P is for Presence

6 02 2010

A great talk by an old friend of  mine, Luke Prodromou (pictured), at today’s ELT conference at International House, Barcelona, triggered a mental riff on the topic of presence. Through anecdote, reminiscence, and survey data, Luke was exploring perceptions of “good teacher-ness”, and came up with the neat acronym RAP, i.e. that a seemingly universal and enduring set of ‘good teacher’ qualities consisted of the holy trinity of Rapport, Attitude, and Presence.

But what is presence, exactly? How do you recognise it, and, more importantly, how do you nurture and develop it?

The question has been particularly acute in my own line of work – online teacher education – as we induct new instructors into our program at the New School. Presence – defined in its most rock-bottom sense of simply ‘being there’  – is critical. One of the qualities of their instructors that students consistently rate highly is their active participation in on-line discussions. For example:

  • “I appreciate that [the instructor is]  always involved in the class and that [he/she] reads everything”.
  • “This course’s success… is for me due to the way [the instructor]  involved and engaged us”.
  • “[The instructor’s] disciplined attention to all of us made a huge difference to the learning process”

By virtue of being physically remote and, effectively, invisible, the on-line instructor needs to make an extra effort to be present by being seen to post on the discussion boards. But, more than simply being present, presence seems to connote the capacity

  • to attend to individuals as well as to the group;
  • to respond rapidly and authoritatively in the event of problems or difficulties, even when these are simply of a technical nature; and
  • to engage and involve the students, challenging them and at the same time supporting them by the judicious use of such interactional moves as affirming/validating, probing/questioning, elaborating, clarifying, and even just simply answering the students’ questions.

In online discussion boards, it is relatively easy to track these moves (the interaction is recorded for all to see). Moreover, the fact that the interaction is not taking place in real time means that the instructor is perhaps in a better position to manage their presence than the teacher in the real-time, face-to-face class. In this sense, an on-line presence – while elusive by virtue of being removed in terms of both time and space – is easier to describe, and therefore (arguably) easier to train.

But what about presence in ‘real’ classes?  How do you characterise it? (How, for example, does it differ from rapport?) And how can you develop it, both in yourself, and (if you are a teacher trainer) in others?



35 responses

7 02 2010
Darren Elliott

Nice use of the ‘real’ classes, Scott. I’m sure there are people who might pick you up on that…. ; P

As far as online teaching (learning) goes, we have an opportunity to be ‘present’ in the lives of our students beyond the classroom, and to make English a presence. Students usually come back after the the six week summer break forgetting all the English they ever knew, but last year we all kept in touch via the blog and I really felt it was easier to re-establish the rapport and the attitude due to that presence.

The teacher’s presence in the classroom can be stifling too. There are times I try to remove my presence – physically, emotionally, sonically (?) – just to let the learners learn for themselves.

7 02 2010
Fernando Guarany

Hi, everyone!

Thanks for posting this, Scott. Very timely indeed: tomorrow I am completing my first week e-tutoring 25 Brazilian teachers on the British Council’s 10 month “Yes! E-English for Teachers” course. Therefore, as I was reading your posting, it was easy to relate your input to what the we’ve been experiencing in the past few days.

I feel that Rapport and Presence are intimately intertwined; the latter relying significantly on the former. The way your presence is felt (by your students) in class will greatly depend on the quality of rapport between the learners and their teacher. If the learners believe that they can trust you, that you’re there to help and serve, that you’re genuinely interested both in their learning and in them as people, then they will probably regard your presence positively. However, if students don’t trust the teacher or consider them a threat, her presence will in all likelihood become stumbling block.

Re: how can you develop it, both in yourself, and (if you are a teacher trainer) in others?

I would go for a reflective approach. In practical terms, that would mean persistently monitoring your presence during the lessons. A straightforward way of possibly doing that would be asking a couple of questions as soon as the lesson ends:

(1) Did my presence contribute to the learning atmosphere in class? How?
(2) Did I give students individual attention when they needed it?
(3) Was I too helpful? Should I have offered less help and fostered more autonomy?
(4) Did I scaffold or spoon feed the learners?
(5) Did I treat the students as I wish I’d been treated?
And so on.

Additionally, it would be useful having another pair of eyes observe the teacher in action for feedback on their strengths and weaknesses. Observer and observee would probably want to get together prior to the lesson to discuss which aspects of presence should be tackled.

What do you think?


Fernando Guarany
Natal : Brazil

7 02 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Fernando. I really like your “reflective check-list”. I especially like (3) and the implication that a teacher can be TOO interventionist. Finding the balance is not easy, but I like to think of the effective teacher as being “at the ready” – even when students are working independently in groups – and alert to any sign that their intervention is needed.

A distinction I sometimes make in my training is the one between intervening and interfering (while recognising that the one shades into the other). In online teaching, I tend to involve myself in discussions more obtrusively than I might in face-to-face classes, mainly to reassure students that -although they can’t see me physically – I am there ‘in spirit’, as it were. Is this erring on the side of being unnecessarily ‘helpful’, to use your term?

8 02 2010
Fernando Guarany

My pleasure, Scott. 😉

I like the way you think of the effective teacher as being “at the ready.” My feeling is that some of the best learning opportunities (LO) arise when pair/group work is flowing naturally. When that happens we teachers have at least two choices: 1) Intervene (not interfere, as you put it) and seize the LO on the spot or (2) take a note for future. Whatever the choice is, it’s up to the teacher to decide what would be most beneficial to the learners.

Re: “In online teaching, I tend to involve myself in discussions more obtrusively. . . Is this erring on the side of being unnecessarily ‘helpful’. . .?”

No, I think you’re right.

Actually, that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do: to always comment on the learners’ posts and, when necessary, even emailing them in private to assure them that they’re not alone and that their contributions are coveted.

Fernando Guarany
Natal : Brazil

7 02 2010

This is an issue that I struggle with a lot. Picking up on Darren’s point about absenting yourself from the classroom, one of the best lessons I ever observed was when the teacher I was watching left the room for 20 minutes while the students solved a problem he’d left on the board. It was a large class of teenagers but his presence was such that it was still felt even when he wasn’t there.

7 02 2010
Marisa Constantinides

What a good topic both for teachers and teacher educators and there are already some very good comments by Fernando Guaranay which I think trainee teachers would find very useful.

Luke Prodromou, of course, has one of the strongest presences as a presenter and teacher, and his research on this is fascinating.

The challenge for teacher educators is to what degree ‘presence’ is analyseable and possible to learn for face-to-face course, but I think it is even more difficult for online teaching.

I think this is your real question, how to have a stronger sense of tutor presence on distance courses, isn’t it?

For F-2-F teaching, I would divide it into three areas:

1/ The visual aspect of it – including posture, movement around the class, use of gesture, eye contact as evidence of attention and attentiveness to learners, and signals given off by facial expression, proximity or its absence… even dress, which may also be significant.

2/ The auditory side – use of voice, modulation, key, balance, highlighting; as well as the verbal aspect – what and how it is said, including choice of words, ways of maintaining communication….oh, this last field is so vast and so deeply intertwined with studies of classroom discourse and principles of good communication, I am only really mentioning bits and bytes of this.

How to deal with it is a very very difficult issue on your average teacher training course. To be truly effective, one would have to spend quite a lot of time with trainees over their videotaped lessons, going over details and fixing, suggesting, pointing out errors or miscalculations of one of the other aspects that contribute towards developing a good presence.

This is in most cases impractical as it takes up so much tutor time, that it shoots the cost of courses skyhigh…

But good courses do attempt to deal with this during regular Teaching Practice feedback, even though it is quite a difficult thing to do.

One very good way of dealing with this is to ask trainees to view lessons of teachers with excellent presence and teachers without, too, and ask them to teach specific parts of their lessons “in the style of” Teacher A or Teacher B.

So, the use of very basic drama, and possibly more drama techniques which help with movement, posture, voice control, etc. might be a good idea.

Perhaps having a bank of self-accessed videos with specific questions and issues might help trainee teachers, but in my experience, most of the times, trainees in a group tend to have individual problems and need specific help and suggestions.


Of online courses I have less experience, and only where the communication between tutor and tutee was in writing. So how do you measure presence in those contexts?

I don’t know whether different institutions impose certain styles of formalized communication between tutor and student but adding a more personlized message conveying some warmth to the tutee has always seemed important to me.

There does seem to be a need for a new study to measure the effects of the different communication styles to find which ones give the tutee a sense of the tutor’s presence and which ones, despite the tutor’s efforts, do not generate a positive response.

Studying on one’s own can be very difficult for some people and this feeling of isolation and lack of human contact can demotivate students.

More recently, new technologies seem to be helping with this. At our institution we have started using both written feedback as well the tutor going over an assignment with voiceover, using a screencapture tool such as jing or screentoaster… Our trainees have had very positive responses to this, firstly because it’s more personalized and, secondly, because they have a sense the human contact – the affect responds instantly and helps the trainee be more receptive to tutor comments.

All this of course, if the tutor is not barking into the microphone!

I hope more people involved in online courses will step forward to share ideas here as I think more and more courses will be delivered in this way and more and more of us will have to get used to different styles of delivering input and making our online presence more clearly felt.

7 02 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that Marisa: your comment is a concise taxonomy of features that are implicated in the notion of ‘presence’. I particularly like the way you break it down into the visual and auditory – it’s a lot about how you look, and how you sound, as a teacher. The ‘looking’ would also include how you move (or not), how you centre yourself, your ‘proxemics’ i.e. body language, including proximity to the students, even touch, and so on.

As for on-line teaching, I’m glad you mentioned Jing – I’m using this more and more – mainly to explain procedures, such as how to use an online corpus, or ow to upload an assignment, where before I might have made a powerpoint with voice-over – far too clunky, compared to screencats software like Jing – but at least an attempt at providing the learners with a sense of their instructor being ‘in the room’.

7 02 2010

This is difficult to pin down – but an area that I’m very interested in.

Many people can learn about language, even learn “techniques” for teaching language but from what I’ve observed what makes a really great teacher is the above + rapport and presence.

Thinking about it, rapport and presence seems to me to involve some of the following.

a) teachers are willing and able to “open themselves” to the individual/individuals in the class. By opening I don’t mean they start talking about their personal problems etc. More that there is as little hiding behind the “role” of teacher as possible. And an ability to respond to whatever arises from a place of warm authenticity.

b) By opening as a human being to others – there is often a feeling or sense of what they (students) respond well to. This is really dependent on group, size of group, culture, personalities in the group, purpose of learning, even the day itself. Because there are so many variables terms like “rapport and presence” are almost impossible to define.

In one large, lively, active group the teacher who disappears for 20 mins and lets the group get on with it – might help create a very creative, student directed learning environment. In a one-to one or very small group in-company course, the teacher who disappears for 20 mins and lets the group get on with it may find they no longer have a job next week.

It seems teachers who embody presence are simply able to be in the present moment. (not so easy if anyone has tried meditation!) Being in the present moment means that you are genuinely listening to students and their questions without being side tracked, without pre-empting.

But not only that, you are also constantly picking up non-verbal signals too.

Not only that, presence definitely means being comfortable with a certain level of silence.

Not only that, Probably you need to know your subject area well enough to not have that occupying your mind – leaving your mind free to respond to the individual or individuals in the group.

I would even go so far as to say, before teachers can be present for their students they need to be to some degree in the habit of being present for themselves!!

It’s a quality that develops and on some days can be more evident than others. I see it actually as being a quality so important beyond the classroom one that is about being human. The practice of being present for me anyway, is a lifetime practice and the classroom just another place to try to practice that.

I have less experience with being on-line, certainly the frequency and quality of our responses to each other could show levels of presence. Although speaking only for myself, I find it much easier to hide behind my words if I’m feeling grouchy or distracted. Standing face to face with people it’s slightly harder to do that!

7 02 2010

Hi Scott,

I think Savage-Rumbaugh’s work with bonobo apes gives us (or at least me) the right mix between presence and rapport (see video from 13:10)

I imagine that presence comes in many flavors, based on many personality types, and yet, if you can combine your own brand of presence with a genuine rapport with students, then you evolve into becoming “meaningful” in the student’s lives. Now that’s the secret in my humble opinion.

Still trying to get you back to Japan sooner than later.


Steven Herder

7 02 2010
Scott Thornbury

The practice of being present for me anyway, is a lifetime practice and the classroom just another place to try to practice that.

Wow. Reminds me of what the art critic Michael Fried said, in reference to works of art that have the capacity to make us stop in our tracks: “Presentness is grace”.

7 02 2010

Hi Scott – yes, I think this elusive quality “presence” or awakening to some kind of presence is sometimes best captured in the momentary impact works of art or poems can have on us.

A kind of alertness and awareness that sounds a bit “other worldly” but in fact is more just being awake to the “ordinary”

Ryökan transmits this “mood” well for me in this poem

A cold night – sitting alone in my empty room
Filled only with incense smoke.
Outside, a bamboo grove of a hundred trees;
On the bed, several volumes of poetry.
The moon shines through the top of the window,
And the entire neighbourhood is still except for the cry of insects.
Looking at this scene, limitless emotion,
But not one word.

7 02 2010

Hi there

Wow, as always these great posts of yours Scott provoke long and very smart comments. I’d like to echo what Marisa said about factors affecting presence, and to second her comment that Luke Prodromou has a lot of presence.

There is a certain part of me that thinks that some people are just born with presence. This is NOT to say that it cannot be nurtured and developed by the rest of us, but for some it’s just natural. In the same way that charisma is I think. Steph’s comments above about opening themselves, “being there” and allowing for silence ring true for me as little things that people can nurture and work on. Although some of these may be culturally bound and work differently in different places, I’m not sure.

This in face to face interaction. Online it is probably easier to be trained to have a presence, partly by doing those things you mention but also by using the right style or writing with students/trainees/readers. One tip I would add is, as an online tutor, to generously use names and refer back – always – to things that others said while naming them.

I’ll stop there. Thanks for the enjoyable post, and I’m dreadfully jealous that I missed seeing you and Luke in Barcelona!

8 02 2010
Fernando Guarany

Re: “One tip I would add is, as an online tutor, to generously use names and refer back – always – to things that others said while naming them.”

Excellent, Lindsay! 🙂 Very practical tip.

It’s been said that the most beautiful word in any language is someone’s own name. Seeing your name in a blog post (or forum) or hearing it mentioned in conversation, instantly captures your attention and raises your level of alertness to what’s going on around you. And being relaxedly alert is extremely important for learning to take place, methinks.

Fernando Guarany
Natal : Brazil

8 02 2010

Scott, wouldn’t CRAP be more appropriate? The C stands for Clarity, of course – as in making the purpose and content explicit…

8 02 2010
Marisa Constantinides

I just had a look at my previous comment and attempt to analyse the concept of “Presence” and it looks as if I have neglected to mention the most important aspect of what makes up for a great teacher/presenter presence: their personal qualities!

How could I have not mentioned anything about it? Can you help anyone develop or improve presence if the basic human essentials are not there?


This could get to be a very long list and that is not my intention.

But interestingly, it has made me have a second look and appreciate Luke’s RAP model.

You don’t necessarily have to be a very nice person or a very nice teacher to have a great ‘presence’ but without the other ingredients, Attitude and Rapport, Presence becomes an overcoat of glossy paint which however does not necessarily translate into good teaching.

8 02 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Marisa for your further thoughts.

It got me thinking about other contexts where ‘presence’ is valued highly, especially the theatre. Certain actors are said to have presence, which, if anything is a quality of stillness as much as of activity. I.e. they tend to draw your attention, even when they’re not doing anything!

I remember the first time I saw Geoffrey Rush on the stage (before he made it into film). He was playing the doctor in a production of ‘Uncle Vanya’. I literally couldn’t take my eyes off him (and, don’t get me wrong, this is nothing to do with sex appeal – whatever you say about Rush, he’s not a matinee idol!). I wasn’t surprised that, not long after, he burst onto the film world in Scott Hicks’ movie ‘Shine’.

So, presence, perhaps, is simply the capacity to draw and sustain attention. The teacher who can quieten a rowdy class of teenagers simply by standing still, has it. Practitioners of neuro-linguistic programming claim to have subliminal techniques (synchronising breathing, etc) for achieving it. The jar, in Wallace Stevens’ poem has it, in spades:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

(Wallace Stevens – Anecdote Of The Jar)

9 02 2010
Scott Thornbury

Some further thoughts on presence, from a paper by Carol R. Rodgers and Miriam Raider-Roth, called ‘Presence in Teaching’ and published in Teacher and Teaching theory and practice, Vol 12, No3, June 2006:

The experience of presence is one most will recognize, particularly from their experiences as learners. Many of us have come across a teacher who, with the metaphorical touch of a finger, could give us exactly what we needed—neither more nor less—exactly when we needed it. A teacher who was present to—who could apprehend, make sense of, and respond skillfully to—our needs, strengths, and experiences as learners. From the learner’s point of view the moment is one of recognition, of feeling seen and understood, not just emotionally, but cognitively, physically, and even spiritually. It is a feeling of being safe, where one is drawn to risk because of the discoveries it might reveal; it is the excitement of discovering one’s self in the context of the larger world, rather than the worry of losing one’s self, in the process.

They add, “Presence from the teacher’s point of view is the experience of bringing one’s whole self to full attention so as to perceive what is happening in the moment.” This seems analogous to the concept of the ‘flow’ experience, as articulated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a characteristic of which is an undistracted concentration on the here-and-now.

10 02 2010
mark andrews

Went to see Csikszentmihaly here in Budapest in November last year. Really enjoyed watching him talk through his ideas in a very modest non-showman type way. One of the first psychologists to research and concentrate on what makes us feel good, involved and as you say giving undivided attention to the here and now.

If our students notice and can feel that in that moment in the classroom we are totally immersed in the act of being a teacher and can be helped to empathise with that, then the potential exists to break down the traditional default walls that exist between teachers and learners. I think that learners have every right to and are right to erect those walls and maintain those those walls in many school cultures and no Robin Williams dead poets society character romantically and singlehandedly is going to or should change that on their own. You usually end up doing more harm than good that way.

However, if together with other teachers in our schools we can create a culture where students notice that there is a strong commitment to them and being in the here and now, then these walls can begin to be dismantled. Your post reminded me of a quote that has stayed with me for almost 20 years now:

“The ideal of using the present simply to get ready for the future contradicts itself. It omits, and even shuts out, the very conditions by which a person can be prepared for the future. We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. This is the only preparation which in the long run amounts to anything” ( John Dewey. 1963 Experience and Education MacMillan London, quoted in Legutke, M & Thomas, H. Process and Experience in the Language Classroom Longman New York 1991

Is there anywhere online where I can get access to Luke’s research or is there a summary of it that I can read anywhere? Would love to have been there with you all last weekend at the conference and thanks for hosting these stimulating discussions.

10 02 2010

This is a very interesting post and comments thread. While reading the comments towards the top I began thinking about the theatre. Then, as I read on I noticed Scott began to talk about presence in theatre. I did quite a bit of acting as a child, and one thing I remember directors always saying is, “look into everyones eyes in the audience.” So now when I teach, I make it a point to scan across the room and look each student in the eyes. This has a remarkable effect of engaging each student. I work mainly with children, where a strong and positive presence is very important to keep the students on task. Thanks everyone for your great ideas.

10 02 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Matt, for your comment. The theatre is a great training ground for teachers, particularly with regard to such skills as voice projection and control, gesture, posture, and — as you point out — the effective use of body language, including gaze. This, of course, doesn’t mean that teaching is a kind of performance; simply that both teaching and acting involve a similar set of physical skills and abilities, including the ability to capture and hold attention i.e. presence.

10 02 2010

I remember an online course I took myself as a student, which was precisely about online tutoring.

One of the things we had to analyse was what our own tutors had been doing. Someone said “They were always there” but I remember disagreeing with that…

It wasn’t that they were always “there” — they didn’t reply to everything and hog (get in the way of) the conversation; on the contrary, they let us, the learners, discuss things and work them out for ourselves.

But it SEEMED that they were always there, listening it seemed (hard, on an online course!), and intervening precisely at the moment that was required…

10 02 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Tom. I’m intrigued by your comment that the tutors seemed always to be there, even when they were not actively participating. What I wonder is the minimal ‘sign of life’ that the on-line instructor needs to show for the students to have confidence that he/she is there? It’s a bit like when you’re having a phone conversation: at what point do you realise that the other person is no longer listening, or that the line is dead?

11 02 2010

The tutors SEEM always to be there…

Not sure it’s really so much a “minimal sign of life” Scot as much as a sign of life at precisely the right time…

An online course isn’t so very different from a F2F one, if you ask me. F2F you’ve got an interesting discussion going, you wouldn’t interrupt it, right?

Online, it’s pretty much the same thing. Except that there ARE times when an prompt, appropriate response, preferrably leading to MORE discussion is required.

I’d say spotting that moment is key (it helps if you are logged on to the course 24/7 ,-) … and knowing when to shut up also helps!

10 02 2010

So, can presence be learned, or is it part of being ‘a natural’?

10 02 2010
Scott Thornbury

Good question, Adam. To pursue the acting analogy (mentioned above by Matt) I suspect that good teachers, like good actors, are both born and made. That is to say, certain innate personality traits predispose one to teaching/acting, but there are also techniques that can be learned and which can make an average actor/teacher a better one, and a good actor/teacher quite brilliant!

15 02 2010

Thanks, kind of what I was thinking. Now, back to those acting lessons.

11 02 2010
Mike Harrison

Such an interesting post and comments here, lots of good things to think about as a new(er) teacher. I’m currently in my 3rd year teaching EFL/ESOL and I would say that I’m still very much developing my RAP in relation to the classroom and my students.

For me, the big thing that affects presence in the class is confidence. I’m not a naturally confident person, and at times in the classroom presented with a tricky situation (a whole group of beginners with little to no English, or a high-level class where I just know they’re going to ask difficult-to-answer questions re vocab and/or grammar) I’ve certainly felt like I’ve lost confidence.

There’s an interesting flip side to that, since whenever I’ve been observed for a job or while training, my observer has noted that I appeared very confident! It makes me wonder whether confidence, and presence, is not always a conscious thing as a teacher. That is, can you have good presence without really thinking about it?

11 02 2010

Hi Mike,

You make a really interesting point about appearing to be confident v’s actually feeling confident. I can only speak from my own experience here. In my early days of teaching I also had that feedback. I appeared confident – but probably for about the first 5 years inside I didn’t really feel confident at all and would especially dread the Korean male students who always seemed to ask obscure grammar points and use metalanguage that I really didn’t understand!

I use to think, one day someone who can really teach is going to walk in and discover me – and see that I can’t teach at all – I’m just getting by. I was terrified of making mistakes!

But for me I think that’s because I had certain concepts about what “teaching” really was. Or who a proper teacher really was. Yes I could somehow “play the part” but it was always a part dictated by trying to squeeze into some “role” and that’s why it felt fake or I felt fake.

A turning point for me regarding the whole issue of presence came while observing our senior teacher in Australia. He was just so natural – just himself, easy and unafraid – he also really knew his stuff – but he was totally at ease in admitting when he didn’t and would have to check up and get back. He had that wonderful combination of warmth, responding to the students as individual people, humour and knowing the nuts and bolts of language.

Not long afterwards I saw Scott (Hi scott) give a workshop in Australia and just couldn’t believe it that combination of being easy, natural and knowing your stuff.

It wasn’t like wanting to become like another person – but more deciding to try to emulate their authenticity.

I’m not suggesting that now I have it nailed – not at all! But the gap between inner feeling of confidence and outer appearance has slowly shrunk over the years!

Is that connected with presence? perhaps it is?

11 02 2010
Mike Harrison

Hi Steph,

I totally agree with you. I used to have the feeling that I would get ‘found out’. I don’t really worry about it anymore. I guess through experience you pick up the whole ‘really-know-what-you’re-talking-about’ and appearing/being confident is much easier. I accept that there are things I don’t know, maybe even things that my students know more about than I do. I certainly feel more and more of myself in my teaching, rather than trying as you say ‘to play the part’. I think that’s really important.

I’ve just thought of another presence-related issue/problem that I’ve been having lately – what do you do when a student has a really forceful presence? It’s not just the teacher who can have an influential presence in the classroom. I’m still figuring out how exactly to deal with this one. Again, perhaps one that comes naturally with time…

15 02 2010
Luke Meddings

Good question Mike – I think it depends on the nature of the strong student presence! I think one has to mix a degree of flattery – acknowledging the force of their personality – with firm management. Sometimes a disruptively strong presence comes from a position of vulnerability, and once you have shown the learner that you are not intimidated, they will relax.

The best ‘place’ to get to is one in which everyone, including the student in question, knows that you know their presence is strong. That you are aware of it, accept it, enjoy it, but are prepared to manage it when it starts to affect the wider classroom dynamic. It’s all too easy to rely on stronger personalities to lead the class, and has to be consciously resisted.

I agree that teacher presence is a fascinating area, I think it is partly a question of learning how to be oneself in the right way. And yes this will differ in different contexts. The notion of studies into this worries me a bit as it might generate checklists that would be so oppressive that people couldn’t be themselves! We will have seven types of intelligence, seven types of presence, fourteen types of anxiety!

But practical tips are also essential if we want to demystify this – interesting that eye contact comes up so frequently. To veer laterally, it is also to do with how one ‘sees’ the work of teaching. One has to see the lesson through the learners, and not the other way round. Then one can be with them in the present, and not ten minutes behind on the lesson plan.

Some great poems too.

16 02 2010

I’ve noticed that presence is one thing some co-workers in ESL/EFL have struggled with. I try and be helpful and understanding of my students’ problems and struggles with the language. I try and make learning and practicing the language a positive experience, partly through shared presence.

Former colleagues however, take presence to mean ‘showing up.’ (Just in time for class to begin!) Presence also goes both ways — for the student and instructor. Student presence is just as important to the class. Other than showing up for class (to NOT being marked absent!), students should be expected to engage their fellow classmates during exercises and learning strategies.

18 02 2010

Hello there.

I haven’t had time to read all the comments, but the very title of the entry has led me to brainstorm myself, in a purely instinctive way, while focusing on teachers, theatre actors, conference speakers, listserv contributors (the on-line ‘presence’) and others. I’m leaving my list here – I hope you don’t mind, it’s rather intuitive-instinctive; I wonder if anyone else feels the same sort of ‘tonality’……

Stillness – of spirit
The ability to create expectancy – and live up to it (therefore reputation)
Posture, walk and eye contact
Economy, in a Zen sort of way
Essential energy
Passion just under the surface
Voice timbre
Depth (ocean not rivulet)
(Apparent) self-confidence
Stability (the oak as opposed to the twig or broom)
Harmony within self and of movement
No apologies
Charm and elegance, rather than charisma
Totally aware
Plain, simple eloquence
Time and timing
Generosity of time and timing
Communication through words and through pores

19 02 2010

Hello Scott and everyone,

I come to this discussion very late because i was interested to see what everyone else would say.

I have two comments to make, I think. One concerns the physical presence of a F-2F teacher. I think it is about ‘stillness’ as Fiona says, and Marisa says a lot of wonderful things about physical presence above. But presence is also about professionalism, and is something that new teachers need to learn when they make the big leap from ‘me’ to ‘me-as-teacher’. Presence means thinking about how you appear (I don’t just means clothes of course), thinking about where you stand in a classroom, thinking about how you move around, how close you get to students, thinking about how you ‘come over’ to them – are you prepared, organised, efficient for ecxample. I think what I am saying is that while there is ‘personal’ presence, there is ‘professional’ presence too and the more we think about that the better. The laid-back friendliness of many western EFL teachers may fail in the presence ‘stakes’ for some types of student and it is not clear that they (those studetns) are wrong!

But the biggest surprise for me has been (as a fellow tutor at the New School) how powerful and intimate and creative online teaching can be. I completely agree that students need to think you are always there even though, given different time zones etc you obviously can’t be all of the time. But a teacher who is absent for a few days (e.g. doesn’t turn up on the discussion boards) makes students feel distinctly unloved, I think. That’s why you will find online teachers like me furiously trying to access wifi in hotel lobbies around the world so that my students know that I – well basically so that they know I care (which I do).

But what to do, and how to maintain presence? There is a danger that we interfere too much, but I think, based on not that much experience frankly, that the online tutor’s role is to 1 lubricate things (put people at their ease), 2 push people to take part, and 3 (this the greatest of the three for me) to provoke, to provoke further thought, make students go a little bit further, ask them to clarify, get them to THINK.

But (and this is the last in an over-long comment) it’s never what you say that matters, it’s HOW you say it, and I’m still learning that one.


20 02 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Jeremy. I like your point about ‘professional presence’, as something else apart from ‘personal presence’. I wonder to what extent this is a product of experience – the confidence that the experienced teacher emits in simply handling the space and equipment, etc., with the least effort. So, is personal presence innate, but professional presence acquired?

17 03 2010
lily graca

Besides commitment, and this is professional presence, involvement for me seems to be one of the most relevant aspects considering the teacher may have the highest degree or even have studied at the world´s most respected institution – which I value both of them – however still lack the gift for the job. It would be something like getting to the end of class and realize how time surely flies and provide the students a class atmosphere that will make them go back next time completely enchanted. On the other hand, also believe presence takes 1% of inspiration and 99% of perspiration. On-line courses require basically fulfill students´ needs, such as topics they would love to read and/or talk about. Many thanks, Lily Graca

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