Being There for Students
Editor’s note: The following article is part of a series called It’s Worth Discussing, in which we feature a research article that is especially suitable for personal reflection and group discussion with your colleagues.
Why this article is worth discussing: It’s true, every class is unique and every student an individual. New content abounds; interesting bits can be added to the course. But let’s face it: a lot about teaching doesn’t change. Individually and collectively, students make the same poor choices about learning. They ask the same questions, find the same concepts confusing. The bedrock basics in most fields don’t change all that much, and some courses we teach over and over again. Keeping teaching fresh and energized is a challenge. Being there for students every day and in every course can wear a teacher down. This article explores what it means to be present, why presence is important, and what helps a teacher stay connected to the content and the students.
Farber, J. (2008). Teaching and presence. Pedagogy, 8(2), 215–225.
Presence, as the article describes it, is the idea of being in the moment, not going through the motions but being there in with students—as if there was nowhere you’d rather be than in that classroom, teaching this material. Presence brings an energy to teaching that’s elusive but magnetic. It draws students in and connects them with the content, the teacher, and their classmates. It makes a class session an event or experience rather than just another day in class. In the article, Farber explores the importance of presence, how you get it, and the difficulty of maintaining it course after course, year after year. Most teachers have experienced the power of presence and know when it’s absent. Even so, it’s an aspect of teaching seldom considered or discussed. This article can start the conversation.
Key quotations and discussion questions
1. Understanding this notion of presence
“What I have in mind here is not presence in the sense of ‘poise’ or ‘confidence,’ but simply the condition of being present. Of being fully present” (p. 215).
“Some people, when they teach, are right there with the rest of us in the room; others seem imprisoned in their own space, on the far side of an unbridgeable gulf” (p. 215).
“Presence demands not only that we take account of those people in the classroom with us at this particular moment, but that we take account of this moment in our own life as well. Presence requires that we find our own energy if we hope for others in the room to find theirs” (p. 220).
- How would you define presence? Can you describe it? How does it feel when you have it and when you don’t?
- Can a teacher come to class without that energy and draw it from students who are there, eager, ready, and interested in learning? Does presence drain away when a teacher faces students who are present physically but elsewhere mentally?
2. The importance of presence
“Presence, more than any particular technique or activity, addresses the potential of the classroom medium because it carries with it a sense of immediacy, openness, and spontaneity, and therefore, even in lecture, draws presence from the other people in the room, whereas teaching that seems canned or scripted make these people into nothing more than spectators” (pp. 217–218).
- Are there links between presence and motivation? For the teacher? For students?
- Is rapport related to presence? If so, how and in what ways?
- Is there tension between responding to what’s happening and getting sidetracked? What’s the trade-off between spontaneity and keeping with the plan?
- Does presence cause learning or simply contribute to those conditions conducive to learning?
3. When a teacher isn’t present
“What am I to do if the ideas, the approaches, the activities that were so exciting two years ago are now beginning to seem mechanical and unexciting? [Farber points out that the content itself is not the problem—he’s still in love with his.] It’s the old notes, old questions, old examples, the old strategies, the old schematization that seem to be leaving me cold. All of this may have worked wonderfully well before—and it might work again, if I could feel the same intellectual edge going into it” (p. 220).
- Can you teach the same content so often that familiarity becomes part of the problem? What about the content that doesn’t much change in those basic courses?
- Is the problem not so much the content but the course? Can you teach the same course too often, say multiple section in one semester?
- Say you teach a lot, out of economic necessity or for some other reason, and you get tired physically, maybe mentally. Does that make it hard to be present?
“To be present is to be vulnerable. So we wrap ourselves in whatever insulation comes to hand: a formal and forbidding, even arrogant, manner; an inflexible agenda; a set of props, videos, PowerPoint presentations, whatever . . . activities that leave us, largely out of the picture” (p. 223).
- How does being present make teachers vulnerable?
- If being present involves spontaneity, responding to what’s happening in the moment, and impromptu teaching, do some teachers pass on the opportunity because they’re afraid they can’t wing it or will respond inappropriately?
4. Finding or creating presence
“How much presence will do? And even if we do want to seek a greater degree of presence in teaching, to what extent can it be sought?” (p. 218).
“More specifically, in preparing for a particular class, is there any way of planning for presence?” (p. 218).
“My own experience suggests that there is no consistently reliable technique to achieve presence” (p. 219).
- But are there techniques, say a set of learned behaviors, that create conditions that make it easier to find presence? If so, what might those behaviors be?
- Are there preparation activities that lead to being present in the class session?
- What about Farber’s first question? Is presence all or nothing? Can it ebb and flow?
Farber rules out associating presence with particular approaches to teaching:
“I’ve seen mindless, alienating examples of active learning, just as I’ve seen alienating, soporific lecturing. There is scarcely anything in teaching that can’t be done in a ‘Stepford’ version” (p. 222).
- Do you agree? Could a case be made that the chances of students being present—being in the moment, engaged, and involved—is better with active learning approaches?
5. The inherent challenge of being present
“On any given day of any given course we would like to be able to pull something out of the file drawer, walk into class, and run it. No sweat, no hassle. We want to own our teaching as though it were so much real estate. . . . But the act of teaching is nothing we can lock up, nothing we can hold on to, nothing we can simply pull off the shelf and run. The very next time I walk into class, I will be, once again, somewhere I’ve never been” (p. 223).
- When the unexpected happens in class, are the students and the teacher present?
- What about teaching can be controlled, and what’s beyond a teacher’s control?
- What kind of learning takes places in those out-of-control places? Teacher learning? Student learning?