Have you got it?

8th June 2007 at 01:00
Everyone is born with it, lots of us lose it, all teachers need it. Can presence by taught? Susan Young investigates.

We've all seen born teachers, those people who appear to have an effortless ability to get the most difficult class eating out of their hands, and can apparently transform demon pupils into angels.

But according to a new book published today, this talent - presence - is within everyone's reach, and it is all down to how we give and receive energy. It sounds unlikely, but read on - Hollywood actors, captains of industry and even convicts have found that it works.

"Anyone can learn it. We were all born with it," says Patsy Rodenburg, whose understanding of presence and charisma has been honed over a long career as one of the world's leading voice and acting coaches, whose famous clients include Nicole Kidman, Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen. She has also taught the same skills to teachers, doctors, politicians and even prisoners in maximum security jails.

Patsy, who started her working life as a London teacher, has taught workshops all over the world and is head of the voice department at the London Guildhall School of Music and Drama and at the National Theatre in London. She says the old showbiz motto about never working with children or animals is because both naturally have presence and can upstage everyone else.

Presence, according to Patsy, is down to the way we communicate with people and use our natural energy. Children start life aware of the world around them. They are focused on people and things, communicate directly and give and receive energy.

But experiences while growing up mean many people start using that energy differently to protect themselves, either becoming withdrawn - which Patsy calls "first circle"- or overbearing - "third circle".

In neither of these energy states, she says, do people communicate properly. In first circle, your focus is purely inward and you may come across as shy and disengaged. In third circle, your energy is all moving outwards. You may make a good first impression but can appear insensitive.

By contrast, living in what she calls second circle - which means being aware of others, making eye contact while talking and breathing naturally - creates good communication and an energy and connection with others which we call presence. Patsy describes it as "being present". Another element of presence is learning how to breathe to use your voice properly.

She says it is particularly important for teachers to work in second circle, being "present" and focused on pupils, and coaxing pupils to do the same.

"You have to be ferociously present with them," she says. "I believe a great teacher can change a child's future, and most people have memories of a great teacher who did that."

She recalls a London primary teacher who worked with deprived pupils. "I will never forget the gifts of love, wisdom and healing she gave to those deprived children. They loved her, felt safe and performed unexaminable tasks well above their age ability," Patsy says.

"She never had discipline problems, unlike the rest of the staff, and she never spoke negatively about a child. So what was her secret? Before any class started, she and the children sat together, still and present. She would make clear eye contact with each child and when they were present, the work began.

"She didn't care if this took time and she taught what she sensed they could learn. Her timetable was out of order but her teaching wasn't and through disorder, the children learned order."

Patsy says this direct approach reaches pupils for whom all else has failed. She recalls one of her students at the Guildhall who was so consistently late for class that he was going to be thrown out. "He came to my class one day, late as usual, and I just stopped, looked at him, said his name - he's quite a well known actor now - and said, 'We missed you'.

He was never late again. We all want to be missed, we want to be noticed, we want to be present with other people."

Patsy believes teachers have more need than ever for her techniques. She thinks modern living - including routines that may leave babies crying, busy parents and electronic distractions - mean some children lose their presence at a younger age and so are harder to manage in school.

Teachers themselves are under simultaneous pressure to cope with paperwork and a fuller curriculum, as well as harder-to-manage children. And teachers not fully present in class are likelier to miss instances of bullying, for instance.

She is outraged that teacher training does not include learning such skills, and says many teachers suffer voice problems through trying to control classes in third circle by shouting.

"It's a survival skill. You can only survive in second circle."

Patsy Rodenburg is author of Presence (Penguin, pound;10.99)


BILL CLINTON - but he lost it when he lied at first about sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. DAVID ATTENBOROUGH, JUDI DENCH, NELSON MANDELA, TONY BLAIR


Most sportsmen have presence. It was notable that Tiger Woods temporarily lost his while mourning the death of his father


George W Bush, Jeremy Clarkson, Gordon Brown. They all push their energy outwards and can appear to be insensitive


Q Do you find yourself withdrawing physically from people, feelings or ideas?

Do you hold your breath or breathe shallowly? Do you wear clothes to make yourself disappear? Do people lean forwards to hear or notice you?

A You are probably in first circle. Your whole focus is inward. You can come across as self-centred and withdrawn, and you are vulnerable to being victimised.

Q Do you notice people making space for you? Breathe noisily? Don't notice the people you are speaking to or the room you are in? Take command of a discussion even if you only caught a fragment? Wear clothes to get noticed?

A You are probably mostly in third circle. You channel energy outwards to keep others at bay. People in service industries are skilled in third circle, and royalty and celebrities use it to keep the public at a distance.

Q Do you feel centred and alert? Feel your body belongs to you? Notice details in others? Feel your breath is easy and complete? Are curious about new ideas?

Acknowledge the feelings of others?

A You are mostly in second circle and have presence. You are noticed, heard, remembered and powerful.


This is an exercise to help you breathe naturally

Place one or both hands against a wall and exert a little pressure. Keep shoulders and upper chest free with your weight on the balls of your feet and heels on the ground. Maintain this pushing pressure and breathe in and out calmly. The breath should be low, and you will feel a synchronized breath and support as you push. In this way, you will feel when you are losing support and need to inhale.

When you come away from the wall, you will feel more connected to your breath, yourself and the world.


Patsy has some advice for teachers who want to try her approach. "Start to know when you are present. You have to go into that classroom without a front on - you have to be open.

"Try and get present before you go into a classroom. Be very aware of your surroundings as you walk there. Stand at arm's length from a wall, put your palms on it, lean in and push, and breathe. And as you walk into the room, breathe."

She adds: "Always know the names of troublemakers. Talk to them, make contact with them. It's very hard, but stay present with them. If you are not present, they never will be. Even if you only manage two pupils a day, you are winning something.

"It takes patience but after a while, if you stay calm and communicate, it does work. It's about being aware, and it's exhausting and hard."

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