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?