Command the stage

13th October 2017 at 00:00
Is there such a thing as ‘teacher presence’ and, if so, how do you acquire it? Kate Townshend finds out

It is the moment you’ve been waiting for: standing in front of your own class as a qualified teacher for the very first time.

The students stare back at you with piercing scrutiny. They are waiting for you to win them over with the sheer force of your personality. It’s time to summon that elusive quality that you heard so much about while you were training: “teacher presence”.

You know what it is supposed to look like: you’ve seen Robin Williams embody it in Dead Poets Society. Whether this mysterious force exists in reality, though, is hard to prove. And it’s harder still to understand what role such a quality might play in an NQT’s journey towards becoming a great teacher.

For example, there is no robust evidence to suggest that teacher presence is a tangible, measurable quality, nor that it has an impact on how students behave or learn. “I don’t know of [robust research]. I can’t see a good review, which is where I would always start,” says Philippa Cordingley, chief executive of the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (Curee).

She points out, though, that there are plenty of books about teacher presence and plenty of teachers who believe in it. So is this something, as an NQT, you should be worried about or not?

‘It's core to lots of jobs, not just teaching’

Colleen Johnson, a former head of drama and lecturer at Brunel University School of Education, certainly thinks so. “Presence is a real thing, with real signifiers,” she says.

“It’s about eye contact, body language, breathing, using the space. It’s acting skills, really. And it’s core to lots of jobs, not just teaching.”

Jo Palmer-Tweed, executive director of Essex and Thames Primary School Centred Initial Teacher Training, likewise thinks that presence is more than just a myth.

“Presence exists and it’s partially innate. But if you get presence right, you’ll have children who are attending and relaxed,” she says.

Indeed, the conviction that there is a collection of traits and behaviours that, when combined, can command respect and devotion from a roomful of kids is widespread. And not only do many teachers accept its existence, they also see it as an important quality to cultivate if you want to be at the top of your professional game.

For new teachers, having an awareness of presence could be particularly beneficial because getting it right early on can help you to feel more confident during your first contact with a new group, suggests Jo Clarke, deputy headteacher of Clapham Manor Primary and an experienced NQT mentor.

“The first time standing in front of a new class is exciting but also a cause for anxiety,” Clarke explains. “Before a teacher says their first word, their pupils will have been observing, consciously and unconsciously, the signals being sent out.

“Setting a positive ethos and tone from the beginning can lead to a positive experience for everyone, whereas negative learning habits can quickly embed, and ‘unlearning’ these can easily add to a new teacher’s workload.”

‘Setting a positive ethos and tone’

Johnson agrees that getting presence right can help new teachers to ensure that their first experiences in teaching are positive ones.

However, she points out that the effect of presence is not limited to the classroom; it goes beyond that to helping new teachers to survive events such as parents’ evenings and job interviews, too.

“It’s how you stand up as a new teacher in your twenties and tell a group of vocal middle-class parents ‘I’m the English teacher and this is how we teach it’,” Johnson says.

Of course, presence is not just about how you feel about yourself. Getting presence right can also have a significant impact on your students, argues Paul Jobson, current induction tutor at Clapham Manor.

“Good presence communicates and supports trust and respect for pupils,” he says.

“You just need to think about how you react to someone who looks and feels unprepared and jittery compared to someone who has gravitas and exudes calm. Presence is key to quality teaching.”

And when new teachers are successfully exuding presence, it’s something that they can see the impact of quite quickly.

“I’ve noticed children really respond to those differences in demeanour,” says Matthew Isherwood, a secondary school teacher and recent NQT.

“I think some ability to have that presence is partially why I’m a teacher and certainly why I’ve succeeded so far – it helps me to really engage with the children.”

Even more importantly, according to psychotherapist Tina Radziszewicz, nailing presence is crucial to creating a classroom environment in which students feel safe enough to learn effectively.

“When pupils feel secure in class, they can relax, knowing the teacher will deal swiftly, calmly and decisively with whatever comes up. This helps to create an environment where pupils can take risks – for example, to raise a hand to answer a question if they’re nervous about doing so – knowing that the teacher will offer support and not judge them,” Radziszewicz explains. “Teachers with a strong presence are cited as favourites among pupils. They’re seen as authentic, strong, caring and trustworthy.”

If it is starting to sound as though presence is a magic wand that you can wave to make every other aspect of classroom practice fall into place, then Cordingley is here to provide a reality check. She cautions against putting too much stock in presence. “Presence is necessary but not sufficient,” she says. “There are lots of techniques for presence early on – and it’s really important to show students that you’re there with the authority to ensure everyone learns. But you have to reinforce it with relationships, meaning and purpose.”

Common misunderstanding

A common misunderstanding among new teachers, Cordingley says, is that effective teaching is all about what the teacher does, when actually it is about what the learners are doing as well, and the interactions between the two. “Yes, you need presence initially but you also need to get beyond it very fast,” Cordingley says.

So despite the lack of research, teachers and researchers like Cordingley seem pretty certain that presence is a thing, though they differ on how important it is. The next crucial question is, if you don’t have it, can it be learnt? Johnson thinks so. She compares it with being taught to act, through short, practical exercises that involve demonstrating how it works rather than talking about it, she says. “It’s what actors do as a matter of course.”

This sounds simple enough, but most new teachers are currently not explicitly being given these tools.

Samantha Connolly finished her NQT year last June. “I didn’t experience much guidance at university with regards to this at all,” she says. “Luckily, I was able to observe different teachers throughout my various placements, and see what made a good classroom presence.”

Similarly, Isherwood found that he needed to learn about presence on the job, through practical experience. “Presence was never mentioned during my teacher training,” he says.

“There was nothing about voice or body language. I do think there’s a place for it, but you need real experiences. You need to see what it looks like and then experiment with it yourself,” he says. “In fact, the best advice I was given was to go into the classroom and relax – to show the children that you’re on top of things and be clear about what you want to do.”

Not addressed during training

This lack of formal training is common: it seems that most guidance on presence comes from in-school placements. Johnson believes this is an oversight.

“I used to help student teachers who were struggling to come across well in the classroom – but really, it’s better to do work with people before they go in. The thing is, it’s not in the curriculum. Nowhere do we have anything that relates to classroom presence,” she says.

The reason for the lack of training around presence could be related to a widely held belief that presence starts with something innate, which potential trainees either have or do not have.

Palmer-Tweed suggests that if you have made it on to a teacher-training programme, then it is because someone has already recognised this quality in you. “You can’t teach it all, so you need to look for it at the recruitment stage,” she says.

Support to develop the presence ‘package’

But she does say some of these innate qualities need to be developed. This is where Palmer-Tweed sees a current gap in the requirements for newly qualified teachers.

“We only really address body language in training if there’s a problem. But the vocal aspects of presence are also often overlooked,” she says. “In Poland, there’s a statutory six days’ training on teacher voice. The UK has no statutory requirement at all. And it makes a difference. When we introduced a rigorous voice-training programme on my course, we saw an immediate improvement, not just in pupil behaviour but also in children’s ability to process what was being said.”

And yet any training on presence would have to be relatively bespoke; Cordingley emphasises that different personality types will need to get to grips with presence in different ways.

“The difficulty early on, especially if you’re naturally shy, is that commanding attention means moving into an uncomfortable space. But equally, if you’ve got a lot of ‘look at me’ charisma then you have to learn, somewhat, how to disappear.

“Really strong presence is almost unobservable and, for each teacher, learning around presence will be different depending on what they find hard,” she explains.

For Connolly, the idea that presence is often a quiet tool rather than a loud one certainly rings true. It is something she has observed at first hand during her NQT year. “Surprisingly, or perhaps not, I found that the less ‘shouty’ teachers had much more of a presence in the classroom. Those who spoke to their pupils with respect and used a softer tone generally commanded more attention than those who were more authoritative,” she says.

Be the best possible you

If all this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. This element of teaching is complex, context specific and bespoke to each individual. That’s likely why research has neglected it, and also why it seems so hard to pin down. But do not fear: some argue that all you really need to do is be the best possible version of yourself.

“Classroom presence is us,” says teacher and education consultant Dr Bill Rogers. “It is about how we consciously seek to be aware of how we present ourselves as a teacher-leader and how we want to come across. We are not actors. But we do have a role and, in that role, we seek to present ‘ourselves’ with calmness and respect; with humanity and care; with good humour and with encouragement.”

What’s more, Rogers argues, presence requires us to have self-awareness when it comes to our reactions, too. “There is a crucial factor here, particularly when we get very frustrated or angry. The first person to calm is ourselves, not the other person. We have to exercise behaviour leadership within our role,” he says.

Yes, NQTs can seek out training, they can self-assess endlessly, they can find models of teacher presence they aspire to but, ultimately, Rogers hits the nail on the head: teacher presence is you, so if you aspire to be the best “you” possible, then – with a few tweaks from helpful colleagues and a dash of experience – you should have teacher presence in the bag in no time.

 

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