Presence in Teaching and Digital Becomings

30 Jun

Rodgers and Raider-Roth (2006) argue that we are losing sight of a “complex and nuanced notion of what it means to teach” with the drive towards equating student achievement, measured only in terms of high test results with teacher competency standards. It is turning education into a behavioural check-list, and ignoring that elusive essence of what it means to be a good teacher – something they term presence – something that involves “self-knowledge, trust, relationship and compassion”. They argue that in the current climate, obsessed with quantification and behavioural standards, we need to focus on the importance of this factor as key to educational achievement.

Presence equates to the extent to which a teacher has invested themselves in their teaching. Something Prabhu discussed as the teacher’s sense of plausibility, how passionate they are about what they are doing – the extent to which they are there. The advent of digital media in the classroom challenges us to extend this notion of presence to include a teacher’s digital presence. Increasingly my interchanges with students happen via email or through online messaging and happen after hours.

To my mind presence is at base, about how a teacher models an approach to life – their overall demeanour towards what life, in the form of the classroom, throws up. A key challenge for teachers is to be honest and real, to be friendly, but remain professionally detached. In other words to care, but not too deeply, to be up-front about when they are having a  bad day, but not to let that impact on their teaching too much either.

One’s digital presence is about how one reacts to digital media and technology in the classroom, and what that has to say about one’s approach to life in general. Digital presence is about how to be there for your students in a world which is mediated by machines. It is often about how one deals with the problems of technology which doesn’t always do what you want it to do.

I remember one day when I was administering an online assessment. The network was misbehaving and every second student was unable to access the files they needed because there was something wrong with the roaming profiles. There was a sea of hands in front of me, all anxious, as only teenage girls can be about a test, and not one of the techies was available. On top of this a girl came in late, very upset about something her previous teacher had said to her. She was in tears, and her computer was also affected by the network issue, adding to her tears. After reassuring everyone in the room that if the technical issues could not be sorted out I would cancel the test, but asking everyone to re-boot (which worked incidentally), I turned to the tearful one and remarked that she seemed to be having as bad a day as I was, and that I felt like joining her in her tears. Suddenly the network seemed to be working again, the hands went away, and the tearful girl and I shared a smile of mutual encouragement. She dried her tears and went on to score well in the test. Somehow humanity won out over technological determinism – and for me, that is what digital presence is all about, conveying that sense of shared humanity in a digital world.

I have always thought that one of the most valuable lessons one learns in school comes from seeing different types of people cope in different situations, and learning from that, that anything is possible. Teachers do not have to be paladins of virtue, they don’t have to be right all the time, or be able to cope in every circumstance. In fact we learn more from a teacher’s flaws and foibles, and how they rise above those moments to somehow provide us with a model of what it is to be an effective man or woman in our society. They show us how we can overcome our own short-comings, and that we don’t have to be fearful of being nothing.

We live in a digital society and teachers are not known for being the most digitally adept as a collective. But forget all that nonsense about digital natives, teenagers are even worse. Trust me – I teach them computer skills! How a teacher handles digital media is important. Teenagers may appear more confident, and less anxious if the technology doesn’t work immediately, but a key thing teachers can help them with, is in showing them what use to put these devices to.

Left to their own devices teenagers would probably not get much beyond the like and share stages of our mashable culture. They are very much a consumer generation, and need to be shown how to be productive with their devices. Teachers may be less confident about using the devices, but we are more experienced in finding productive uses for things. How we use our own devices personally and in the classroom, the digital presence we bring is very important in helping students frame and shape their own digital selves, every bit as much as a teacher’s presence helps students in their own becomings.

As a computer teacher I like to model the steps I take when I don’t know the answer, the routines I run through when hardware, or software won’t work. I show my students how to Google for support from forums, and how to use the answers given by people online for those having similar problems. Even when I do know how something works, I sometimes pretend I don’t so that I can show students how to work something out. I try to show them that techies mess things up and that computer people don’t always know what they are talking about.

In responding to student emails and messages, the key thing  for me is to answer promptly, as I would anyone else, and to use the slightly less formal tone of email to soften all interchanges. It’s a chance to get to know your students a little better, and take some time framing a reply to make sure you hit the right tone. I’m not saying you need to answer emails at 12 o’clock at night! One of the clauses in my subject policy warns students that emails may not be answered after hours, but that they should expect a reasonably speedy reply. I believe that it is important for me to model good netiquette in my digital interchanges. It is rude not to respond to emails, but it is equally rude to expect replies late in the evening!

How are we to interface with our machines in a digital Information Age? A good teacher teaches us  with, by and through their digital presence.

Cited Works

Rodgers C. and Raider-Roth, M. (2006). Presence in Teaching. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 12 (3), 265-287

Prabhu, N. S. (1990), There Is No Best Method—Why?. TESOL Quarterly, 24: 161–176. doi: 10.2307/3586897



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