Lots of people talk about effective teachers as having a mysterious ‘X-factor’ which gives them special powers when presenting in a classroom. That’s a bit sad, though, because it kind of means that you either have it or you don’t, you either pass the test or fail, and the kids will love you or hate you. Pretty unfair.
I don’t go all in for this theory. Yes, some people have more natural presence, while others have to work at it. Some people draw others in more. But a lot of that is simply experience. Even a quiet, few-words, shy person can have presence if they work on it. There are definitely some key factors that help. So what does it mean to have that ‘factor’ or ‘presence’in the room that makes kids want to sit up and listen?
Be confident in your message. You don’t have to be a loud and proud kind of person to know that what you have to say has merit and is worth hearing. If you are well prepared, have chosen interesting activities and resources, and you know how to use them, then even if you speak quietly and confidently, people will listen, as they’ll be able to see the value of your knowledge and ability for themselves. You may not have them eating out of your hand on day one, but as they work with you, they will see that you are worth listening to and they will respect that. So focus on knowing your stuff, being clear, and showing them your skills and knowledge, rather than trying to put on a show that isn’t authentically ‘you’.
Be enthusiastic about your topic. Transmit as much passion for what you are speaking about as you can. This doesn’t have to be in your face – it could be a quiet, ‘I love this stuff, because..’ Enthusiasm doesn’t have to be loud, it just has to be real. As you present an activity, say, ‘We’re going to look at this cool poem.. it’s about..’ or, ‘This is one of the best examples of an essay I’ve seen on this book, let’s have a read’. With just a few words thrown in, you’ve told them that you value what you’re teaching them, and that it will be interesting to learn. That’s contagious.
Make use of good public speaking techniques. Good posture, use of appropriate gestures, variation of voice tone and volume, and lots of eye contact – these are basics for classroom presenting also. A great little task for you is to film yourself and watch it for self-improvement. Do you have any odd movements (swaying too much, fiddling with jewellery), repeated words (like like like ummm), or mannerisms (looking at the roof instead of making eye contact) which might distract and put off listeners? Get rid of them. Focus on being clear and deliberate in your speaking and movements.
Use behaviour management techniques, focusing on the ones which are less obvious while presenting from the front. Instead of stopping what you are saying to give a direct warning, try to manage your audience through movement (standing closer and closer to those who are beginning to be distracted), eye contact (looking directly at a kid who is off-task until they give up trying to do whatever they were wanting to do), gesture (tap the desk or their shoulder and make a shh gesture even as you continue to speak) or ‘help’ them to make the right choice (with a smile, gently remove their pen from their hand, or an item they are fiddling with, and put it down at the top of their desk). If these are not enough, you could name drop (the reason we do this, Jimmy, it’s because..) or actually tell them off (slowly wander over to them as you present, then swiftly lean down and whisper in their ear – ‘Can you stop that and listen, please. This is important’). All of these methods keep your lesson rolling instead of making behaviour management front and centre. Of course, some students will force you to stop and give a warning or shift them, but it is better if you can manage without it.
Know your audience. Make sure you learn names as fast as you can. Get to know the kids so that you have a rapport with them. Greet them at the door. Smile at them and be welcoming. Congratulate them on successes in and out of your classroom. Comment on new hairstyles or funky pencilcases. Give appreciation when they help others or do something kind. Recognise good listening and effort. Everyone appreciates someone who takes the time to foster a connection with them, and makes an effort to care.
Let your audience know you. Be yourself, while still being professional. Tell them about a personal experience if it fits with the lesson. Tell them when you’re having a bad day and you’d appreciate them working quietly. Tell them you’re excited about a particular upcoming event. Don’t make it all about you, but don’t pretend you’re ‘above’ them or not dealing with life just like they are. You’re allowed to be a real person, with your own way of doing life.
So presence is not all that mysterious after all. The hard part is really in the doing – in being able to be aware of and using all of these techniques at once. But just like with learning to drive, much of it becomes automatic with practice. So take heart.. anyone can learn to have presence if they are really interested in it. There’s hope for all of us 😉