Schools of deeper thought: a teacher's greatest gift is presence
Educators and leaders must learn to communicate, through actions and words, that everyone matters
You get home from work at night and your intimate partner or friend cannot wait to talk; your children want to tell you about what happened at school that day; and even the dog is jumping up and down for attention.
You are unaware of their disappointment because your head is somewhere else. There were things that happened at work that preoccupy you, perhaps the damning audit report. Already you are planning what to do the next day. You fumble with your cellphone.
Then one of the family brings you back to Earth: “You know, you are here, but you are not here.”
It is perfectly possible to be physically present and yet absent at the same time. And yet in schools, we cannot even assume that teachers and principals are physically present.
Like night and day
On average, five teachers a day are absent from disadvantaged schools for reasons both legitimate or not. The fact that you are paid to show up is no guarantee that you will.
This is what has always puzzled me. How can anyone with even a threadbare conscience abandon children whose futures depend on them being present?Even so, most educators are physically present and that’s about it. Go and watch how teachers come to school in a township school compared with an Afrikaans primary school. It's like night and day.
At the one school the teachers coming through the gate look like they lost a relative; the burdens of the world appear to be on their backs; their faces tell you that they would rather be somewhere else.
Small wonder so few black students want to become teachers – they had 12 years of apprenticeship watching this dourness and they make up their minds early; the last thing they want is to become teachers.
At the other school the teacher comes rushing through the gates. Children run to carry her bag. “Come here, little one, and give me a hug,” I heard one teacher say as she lifted another family’s little child off her feet.
There is genuine love and affection for the child. The teacher is not only physically present, she is temporally present. In that moment nobody else in the world matters but that child, and she knows it.
But a really good educator is also emotionally present. You know, the principal who walks into the staff room and he can see on the face of a colleague that something is wrong. He asks. A bereavement in the family. A family member in hospital. A concern about a son’s progress at university.A leader who is emotionally present senses things as happy or sad long before a follower tells her or him. It is an uncanny sense of presence that comes with being in touch.
A teacher who has honed these skills can look across a room of children and instantly know who is “tuned into or out of” the moment.
Little of this matters unless the teacher or principal is also intellectually present. Passion is not enough. You need to know your subject better than anyone else. You cannot teach out of ignorance. One way in which to command respect in the classroom is to convey a sense of your authority as a subject expert.Children remember such teachers – “Mr X knew his subject”. This means exquisite preparation on the latest knowledge and insights from your discipline. It means reading.
Matter of faith
There is also something called spiritual presence, that ability to be present even when you’re not. Persons of faith would recognise this kind of presence, like the famous verse in the Psalms (23 v4) that even in dire circumstances (the valley of the shadow of death), God is present.
Do you know leaders whose influence is so powerful that even when they’re not there, they are? The sense of respect they command is such that you would not dare step out of line as a pupil or student because of the spiritual (non-physical) presence of the leader.
Most needed in our country right now, in school and society, is the sense of inclusive presence. The way a teacher or leader communicates through actions and words that everyone matters.
This means stepping out of your skin, almost literally, and showing care and concern for those who do not look like you or pray like you or speak your language.Much of what galvanised student protests at schools and on campuses in the past few years is what students feel is a lack of recognition. Institutions are good at signalling who is in and who is out. This is a radical presence, the capacity to make others feel they matter.
Can presence be cultivated among leaders? Absolutely. True, some leaders seem better at exercising presence than others, but it can be learnt. It starts with a recognition of the problem of absent presence.
Then do certain things differently. Listen empathetically, with all your concentration. Pay attention to those around you. Make an effort to reach out to persons and into spaces where you might not feel naturally comfortable.
As a leader of a company or a school, move around your organisation and speak to people, ask them about themselves and what concerns or excites them. Work on your body language – for example, occupy the centre of a room and move around; a touch on the shoulder here and an encouraging whisper there. Presence can be taught.