Building your presence in the classroom

Written by: Kathy Oxtoby | Published:
Image: iStock

Presence in the classroom – it is that special something that makes the best teachers. Kathy Oxtoby seeks advice on how young teachers can develop their own presence and gravitas in front of students

Whether you have just secured your first post as an NQT or worked as a teacher for many years, having a presence in the classroom is a crucial quality that helps you project confidence and inspire others to feel confident in your ability to teach.

For Kathryn Lovewell, founder of the Teacher Sanctuary, having a presence in the classroom “is when a teacher stands centred, confident, and certain, so they create and generate an ambience of safety, set boundaries and are mindful”.

She continued: “A mindful teacher is fully present in the moment, paying attention to their students and they are non-judgemental and compassionate.”

Having classroom presence is “partly innate” suggests Jo Palmer-Tweed, course director at the Essex and Thames Primary SCITT. She says that when recruiting for teacher training “one of the things we’re looking for is for people to have a natural presence”.

She explained: “We’re looking for people who are able to hold children’s attention, someone who can walk into a classroom and people gravitate towards them like iron filings to a magnet.”

For teachers, having presence is important as “a solid classroom presence helps to manage behaviour”, Ms Palmer-Tweed continued, but presence “can’t be a performance – it has to be built on natural ability”.

Having presence also means students will “want to listen to you”, according to Julian Stanley, chief executive of the Education Support Partnership. He told SecEd: “Students will feel a sense of security that you are the person managing the classroom and in control. This means they not only get the best out of a particular topic but also feel they are in a safe and positive space.”

Ms Lovewell added that a teacher needs to have a strong presence because it will “create, make or break the learning opportunities and possibilities and also the relationships in the room between teacher and student and between other students.”

And while presence cannot be created, it can be refined, according to Ms Palmer-Tweed: “In terms of training you can take what presence the teacher has naturally and then give them core skills to enhance their presence,” she said. With this in mind, here are some techniques and strategies that you can use to help you develop your presence in the classroom.

Enter a classroom with confidence

An immediate way of establishing your authority as a teacher is to enter the classroom with confidence. “If you come into the room feeling worried and fearful, students will pick up on this and take advantage,” said Mr Stanley.

He recommends that teachers enter the classroom looking self-assured, in command of themselves, and giving an air of confidence about what they are going to do in that lesson: “Greet the class, settle the room down, stand tall, and look comfortable.”

Voices

Different voices prompt different responses. Teacher presence is tied in with ensuring the voice gives the same messages as the words. Ms Palmer-Tweed explained: “The voice creates a subtext for whatever someone is saying. Using one voice all the time is no good for teaching.

Teachers need different types of voices to elicit different types of responses from students.”
Different types of voice include a “firm voice to grab the attention of the classroom very quickly”, and “a comforting, advisory voice that is soothing”, for example.

Having a calm, deep voice, rather than having a high-pitched tone or shouting, can help to give a sense of authority. “A deeper voice demonstrates you are grounded in your body. Avoid high pitched hysteria – it doesn’t work and students won’t want to listen to you,” Ms Lovewell said.

A calm, measured pace, is preferable she believes, and it is also important to vary the tone, “to play with the natural rhythm (of voice and tone), so if something is exciting move your voice faster, and if something you’re saying is really important you can speak slowly, and sometimes take a pause”.

Simple warm up exercises, such as humming before you go into work can help you to control your voice as well, Mr Stanley added.

Body language speaks volumes

The skills that involve developing a presence in the classroom and body language go hand-in-hand.

“When you enter the classroom, the physical decision about how you stand when opening a lesson sends a very powerful message about whether or not you can get control of the class,” Mr Stanley explained.

Ms Lovewell recommends that a teacher’s stance should involve “being centred and making sure you’re grounded in your body and not your head”.

She continued: “This means not worrying about what’s going to happen in the lesson. You are fully present in the moment and paying attention to the way you’re standing and moving.”
Crossing legs is “a way of giving away power” she warned, so she advises teachers to stand tall, with their shoulders back, but in a relaxed position. Facial expressions need to match the body too. “Smiling rather than frowning,” is an easy way to connect with the class.

Making eye contact is also a powerful tool, according to Mr Stanley: “It helps to look at every member of the class throughout the lesson – it’s a way of engaging individuals and makes them feel that you recognise and know who they are.”

Make the most of classroom space

Making the most of classroom space will help you to develop your presence as a teacher and manage student behaviour. Although it may be tempting to stand at the front of the class to stamp your authority, Ms Lovewell advises teachers to “always move around the space”. She said: “Teachers who are always standing at the front of the room lose half the class.”

Mr Stanley suggests that thinking about where you can gain the most presence in the room at different points during the lesson will help to engage students.

“If you’re ‘chalking and talking’ all the time you don’t have time to pause and reflect on where the energy is – and isn’t – in the room,” he explained.

Ms Palmer-Tweed added that by constantly standing at the front of the class, teachers can give off an impression that they “know all the answers” which can deter students from taking risks in terms of their learning, and make them afraid to make mistakes.

Learn from others

A large part of learning how to develop presence in the classroom is by observing outstanding teachers and decoding what they do.

“Beginning teachers should be encouraged to observe their experienced colleagues and to look at the mechanics of what they are doing in terms of their presence that makes their lessons impactful,” Ms Palmer-Tweed said.

Thinking about ways to develop your presence “can help you improve and reassess your own particular style”, according to Mr Stanley. He advised: “The beginning of each term is a great opportunity to think about what’s working well for you and what you can improve on. And the more you develop your presence, the more you will garner respect in the classroom.”

  • Kathy Oxtoby is an experienced freelance journalist and former secondary teacher.

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