The quality of presence—a state of alert awareness, receptivity, and connectedness to the working of both the individuals and the group in the context of the learning environment—is unfortunately not often taught explicitly in teacher education programs.
Teachers know they have presence when they have a genuine connection with the students that breeds confidence and respect throughout the classroom, allowing for risk taking and increased learning opportunities. These teachers engage in authentic relationships with students, addressing their academic and emotional needs while being resourceful about anticipating unknowns.
It’s possible to develop and refine one’s command of presence by focusing on authenticity, relationships, and confidence.
Fostering a Sense of Authenticity
Students want and need sincerity, honesty, and care for the subjects they are being taught. This multidimensional approach is not easy, but it is attainable. The path is a journey of critical reflection that can include peer coaching, caring colleagues, and a teacher’s own self-reflective toolbox.
Authenticity involves the sincerity of caring about your students and wanting them to grow. It’s the backward-planning process that integrates what you know and are interested in, what your students know, and what they really need to know.
As in any relationship, an honest approach to your class, to yourself, and to the subject matter is vital to the effectiveness of your instruction. Giving students honest responses like, “That’s a very good question. I don’t know the answer right now, but I’m going to write it down and get back to you tomorrow,” or “Class, I apologize...” can encourage students to take healthy risks in discussions and can give them permission to be imperfect.
Enthusiasm, creative lessons, implementation of technology, use of audio and visual input, or guest speakers will definitely help build your presence in the classroom by making your lessons more engaging. Building your own growth mindset so that you continue to improve lessons is just as important. Ultimately, these things show how you value your subject matter, which your students will assess as they decide how authentic they think you are.
Building Strong Relationships
Developing positive and optimistic relationships is a worthwhile goal to have when establishing presence. An effective educator communicates a genuine belief that all students are capable of growth and learning.
Relationship-building skills always begin with the critical skill of listening. We should actively listen by asking great questions, having the patience to listen, and showing genuine interest by either asking follow-up questions or validating students’ responses in a positive manner.
To create this type of engagement and shared focus, you may want to start class with warm-up writing that intertwines issues of personal relevance to the students with the lesson of that particular day. You could start a high school government class on the First Amendment by asking, “What rights do you wish you had as a student that you currently don’t have, and why?” This type of question shows that you have empathy with students’ perspective on the world and with their struggles.
It’s the authenticity of the relationship that permits students and a teacher to see each other and know that what is being shared is real.
We know that effective teachers teach with confidence—which is not to be confused with arrogance. The first step in teaching with confidence is to know why you teach—why you show up to meet the intellectual, emotional, and physical demands that are placed on teachers every day.
In observing teachers for nearly two decades, I’ve noticed that the most effective ones demonstrate their confidence through an active voice, body language, and preparedness.
When speaking actively and expressively, you’ll also need to know when and how to keep your voice calm and steady. Learning and practicing variations of voice will help you command presence and achieve the attention you and your students deserve. You can practice pauses, voice variations, and tempo changes. If you have the time and resources, try signing up for a theater class. Or simply volunteer to read children’s books to preschoolers or kindergartners—those little ones will let you know instantly if you can keep their attention with your delivery.
Entering a classroom slouched, looking to the floor, or scowling while you have your arms crossed will not inspire too many students. Instead, stand tall, walk the room while talking, make eye contact, and smile. A confident body will greatly improve your presence.
If you enter a basketball game knowing you’ve prepared by practicing your offensive and defensive plays, you’ll compete with much more confidence. The same goes for teaching. Benjamin Franklin once said, “If you fail to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” You teach with confidence when you’re prepared.
Presence is crucial to maintaining classroom management and to effective delivery of instruction, and it’s a skill we can develop with effort.