Friday, 18 July 2014


For this article, I am going to cast my mind back to 2006 when I was working in China. At the time, I was working for a company called ClarkMorgan and was teaching Business English to major international companies operating in China. During that period, I read an interview with one of the company's co-founders, a guy named Andy Clark. The interviewer asked him what he thought were the key attributes of a language trainer. He talked first about the importance of energy and enthusiasm before moving onto a point that really got me thinking. He said that 'presence' was one of the key things he looked for in a trainer. It was not something I had thought too much about before reading that interview, but it is something I have since mused about at great length. 
Creating a sense of presence in the classroom or in a large training venue was something I worked very hard on when I was a teacher in China and elsewhere. I wanted to be able to control the room and ensure my students felt supremely confident in me, their teacher. To do this, I worked on all kinds of things. I started with simple things such as dressing a little more formally. I then started working on body language that made me look more poised and confident - holding my head higher and my shoulders back for example. I also thought about my speech. I tried to work on an authoritative tone and spent hours trying to cut the umms, ahhhhs and errrrs from my speech. I genuinely believe the work I did on creating presence and looking more authoritative made me a better teacher. It made it easier for me to gain my students trust and confidence. However I do not believe I really understood the value of presence and authority until, as an Academic Manager, I had to try to teach it. 
When I was running a school in France, I had a teacher who was in many ways excellent. She had a great personality and was extremely nurturing and patient with the students. She was also well-qualified and extremely well versed in grammar. However, she struggled when students asked her questions. I remember watching her teach an intermediate level class in which the students asked her about the difference between 'I could' and 'I was able to'. She gave an excellent answer that dealt with the ideas of opportunity and execution that define the two phrases. The students, though, did not buy it. After she answered the question they turned to me to verify her answer. They didn't seem to believe her. 
After the class, we reviewed what had gone wrong and why the students did not have confidence in her explanation even though it was a textbook answer. I told her what I thought: it was all about presence and authority ... the presence and authority that she lacked. Identifying the problem was the easy part. Fixing it was more of a challenge. Creating presence and authority is not something you can easily do. In fact, it could be argued that it is nature rather than nurture that creates this particular quality. The difficulties notwithstanding, we decided that presence and authority was an area to work on. So, what did the teacher and I do to try to create that important quality?  
In truth, it was no single thing that did the trick. Rather, it was a combination. I have outlined a few points below. They are by no means definitive, but I believe they are a start. 

1. Wordiness: it is a common trait for people who are nervous to speak too much. Put someone in a stressful situation and the chances are that one of the ways that the stress will manifest itself is through the person babbling. This was a big issue for my teacher. She gave a great explanation for the grammar we were discussing. However, after she had passed on the pertinent information, she continued speaking. This made the explanation drift from authoritative to rather vague - as I observed the class I was screaming to myself "Shut up!". Not only does talking too much create an air of nervousness, but it also increases the scope for ambiguity and misunderstanding. Because of all this, we worked on giving answers that were short and clear. It made it easier for the student to understand and for the teacher to look authoritative. 

2. Voice Tone: My teacher had a wonderful personality. She was extremely friendly and just loved to chat with students. She had a nice soft tone of voice that sounded very welcoming. This was great in ice-breaking activities and conversation classes, but did not cuit when she was supposed to be giving explanations. The students just did not take her seriously enough. To deal with this, we looked at the concept of comparing teaching with a doctor's appointment. The basic idea was that as great as a good bedside manner is for a doctor, you also need to be confident and trust him/her with your life. Being nice is a secondary concern. Whilst teaching isn't life and death like medicine, students need to feel confident in their teacher. This meant that while I encouraged the teacher to be friendly in certain situations, I emphasized that she needed to understand that it needed to change at other times. 

3. Body Language: My teacher was super friendly and always liked to lean forward to show interest in what the students had to say. She would nod her head and smile attentively. This was great. Except, at no point did she ever lean back or hold her shoulders back or give the impression she was 100% in control. Just as with the first two points, this created the appearance of nervousness. We worked on the idea of looking more physically relaxed and keeping the back a bit straighter for more of the class. 

4. Dialogue: The final point is perhaps the hardest to define, but it is also perhaps the most crucial. I did not manage to spot it and understand it in just one observation. It took a couple more classes before I could put my finger on it. After watching her closely, I noticed that she was too keen to elicit the students opinions. She loved to use phrases, "how does that sound?" "does that sound OK?" "what do you think about that?". It was all about eliciting. This encouraged the students to question the answer and offer alternate idea as if we were in a discussion activity. Of course, in some areas of the class, this is exactly what she needed to do. But, again, it was about picking the right time to be friendly and open and chatty, and the right time to give a short clear answer with no room for debate. 

The crux of this article is relatively simple. It is great for a teacher to be friendly, chatty and energetic. But, at times that teacher needs to be able to show a persona of competency and clarity. The teachers needs to create a presence that will make the students trust him/her.

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