Teacher Presence: Invaluable or Overrated?
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, September/October 2018 Issue
By Craig L. Bouvier, PhD
Some teachers clearly have it, and others do not. Those that have it, seem to come by it naturally, and those that don’t, seem to struggle to get it. Rachel Kessler, in her book, The Soul of Education, suggested that “it” is at least as important as the ability to teach; she wrote, “Who we are and the environment we create in class are at least as important as the teaching skills we possess.” Kessler was referencing teacher presence and its importance to teaching. I would suggest that it is even more important than most realize, and here’s why.
When you have a teacher who has presence, students are impacted in ways that positively affect the class; when you have a group of teachers who have presence, students are impacted in ways that positively affect the school. What, then, is teacher presence? Teacher presence is a teacher engaging her students as much as her subjects; it is a teacher teaching in the classroom and then extending that teaching into the halls, the lunchroom and the playground. Teacher presence is a teacher with the desire to engage students with her expertise and her life. To be present is not just being in a space at a certain time; it is much more.
A teacher with presence has a classroom with fewer discipline issues, more learning opportunities and changed lives. Teachers with presence are found in the halls gently teaching students right from wrong, in lunchrooms eating and engaging with students and on playgrounds participating with students in sports and games. Teachers with presence give their own time to students and consider it part of teaching. Teacher presence, done correctly, equates to more gentle rebukes and less harsh punishments because teachers are consistently in student spaces engaging with students.
The first question asked when I talk about teacher presence is this: can every teacher have presence? Some teachers just have presence; it comes naturally to them, but those who don’t can have it if they truly want it. The key to teacher presence is really wanting it and choosing to have it. You have to want to be where students are. You have to choose to spend your own time with students. Teacher presence is an intentional choice to engage students beyond your teaching. You will not have presence if the only time you engage students is in your classroom. Teacher presence, plain and simple, is a desire and a choice.
What does teacher presence look like? Well, it can look very differently depending on the teacher. I had a teacher colleague who would stand at the door at the beginning of each class and welcome every student by name. She worked hard to learn her students’ names quickly so she could address them properly. She had teacher presence. Every one of her students knew that she wanted to know them deeply. Teacher presence can also look like lunch detention. I used to walk by another teacher’s classroom at lunch and marveled at seeing a classroom full of students actively working. What was taking place in that classroom? Teacher presence. The teacher explained to me that students, in his class, knew from the beginning that class time was essential to their education. As a teacher, he valued it and treated it with respect, and because of his model, they, too, valued it and respected it. They all agreed; it could not be wasted or missed. When it was wasted or missed, they all agreed to give up their own time to get it back. More times than not, students were in that lunch detention because they chose to be there not because they had to be there. Why? He had teacher presence.
Teacher presence can take almost any form. Teachers with presence build relationships with students in the classroom and seek ways to relate to students beyond the classroom. Teachers with presence coach, engage, listen and ultimately, mentor students as they teach. We live in a day and age where social media has become dominant in the lives of students. Students engage social media almost more than they engage teachers or even other students. How can teachers compete with social media? The answer is simple: teacher presence. A teacher modeling and mentoring a student in real time is a powerful force and more desirable than any social media app.
Teacher presence goes beyond teaching. It is a mindset that intuitively considers students first. Let me be clear, however, teacher presence is not friendship. Teacher presence is being a mentor and a model as an adult. It is embracing the role of mentor by modeling the behavior you seek from your students in real life, but it is always being the adult in that relationship. It is not dropping down to the student level and becoming another friend. If you want students to be respectful, then, you must be the model of respect as a humble adult servant and not as a friend. If you want them to obey your classroom rules, then, you, as the adult, must be the consistent model of those rules, obeying them in all situations. If they consider you a friend, they will see you as a friend and as an equal and treat you as such. That is not teacher presence.
Teacher presence is more than teaching or being present in student space. It is a life lived out in an intentional way in front of students with purpose and direction. Teacher presence can be achieved in a short time, but it can also be quickly destroyed. Students will quickly root out those teachers who they label as “pretenders.” You cannot “pretend” to be a teacher with presence; you must truly want it and desire it. You cannot “pretend” that you teach because you love students; you must truly love students. Teacher presence cannot be faked or manipulated; it must be true and authentic.
Some say teacher presence is overrated; others discount its value. I say its value is immeasurable and without it you run the risk of making little to no impact on the lives of students or worse, making a negative impact on the lives of students. There is an old adage that goes something like this, “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” That is, in essence, a statement about teacher presence and why it is invaluable to education.
Dr. Craig L. Bouvier is currently the Head of School at Shannon Forest Christian School in Greenville, South Carolina.