Before I became a teacher, I distinctly remember thinking to myself that, as a six-footer, I would be taller than nearly all of my students.
Well, that assumption didn’t last more than about 20 minutes when I discovered that plenty of Year 8s or 9s could look me straight in the eye.
This recollection is interesting to me because, as a complete novice, I had decided that my physical stature was going to be a major factor in my presence in the classroom.
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That naivety surprises me now. Presence is one of those qualities in teachers that resists precise definition – to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, I can’t define presence, but I know it when I see it – and confident practitioners can make it look irritatingly innate.
It isn’t – it is crafted and hard-won and certainly has nothing to do with height.
What I gave little thought to in my early teaching life was where I might put my six-feet frame in the classroom and how that could affect the behaviour of children.
I was reminded of this recently when watching a colleague loom over a number of seated students from the rear to support them with some work and realising from my vantage point how invasive it looked.
I would find the presence of an authority figure in very close proximity to me, especially behind me, in a position of physical advantage, quite intimidating.
Of course, it is the convenience of standing behind a child who is seated that affords sight of their work the right way up that leads to this.
When I worked in a school for boys with behavioural difficulties, how we positioned ourselves was a key feature of training and discussions with colleagues about how best to support our students to behave well and on things to avoid that might lead to escalation – de-escalation being one of our main priorities in situations.
I will never forget being punched in the testicles by a boy in Year 10 in that school after I unwisely sat on the desk right next to him while he was seated and working happily. I learned fast.
We talked about personal space and intimate space and how intrusive it can be to have someone enter your intimate space (I sadly recall how the training reminded one colleague of a traumatic incident that had happened to her many years before).
We accept that such intrusion is likely when we go to places such as football matches (unless you’re a Bolton Wanderers fan, in which case there is plenty of space), music gigs or on the London Underground – one major reason why I very rarely sit on the underground is that I find it distinctly uncomfortable to be sat in the intimate space of a standing person.
In the classroom, we need to give this potential for intrusion careful thought. It is why the advice about getting down to a child’s level is sensible, but there is more to it than that. It clearly depends, in part, on the strength of the relationship you have with the child, and the current mood of the child.
One who is already nervous, anxious or agitated is likely to regard the proximity of an adult as far more of a potential threat than one who is well settled.
In addition, there can very occasionally be complicating factors. For example, because of my daughter’s eye condition, I am acutely aware these days of how I need to position myself because of a child’s visual impairment. Stand on the wrong place near my daughter and she won’t see you.
Give thought to situations where the child may perceive themselves to be in a position of physical disadvantage – ie, a seated child with a standing adult in close proximity or when you are stood behind a child – and you won’t go far wrong.
Jarlath O’Brien works in special education in London and is the author of Better Behaviour: a guide for teachers