Use your body to create presence
Why do some teachers struggle to control a class while others get a lesson flowing seamlessly with apparently little effort?
The answer could be incredibly simple: it is down to the "presence" they have in the classroom. This is a vague term, but learning how to have presence, or to build on what you already possess, could create a more harmonious and effective classroom and strengthen your relationship with your pupils. Broadly, the word means being able to use your personality and body to command attention.
Teachers are not actors and developing more presence is not about trying to transform yourself into a Hollywood star. But, as public speakers and communicators, teachers will be more successful if pupils find their lessons memorable and they have good interpersonal skills. It is also a boon for commanding attention in meetings, in building relationships with parents and when giving feedback to colleagues.
Being in the spotlight can be frightening and nerves make us behave differently. Developing presence can help to prevent paralysing symptoms such as breathlessness or a dry mouth. Those who already have it are often more aware of the impact of their body language and use gestures, or even a glance, to create the effect they want.
Anyone can learn these skills, according to Mark Almond, a senior lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University who trains teachers in the art of creating presence. But not everybody gets the chance.
"Some educators blanch at the idea that teacher presence should be included in training as it is such a vague term," he says. "But I believe this is an area teachers want to be trained in. They think their existing training lacks (lessons in) how to develop interpersonal skills, how to create your own identity and connect with pupils."
Some actors use the Alexander technique to relax, a discipline that is based on gently realigning the body, breathing from deep in the lungs and using the body economically. This can also be useful for teachers who struggle to relax.
"You may be feeling awful at having to walk into a classroom of 15-year-olds, but if you display your anxieties to that class you will have problems," Almond says. "Walk in to the room slowly with your posture straight, chin up, make eye contact and speak to your pupils in a clear and audible voice."
Looking physically confident in this way will help to create presence. A good posture makes a person look strong and commanding. Keep your head still when you talk, and speak slowly.
Guy Michaels, a former actor turned teacher who now runs courses for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada) on how to create classroom presence, says that he has seen dull teaching where children are swamped with too much information.
"It sowed a seed in my mind as to how you can create presence," he says. "Nerves can prevent teachers from communicating effectively. Many teachers will explain a task, then explain it again using a different set of words. This undermines the teacher, confuses the class and any clarity is gone. You are not allowing the idea to sink in."
Teachers should also grow comfortable with using stillness and silence as part of their repertoire. "Many teachers say 'I'm not a performer', but they have an audience of 30 people waiting to be entertained," Michaels says. "Teachers often work to rigid lessons, they are obsessed with planning, and there is a danger they can lose their flexibility. They should listen and improvise, be excited and infectious."
Masking your anxieties
So how do you mask your nerves and transform unhelpful body language? The first step is to get rid of any signs of tension. And the way you breathe is a key factor.
"If you can't take deep breaths, you can't speak with authority and resonance. It's a waste of energy and affects where your breath comes from," Michaels says.
"Children pick up on signals of fear. The first thing you have to do is understand your fight or flight response - what happens when your body releases adrenalin. It gives you a low status. These are physical signs like fidgeting, a stooped head and sweaty palms."
But how do you avoid them? Michaels advises teachers to "stand as tall as you can be. It gives you an anchoring (feeling) and this helps to keep you grounded and calm.
"Scale your physical presence up or down. Use gestures to punctuate what you are saying and move around in the space if you want a big presence. This helps you appear to be a strong, confident teacher."
Many of our nervous physical ticks can be unconscious. A good way to start tackling them is to ask a trusted colleague to observe you and give their candid thoughts on your body language and other physical traits. If you don't want to do this try video recording yourself. It is incredible how much the small screen amplifies even the slightest movement.
Another tip is simply to pause. This allows you to organise your thoughts before you speak so you can avoid repeating yourself. Rather than continuing to talk, pausing makes the speaker appear calm and in control.
Begin to observe others in authority who appear to have an inbuilt confidence. Why are they watchable; what are they doing right? Learn from them. People with charisma use their body effectively. Eye contact is one of the most important weapons in a teacher's arsenal.
Try this simple physical test: ask your pupils to face you and put their arms up. They should then begin slowly lowering them - until you make eye contact. Each time you do, they must freeze. The aim is to make sure that no pupil ends up with their hands in their laps.
Eye contact can help to vary the pace and energy of a lesson. "If you want a different effect, stay still and cast a net around the room with your eyes," Michaels adds.
Being still and glancing at pupils in this way will help to give you an aura of authority - and make them take notice of you.
Using the space of the classroom differently can also vary the dynamics of the lesson. Try teaching from a different area, at a different height or even sitting on a desk with pupils.
Presence means you can set the tone in your classroom.
You as the storyteller
Think of yourself as a storyteller, conveying a secret through your teaching. Vary your language: use active verbs to create excitement and an emotional response in children. Create anticipation or intrigue with props or timing, letting each activity be revealed one at a time.
Appear energetic and eager to talk about your subject. It might be the thousandth time you have taught a not-particularly-appealing topic but behave as if you are enjoying yourself. Such enthusiasm is contagious. Adjust the tone and volume of your voice to convey emotion and alter the pace of the lesson.
Teachers are not actors but some theatrics can be useful to create a buzz in the classroom. Why not use over-the-top gestures from time to time, to express delight, mock boredom or surprise? Such charades - pretending to snore, wiping your brow or feigning a heart attack (when appropriate) - can amuse and engage pupils.
Having presence also means that you are confident enough to be spontaneous and able to improvise. This creates a vibrant lesson and allows the teacher to create energy if it starts to lag, but also means you can respond swiftly if pupils become disruptive.
According to Rob Salter, a London teacher who trains his peers in how to create presence, the US president, Barack Obama, is a perfect example of someone who already knows how to harness his charm.
"He shows how being still and pitching his voice lower ... and from the diaphragm, gives you an air of authority," he says.
"If you have rapport with pupils it is easier to discipline them. Presence is as much about how you perceive yourself. Cultivate it. You should set the tone and get children to buy into your vision.
"Have a part of the classroom which is the equivalent of the front of a stage. Use it when you need to get the focus back on you, for example if the noise levels go up. This gives you an aura. Use different spaces to create different energies."
The message is simple. By controlling the atmosphere of the lesson you are showing pupils how to behave.
"If children are trying to wind you up in class it is not a good idea to shout or raise your voice. Remain calm and assertive rather than lowering your status by 'taking the bait'," Salter explains.
"Learn to raise your status by acting the part. Think about how you dress. This shows you place value on how you present yourself. Show children you have high expectations of them - for example, in your use of silence. Classroom organisation can play a big part in this. Make children line up to come into the room. Insist on silence at the beginning of the lesson."
Charisma and presence, of course, can be largely in the eye of the beholder. Really, it describes the relationship you have with another person, or people. So how do you measure it?
TES behaviour guru Tom Bennett says that all teachers can generate the effects of presence.
"Presence isn't something that you possess or don't possess. It's a description of the relationship between the pupils and their teacher. It isn't the Jedi mind trick. It can only be built up gradually and not directly," he says.
"It results from acting in a calm, adult, authoritative way consistently over time. When the pupils trust you enough to do what you say you'll know you have it."
Being well organised, prepared for the lesson and a fair and consistent teacher will also generate respect, he says.
But be patient - it's unrealistic to expect to make all these changes at once. Start by simply becoming more self-aware and watching your body language. You might be pleasantly surprised where it leads you.
Almond, M. Teaching English with Drama (Modern English Publishing, 2005)
Almond, M. "Teachers acting up - from stage presence to classroom presence", English Teaching Professional, 45 (2006), 53-55
Berry, C. Your Voice and How to Use It (Virgin Books, 1994)
Maley, A. The Language Teacher's Voice (Macmillan Heinemann, 2000)
Tauber, R. and Mester, C. Acting Lessons for Teachers (Praeger, 1994)
EXERCISES YOU CAN PRACTISE AT HOME
Tips from courses run by Rada, the National Theatre, Rob Salter and Mark Almond.
Breathe in and hold for three seconds. As you breathe out, project your voice and say all the days of the week; then try the months; then the alphabet. This helps you to speak from the chest, the biggest resonator, rather than from the back of the throat, which compromises the quality of the voice.
To seem authoritative, practise your breathing (as above) to find your "home note" - your own distinctive voice - but from your chest rather than your throat.
Stand in a grounded way. To find your "centre", stand with your feet apart and bend your knees slightly.
Lengthen your spine. Stand as if your head is being pulled up by a piece of string. Try standing on tiptoes, then lean back on your heels. Hunching reduces your capacity to breathe properly.
Release tension by swinging your arms from your shoulders. You can extend this to "shake out" your whole body.
To calm breathing, raise your arms slowly as you breathe in, and bring them down again while exhaling and making a "ssshh" sound.
To check you are breathing from your diaphragm try stamping your foot while shouting "ha" as you breathe out.
Imagine you are blowing up a balloon with a long, slow outward breath through the mouth until there is no air left in your lungs. Then, on the in breath, through the nose, imagine you are smelling a bunch of flowers.
Think about your eye contact - aim to look open and receptive. Make eye contact with your pupils, even if you are shy and this does not come naturally.
Scale your physical presence up or down. Use gestures to punctuate what you are saying and move around in the space if you want to create a bigger presence. This helps you appear to be a strong, confident teacher.
To create an aura around yourself, stay still and cast a net around the room with your eyes.
To bring your energy into the room, stand with your feet planted and say: "I am here", taking one step with each word. Tread firmly on the floor and say the words out loud.
To focus on the room rather than yourself imagine you have a light shining from the centre of your forehead. Everything you look at is illuminated with a golden glow that you are directing.
Pause and take time to organise your thoughts clearly before you speak. Avoid repetition. Pause occasionally.
Use humour, but appropriately - although if you are not normally a funny person don't try to be.
Keep calm. This helps children let off steam. Think about lowering your voice and staying still. It helps pupils to feel they are being listened to.
Delegate work to pupils. This makes you appear confident at the same time as building their skills. Ask them to write on the board or distribute resources, as well as eliciting their responses. This helps the class to see you as a leader and gets them involved in the lesson.
Be aware of the energy in the room. Are the children bored? They may be if they think you are just working to a plan. Have the confidence to shake up your routine and be spontaneous.
Don't pretend to be someone else. Be yourself in the teaching environment, just a larger-than-life version.
Vary your use of space
Teach from the back of the classroom.
Kneel or crouch down between desks or at the front of the room.
Sit at a desk, on the floor or on the teacher's desk. Stand on a chair or table.
Try entering the pupils' physical space; sit next to them, lean on their desks, walk slowly between desks.
How to adopt a relaxed and positive facial expression
Give yourself a facial massage concentrating on your forehead, cheeks and jaw.
Practise relaxing and using your facial muscles by widening eyes, puffing out cheeks, stretching your mouth into different shapes and flexing your chin. Now scrunch up your face as tightly as possible.
Move your eyebrows up and down. Try to move one at a time.
Break into a big grin with wide eyes.