivity gives rise to the term intersubjectivity. Given its challenging meaning, intersubjectivity is a term that bears closer examination in the educational context.

Intersubjectivity in the Gap and the Border

If we accept that each person is a unique mystery, and that we are each the Other to those around us, and that our subjectivity arises in the event of relating to the Other, then we must recognize that the teaching relationship is minimally peopled by two Others. As the student is Other to the teacher, so the teacher is to the student. The space between these two Others is where the power of the relationship lies. It is a space of difficulty, but it is also a space of possibility if only we can act ethically within it. Moreover, different metaphors are used to describe the in-between space. Gert Biesta is an important relational pedagogy theorist who takes a Levinasian approach to intersubjectivity. Conceiving of education as a process of human communication, he turns to communication theory to describe the gap between teacher and student, stating, “it is this very gap that makes communication – and hence education—possible” (Biesta, 2004a, p. 13). That is, education can only take place through communication, and communication happens through interactions with difference (alterity), which take place in the gap. Education, he asserts, is only possible as part of our social relations within the gap, and importantly, it is performative in nature. By this Biesta means “education exists only in and through the communication interaction between the teacher and the learner” (Biesta, 2004a, p. 21). It is the performance of meaning within the communicative relationship that matters. He elucidates this idea by referring to Bhabha’s enunciative Third Space that is “neither me/where I am, nor you/where you are. It is precisely the in-between that makes any communication and any existence of meaning possible.” (Biesta, 2004a, p. 20). Just as each individual is ultimately a mystery according to Levinas, the gap is also unrepresentable and mysterious because it is a space in which meaning is performed anew with each interaction and what takes place within it cannot be controlled. The gap is enunciative in that it brings something new into existence: two unique people—both teacher and student—are transformed by the new meanings that come into being through their relationship within the gap. The fact that this relationship is one in which learning takes place recalls Valenzuela’s notion that the teacher also becomes a learner when she is in a caring relation with her student(s).

Biesta acknowledges that the risks of entering the gap are real, but tells us that it is also an opportunity. “The risk is clear. The space of enunciation is in a very fundamental and practical sense unpredictable. Yet it is at the same time the space in which speaking becomes possible; it is the space, in other words, where people—individual, singular beings—can reveal who they are in that moment, where they can come ‘into presence” (Biesta, 2004a, p. 22). For Biesta, coming into presence within the gap is form of “enunciative agency”—a postmodern expression of agency that does not rely on a modernist, sovereign understanding of subjectivity in which an “I” already exists independent of my relations with others. Enunciative agency allows both teacher and student to reveal themselves, to come into being as they educate one another and as they educate themselves. Such a reciprocal understanding of the space between teacher and student speaks to what we might hope for in a teaching relationship: that through the mutual relationship, the student and the teacher can both “come into presence” as unique individuals.

Gloria Anzaldúa and Henry Giroux, although perhaps not strictly speaking relational pedagogues, also write in varied ways of in-between spaces of possibility, and we can hear them when Biesta directs us to “mind the gap!” in our relationships. Anzaldúa (1999) struggles with internal and external borders of language, geography, and culture. Some of the borders are in her own psycho-emotional life, some between her and other people, or between herself and the various sociocultural spaces she inhabits. In outlining her mestiza consciousness, she creates something new, a place that simultaneously holds within it all of her contradictory positions, thoughts, and values. It is a place where she does not choose sides, but lives into the strength and power of a messy border psychology. Giroux (2005) gives us another angle on the border metaphor, one that steps back from personal, internal struggles to examine the political. He writes that the category of the border “signals a recognition of those epistemological, political, cultural, and social margins that structure the language of history, power, and difference … [It] also prefigures … pedagogical processes as a form of border crossing” (Giroux, p. 20). Giroux recognizes that borders create a transgressive space in which “existing borders forged in domination can be challenged and redefined” (p. 21). Borders between students and teachers can contain any and all of the above contradictions, especially when the students occupy a marginalized social position, so Giroux’s idea of a transgressive border pedagogy is helpful to an attempt to outline a relational pedagogy that embraces difference. The borders to be transgressed in relationship are multiple. They can be internal borders, such as Anzaldúa confronts, or the borders can signify the space between student and teacher as individuals. Borders also exist between their raced, classed, gendered positions, and their positions within the educational hierarchy. The word is heavy with meaning.

Considering Power and History

Certainly there is a power differential between student and teacher simply by virtue of their respective positions in the academic hierarchy. However, when the relationship takes place across differences of race, class, gender, sexuality, or ability, it is further complicated by histories of colonization, slavery, and the exclusion of marginalized groups from education. Structurally, colonial regimes no longer exist—at least for the most part. But these sad histories have contemporary resonances in under-resourced schools and in educational practices that limit opportunities for students from formerly colonized, enslaved, and disenfranchised groups. (Outright exclusion, Eurocentrically normed standardized tests, and tracking are just three mechanisms schools have used to erect barriers for marginalized students.) Thus, if the teacher is from a dominant (white, middle-class) background, and she differs from the student in—for example—ethnicity and class status, additional power imbalances are at play, and these complicate the teaching relation. We do not live—or teach—in a neutral, ahistorical context. The historical domination of the student’s identity groups, as well as the student’s own history of academic marginalization, inherently complicate any attempt to relate across difference. Such social/historical differences are quite common in schools and universities: most K–12 teachers and university professors continue to be members of the dominant social groups, and the student bodies they serve are increasingly diverse.

To address these complications, some newer work in relational pedagogy applies Nelson Maldonado-Torres’ concept of coloniality to educational settings. Maldonado-Torres describes coloniality as “long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism, but that define culture …, intersubjective relations, and knowledge production. It is maintained alive in books [and] in the criteria for academic performance” (Maldonado-Torres, 2007). Coloniality is a very useful concept that adds nuance to studies in relational pedagogy: given the Eurocentric nature of most curricula, as well as of the hierarchy found in school social life, educators of any background must guard against developing an imperial attitude (Maldonado-Torres, 2007) toward marginalized students.

In particular, Frank Margonis’ body of work closely examines the possibilities for relational pedagogy in contemporary contexts permeated with coloniality. Margonis characterizes these educational contexts as neocolonial, and the potentially problematic relational and communicative space between teacher and student in such settings as the “neocolonial gap.” (Margonis, 2010). He asks: where and how can coloniality be disrupted so that strong, educative relationships and new collective insights might emerge? In channeling Giroux’s large, societal border issues into the smaller vessel of the more personal teaching relationship, Frank Margonis’ concept of political intersubjectivity brings additional nuance to relational pedagogy (Margonis, 2011a). He builds on Biesta’s intersubjective teaching relation by asserting that neocolonial contexts call us to practice “political intersubjectivity.” To develop this concept, Margonis draws on Biesta’s Levinasian stance toward subjectivity as well as Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy. To practice political intersubjectivity, educators must walk a fine philosophical line. On the one hand, they are called to acknowledge Freire’s modernist understanding of oppression in educational contexts. That is, those who teach students from formerly colonized and enslaved groups must recognize the educational effects of sustained practices of oppression and exclusion: schools have a long history of complicity with oppressive politics. To work against this history, we must educate ourselves on histories of oppression and remain cognizant of how these may still manifest in the lives of our students. On the other hand, we must not allow the past to foreclose possibilities for the present and to limit our understanding of who our students may be in any interaction. We must never assume we can fully “know” our students or their home cultures. Following Biesta, we are to understand that our students and we come to presence as unique beings in the event of responding to the Other. Thus, Margonis asserts that in the classroom, “the teacher’s first responsibility is to look after the specific subjectivity of each individual student” (Margonis, 2011a, p. 271) Balancing between Freire and Biesta, therefore, educators are to “set up the intersubjective contexts within which students might ‘come into presence” (p. 277). We invite students into the educational relation and allow them to respond to us. In the event of responding, they find out who they are in that context. But political intersubjectivity asks that, before they respond in turn, teachers take power dynamics into account, especially with regard to students’ and their own social and historical positions.

Margonis’ notion of political intersubjectivity encourages educators to consider how social histories and power imbalances interact not only with the specific social positions of teacher and student, but also with the educational context in which they are brought together. The teaching context thus includes multiple layers of power imbalances. Although such an understanding of power might seem out of step with the postmodern idea of Levinasian intersubjectivity, political intersubjectivity endorses an ethical pedagogical orientation that calls the teacher to hesitate (Biesta, 2012) for a moment prior to responding to the student, and to consider at least two questions. What response will, in turn, allow the student to respond to me and encourage her to come into presence (Hinsdale, 2015)? How might power and history influence this particular relation?

Hesitating, teachers remind themselves of what they do not and cannot know about their students; they consider their students’ alterity. As social beings, we have a natural tendency to look for points of common understanding and background with those around us. But when we think we know who a student is and what she needs to learn, we have already foreclosed opportunities for discovery and wonder as well as for the important, but sometimes difficult, learning that takes place across differences in social/cultural position. Differences are elided when we try to emphasize our sameness, and this can easily happen in the teaching relationship: but when differences are collapsed into homogeneity, are we truly looking out for the interest of our students?

Hesitating, teachers remind themselves of the power imbalances between themselves and their students. Joldersma describes the student’s vulnerability: “because she is the weak partner in the teacher/ student relationship, the student is other. His or her exposedness and need inevitably obligates the teacher … to be a servant (paidagogos) responsible for the student as other” (Joldersma, 2001, p. 186). In this “stutter-step” (Joldersma, 2014, p. 16), before a response is possible, educators can remember that their thoughts, actions, and values are not necessarily transparent to their students. There is much they cannot know about their students, and they must remain open to being called into question by the encounter with the Other. Such a critical understanding of power relations is especially crucial considering the neocolonial context of contemporary schooling.

As the circle of relational pedagogy theorists expands, more center their work on the complications that can arise in pedagogical relations across differences of race, class, gender, sexuality, or ability. This is particularly the case in the context of the United States and the Americas, where we can also find voices from the Global South enriching relational pedagogy with previously subjugated theories. While complicating its modernist nature and the oppressed/oppressor binary, their work often tacitly or explicitly recognizes the contributions of Paolo Freire’s critical pedagogy (Freire, 1974): the “banking” nature of most schooling, the asymmetrical power relation between teacher and student, the lived experience of students from marginalized groups, and the Eurocentric nature of all levels of mainstream education. For example, Belinda ‘Otukolo Saltiban offers an indigenous Oceanic relational ethic that is deeply intertwined with epistemology and ontology. In her sociologically based study of Tongan high school students, she uses the concept of tauhi vā, in which, “ indicates ‘space’ or ‘relationships,’ while tauhi signals … to protect, … to tend to, or to nurture (Ka’ili, 2005; Mafile’o, 2008). Together, tauhi vā is interpreted to mean nurturing and looking after, and/or maintaining relationships …” (‘Otukolo Saltiban, 2012, p. 79). Tauhi vā is an interdependent, reciprocal, collaborative, and communal ethic of care that encompasses the environment as well as generations of people across space and time. In ‘Otukolo Saltiban’s study, it forms the foundation of a new—yet ancient—approach to the teaching relation.

A Closer Look at Pedagogical Responsiveness

Educators who embrace relational pedagogy work across the gap to allow all students to “come into presence.” But the pedagogical relationship is a fragile space because we risk asking students to become what we envision them to be, to learn what we have decided they should learn, rather than co-creating unexpected knowledge. If we accept that the Other is ultimately a mystery to us, and that the gap between two people is quite real, and if we determine to keep this central in our thoughts, how does the teacher work across the gap? And what are the qualities that a response-able (Stengel, 2004), ethical teacher must hold? From Levinas we learned that, if we truly see the Other and respond to her face, we are called to an ethical relationship, which by nature must be nonviolent. In effect, I allow the Other to constitute me through my responsiveness to her. How educators nonviolently encourage a student’s coming to presence in the intersubjective learning event is the critically important question, and relational pedagogy offers a collection of interwoven skills and dispositions by which we can begin to understand how to become a responsive teacher: self-reflective suspicion that allows us to feel discomfort; an inquiry stance that supports listening; imagination for “visiting”; and relational trust without ground. These concepts build on one another so that teachers from all backgrounds may cultivate ethical relationships with their students. Ultimately, I hope to sketch the contours of an “activity that looks like passivity” (Mayo, 2004), for this is the relational stance that will best serve our students.


Cris Mayo addresses head on the difficulty of working across the gap and recognizes the necessity to not seek the comfort of sameness when we are in relationship with another, for it is only through discomfort and difficult relations that we can truly learn. Comfort will not necessarily help either the student or the teacher to grow (Mayo, 2004, p. 130). Mayo tells us that “at the very least, a suspicion that one does not know as much as one thinks one knows allows one to remain more open to the possibility of difficult relations. Further, a suspicion about one’s ignorance can be a motivation to form relations that keep one grappling with one’s understanding of the world” (Mayo, 2004, pp. 125–126). Once we begin to suspect that we are ignorant of the Other and her worldview, we allow ourselves to become aware that a relationship across difference may involve a significant gap, and we may open ourselves to the Other in a new way. The process can be uncomfortable, and it requires a disposition toward dislodging long-held assumptions and attitudes. As George Yancy advocates, educators from dominant backgrounds must especially be willing to “tarry” with the discomfort (Yancy, 2012) that arises when we reflect on the ways in which we might be privileged by race, ethnicity, gender, heteronormativity, ability, or by our position in the academic hierarchy. Megan Boler and Michalinos Zembylas also understand that engaging in critical inquiry requires us to reevaluate worldviews, and this “process can incur feelings of anger, grief, disappointment and resistance, but … also offers … new windows on the world” (Boler & Zembylas, 2003, p. 111). Importantly, and calling to mind Margonis’ political intersubjectivity, they are clear that both student and educator (no matter their background) should be prepared to accept Boler’s “pedagogy of discomfort.”


If we are suspicious (Hinsdale, 2015)1 of our ability to understand the Other, and willing to accept the discomfort of being open to the Other, what are we called to do if we seek an ethical relationship? First, we must follow Valenzuela’s call for us to become students of our students’ lives (Valenzuela, Subtractive, p. 263), and learn to listen. For Lisa Delpit, communicating across differences,

takes a very special kind of listening, listening that requires not only open eyes and ears, but hearts and minds. We do not really see through our eyes or hear through our ears, but through our beliefs. To put our beliefs on hold is to cease to exist as ourselves for a moment—and that is not easy.

(Delpit, 2006, pp. 46–47)

She encourages educators to become vulnerable, “to allow the realities of others to edge themselves into our consciousness” (Delpit, p. 47). And although it goes against the grain of our training, when the situation calls for it, we must share more of ourselves than we might generally do in a student/teacher relationship. In doing so, we create openings in which responsive relations can flourish.

It is equally vital to listen to the broader context of students’ lives and to listen for silence and silencing in the classroom context—what Delpit would call the “silenced dialogue” (Delpit, p. 47):

Listening for silence includes listening for missing conversations and overlooked perspectives, and also listening for the moments when students are actively silenced by individuals and institutions … [L]istening for silencing includes listening for divergent perspectives and the moments when individuals have been shut out of the conversation.

(Schultz, 2003, p. 109)

Like Mayo and Delpit, Kathryn Schultz asks us to grapple with unfamiliar perspectives and to be open to the other. In her work on listening, so that we can profoundly come to know students, she tells us that one can “not presume to know how to teach her students without taking an inquiry stance and carefully listening to them” (Schultz, 2003, p. 34). Schultz has a deep definition of listening: it “suggests noticing the humanness of every child, recognizing what Carini (2001) refers to as [their] ‘widely distributed capacity’” (Schultz, 2003, p. 35). Further, she tells us, “knowing children well means learning about their heritage and communities, their particular stories and entry points into learning, and their relationships to others” (Schultz, 2003, pp. 35–36). For teachers who need to learn more about the experiences of marginalized groups, there is a wide range of literature about the social and educational histories as well as the contemporary concerns of underrepresented or first-generation students. This is an important first step, but we must take care to not to assume we know them and their experiences. It is a fine line to walk: we study educational patterns of exclusion and deficit assumptions about underrepresented students and their families, but as we learn about patterns and trends, we must take care not to essentialize the student who sits before us—to create a marginalized, objectified other, rather than a Levinasian Other.


Becoming a student of our students’ lives prepares educators to hesitate and to become Levinasian listeners. That is, the teacher’s response to the student is “imposed … by the face of the student, [in which] the uniqueness of the student is an appeal to the teacher’s responsibility towards him or her” (Joldersma, 2001, p. 187). Such listening turns on understanding the vulnerability of the student, but it also involves a certain measure of risk on the part of the listener. If we authentically listen, we succumb to our “elected obligation” (p. 187) to the student. In so doing, we enter into Biesta’s third enunciative space and welcome the student to meet us there. Joldersma refers to this stance as a “pedagogical moment of welcoming” (p. 187) and tells us that listening itself is an openness to the Other in which our expectations and assumptions, indeed our very selves, can be undone. Listening, he therefore declares, is an ethical relationship (Joldersma, 2014, pp. 36–37). Even so, our listening to better know students must always carry within it the suspicion that we will never be entirely successful in this task. As Biesta reminds us, “we cannot close [the] gap by trying to ‘reach out’ to our partners in communication, by trying to listen to them, by trying to understand them because each time that we return our understandings to them, a new gap emerges, a new third space of enunciation comes into existence” (Biesta, 2012, p. 10).

Although we cannot close the gap between ourselves and our students, Biesta offers imagination as an approach to meeting the Other in an ethical relationship. He writes that we need “imagination both for ‘putting things in their proper distance’ and for [at least partially] ‘bridging the abysses to others’” (Biesta, 2006, p. 90). Following Arendt, he refers to this act of imagination as visiting: it involves the ability to construct stories from the multiple perspectives that may “‘have an interest in telling it’ [and] ‘imagining how I would respond as a character in a story very different from my own’” (Biesta, 2006, p. 90). Biesta is careful to distinguish visiting from empathy, for he would say that empathy involves assimilation into a place that is not your home, whereas visiting does not. It is an alternative for empathy. Biesta writes:

To my mind the main problem with empathy is that it assumes that we can simply (and comfortably) take the position of the other, thereby denying both the situatedness of ones’ own seeing and thinking and that of the other’s. Visiting is therefore not to see through the eyes of someone else, but to see with your own eyes from a position that is not your own …

(Biesta, 2006, p. 91)

Because it is such a widely held point of common sense that empathy is not only possible, but also necessarily good, a critical view of empathy needs more elaboration. Sharon Todd offers a subtle and thorough discussion of the pedagogical problems with empathy.

In her work on social justice education, Todd explores many facets of empathy, and several of her points are salient to this discussion. First, there is a distinct difficulty inherent in any attempt to reconstruct and understand an Other’s experience and feelings through our own imagination, our own filters of experience and psychology. Further, Todd explains that empathy is not a mode of relationality that will help us to keep our attention focused on the alterity of the Other. If we focus on empathy, we will ultimately lose our focus on the gap, and it is our space of freedom and ethical responsibility. As educators,

learning [about our students’ lives] through empathy cannot but mask, despite our best intentions, the Other’s radically different feelings, experiences, and needs as unique. Empathy necessarily leads to questionable assumptions that the Other is ultimately somewhat like me, that what I feel is the same as (or at least approximates) the Other’s feelings …

(Todd, 2003, p. 63)

Empathy might be a helpful first step toward working across difference, because it may lead us to self-reflection, but it is not about “respecting the singularity and uniqueness of the Other” (Todd, 2003, p. 62), which is the central need of any ethical relationship, but especially those that take place across difference. We can never truly understand another’s experience, and importantly, to assume we can falsely diminishes the size of the gap between us.

What can take the place of empathy? Suspicion of our ignorance and an inquiry stance might indicate that Biesta’s concept of visiting can be a useful turn of direction. But we also need openness, receptivity, and passivity to learn to “visit” with imagination. Todd’s discussion of openness is helpful at this juncture. She returns to Levinas when she writes of the risk of communication in a relationship “in which the self seeks a radical openness toward the Other, [and is] susceptible to being moved by the approach of the Other” (Todd, 2003, p. 68). This openness is, as she writes, sacrificial in nature:

the self offers itself for the Other in a spontaneous gesture of generosity that is not self-interested but is for the Other. For Levinas, sacrifice, unlike commonplace definitions, is understood as a responsibility for the approach of the Other … [It] is a relation to the Other that sustains difference.

(Todd, 2003, p. 69)

We are to sustain difference through our welcoming, inquiry stance, and by attentively listening in the manner of Delpit, Schultz, and Joldersma, yet always holding in mind that our listening is a response to being addressed by the Other (Biesta, 2012), and therefore holds the possibility of changing us.

Todd develops our understanding of listening as a characteristic of relational openness. Calling it an ability to “receive a world we cannot share” (Todd, 2003, p. 128); she says listening is a time when we commit ourselves to learning from the Other, not merely learning about her. From a Levinasian perspective, we “attend to the Other, or, more appropriately, the otherness of the Other” (Todd, 2003, p. 130) and allow her embodied, situated presence to speak. In attending and listening, we hold ourselves open to the face of the other, to her alterity, and we allow ourselves to be changed: “it is not so much that the listener is selfless, but that the listener’s response, her attentiveness, must incorporate the conditions of her own self-questioning” (Todd, 2003, p. 132). This is reflexive listening, in which we always question our position. As well, listening happens in the present moment—the here and now—but we must remember it is an encounter that “resounds with the past and anticipates an unknowable future” (Todd, 2003, p. 134). Time and continuity of the relationship are therefore of utmost importance. Todd considers the moment of listening to be a hopeful space that holds the possibility for nonviolent education. She writes: “learning occurs through such listening, and … we need to attend to when it happens, to embrace its unpredictability as part of what it means to teach and learn across difference” (Todd, 2003, p. 137). Maintaining the ethical orientation of open and attentive listening is, she writes, “an act of exceeding ourselves; it is a generosity that spontaneously gives attention to the Other by being present and responsive in the here and now” (Todd, 2003, p. 138). Such attention is indeed difficult, and one begins to apprehend the profound generosity listening entails.


Deeply listening and remaining attentive imply trust on the part of the listener, for we cannot gauge the risks of our interactions: how will we be moved and changed by the Other when we enter the gap and choose to listen? Let’s spend a moment examining the idea of relational trust. The openness, receptivity, and indeed the sacrifice just discussed are, as we have said, risky in nature. What prompts someone to trust another enough to engage in this type of relationship, to sacrifice oneself in order to meet the Other with the risky commitment to allow her to reveal herself, to “come into presence” within the gap? Biesta reminds us, “trust is about those situations in which you do not know and cannot know what will happen. Trust is by its very nature without ground” (Biesta, 2006, p. 25). Trust in relationship is borne out of desire to act ethically. We answer to something more than, and outside of, ourselves: our relationship to the Other that develops out of the space between us. The teacher and the student must both trust for the relationship to blossom completely, but the educator is responsible for taking the first step in this direction, especially given the asymmetrical nature of the teacher-student power relation.

To nurture trust across difference is a complicated matter, but there are certain steps educators can take toward this goal. Self-reflective teachers who are at ease with the discomfort that can arise in reexamining their worldviews can become vulnerable to their students by voicing their critical understanding of whiteness, power, and privilege. They can make a conscious, political decision to try to create a space for something new to arise in the classroom by signaling their receptivity and openness to students. They are clear about the fact that they are open to being called into question, academically and personally. To the extent their context allows it, teachers can share relational power, and encourage their students to push their disciplines’ traditional limits. For example, professors can support marginalized students through research projects informed and driven by their marginalized social and historical position.

Relational and academic curiosity—a receptive attitude, not a prying one—are also prerequisites for deeply connecting with students in a trusting way. As relationships develop and students share bits and pieces of themselves, teachers can respond with genuine interest and make it clear they want to better understand their students on more than an academic level. Valenzuela’s work helps us understand that in this way the students might feel our support. This work is intentional, but we must always bear in mind that good intentions are not enough.

Limitations and Moving Forward

Biesta reminds us of a point made earlier in this essay: “It is important not to forget … that the world is not a neutral place. [It is] by necessity a world of plurality and difference. This means, however, that educational responsibility [for the student] is at the very same time a responsibility for the world” (Biesta, 2006, p. 25). We are faced with an unjust and inequitable educational system. There are also concerns regarding the power imbalance between teacher and student that are not addressed by an ahistoric, passive ideal of relationality. But even when we attempt to nurture actively response-able relations, Mayo bluntly reminds us, “one does not transcend one’s position by engaging in relations with others, but rather that social position continues to drag on possibilities for relations” (Mayo, 2004, p. 133).

If we take a Levinasian approach to the educational relation, we understand we do violence to our students when we seek to “shape, influence, and ‘lead’ [them] in a particular direction without consideration for [them] as distinct subjects of difference” (Todd, 2003, p. 7). Given the nature and structure of contemporary schooling, completely avoiding this violence is nearly impossible in most classrooms. Further, we are faced with a world that is far from neutral in its dealings with difference. Can we afford a pristine stance that does not seek to shape or lead in any way? The balancing act lies in staying attentive and risking moments of revelation in which we may learn what path a particular student is called to follow. It is especially vital to achieve this balance for those students with whom we do not immediately feel a kinship, but there is also a risk that, in recognizing the gap that lies between us and all of our students, we will not adequately respond to sociocultural difference. The temptation is to conflate all difference when we apprehend the Other as an infinite mystery; the gap has the potential to become a way we avoid directly addressing real political, social, and cultural differences with students. Even when relations are difficult, educators must continually make the decision to work on developing trust with students. Part of this work involves trusting enough to step into to the gap where we listen attentively and with openness to the Other. Perhaps if we understand the issues at stake, we will have the strength to remain profoundly open to each of our students, because truly, as Mayo writes, “we have no choice but to relate” (Mayo, 2004, p. 133), in spite of the difficulty in doing so.

Admittedly, the principles of relational pedagogy are more easily applied in one-on-one teaching situations such as tutoring or mentoring: we can better grasp the relational nature of learning; we can become students of our students’ lives and engage in political intersubjectivity; we can take a moment of hesitation to be self-reflective listeners; and we can risk trust without ground. However, putting the human relation between teacher and student at the heart of pedagogy has powerful implications: it opens myriad ways to examine the personal relationship between teacher and student(s), but also the social life of schools and universities. Let us hope it can bring needed balance to the corporatizing influence of an accountability culture that pits individuals against one another and often against the educational system itself.


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(1.) Portions of the subsection “Listening” have been published previously in: Mary Jo Hinsdale (2015). Mutuality, Mystery, and Mentorship in Higher Education (Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense).