To tell the truth, I was often frightened to walk into a new classroom of middle school students or inmates. I often felt too small for the task—too short, too introverted, too soft-of-voice, too out-of-touch with the culture. My impulse was to constrict my presence, tamp it down, mute it. But in order for me to survive and my students to thrive, I needed to bring a robust presence into the classroom.
So how could I build this kind of a presence with a pit in my stomach? At the most basic level, I had to change my focus—to think less of myself and more of my students. What did they need? What were their experiences? How did they think? How could I help them learn?
But beyond shifting my thoughts away from myself toward others, I also found a series of small practices that helped me exude a bigger presence. Here are a few. Some of these may work for your next daunting class:
- Stand tall—Good posture made a difference. It lifted my confidence, gave me energy, helped me catch a breath, and, most important, sent messages to my brain and to my students that maybe, just maybe, I could teach this class.
- Inhabit the whole classroom—Getting out from behind the podium, leaving the security of my desk signaled to students that I wasn’t intimidated by them, that I wanted to be with them. Walking through the rows as I read aloud, perching on a stool by the side of the room to lead a discussion, talking from the back of the room about a diagram on the front Smart Board, sitting on a low stool beside a student desk—all these vantage points decreased distance between me and the students, making us more comfortable with each other.
- Use sound—My voice isn’t big, but I could play loud music as students entered class. I could slam a door and then smile when they looked up. I could ring a bell. All these sounds helped me save my voice for teaching, not waste it on controlling.
These simple measures helped me to become more expansive in the classroom, more alive, exude a bigger presence. And they helped students settle in to learning.