Have you ever watched a teacher in action who just seemed to exude an aura of authority? I'm not talking about authority in the “I will rule over you muah-hah-haaaaaa!!!” evil maniac sense; I'm talking about the, “Wow — something about this person makes me want to listen, want to learn, want to be here.”
A major part of such a sense in a teacher's room is teacher credibility — that magic sensation when students in the room believe in their hearts that their teacher is good at their job. But another way to think about what's happening in such a classroom is authoritative presence — a constellation of learnable, practicable behaviors that I first learned about from our colleague Lynsay Fabio.*
In the video below, Lynsay walks through how to establish an authoritative presence with your body, your voice, and your word choice. And then below that video, I'll include her tips in writing and end with a few encouragements.
How to establish authoritative teacher presence with your body
- Stand up straight, shoulders back. “But,” Lynsay says, “not too far back.”
- Set your feet hips-width apart. Lynsay says this is especially important for women because “we tend to stand with our feet close together to take up less space.”
- Square up to whomever you're speaking to. If speaking to whole class, body faces whole class. If addressing one student, square up with that individual student.
- Stand still. Don't fidget or shift from foot to foot.
- Relax your body parts. Tension can be held in your fists, jaw, or even the spot between your eyebrows. Taking a deep breath helps her — or heck, try a physiological sigh.
- Make eye contact. When speaking to the whole class, dwell on an individual student's eyes for a few seconds, and then move to another. Lynsay notes that it's important not to be intimidating with this eye contact — you're not trying to stare anyone down or give the evil eye. “But you are trying to convey that you are unafraid and confident.
How to establish authoritative teacher presence with your voice
- Be loud. Not obnoxiously so, but, in Lynsay's words, “much louder than most people tend to speak.” This projects confidence, and it also ensures that all students can clearly hear you.
- Be decisive. Your voice should come down at the end of a sentence rather than up.
- Don't end instructions with “Okay?” This makes you sound unsure of the instruction you've just given.
- Be emotionally neutral. Don't betray anger or annoyance. “You want your voice to sound calm and controlled, without any emotional baggage.” In my experience, this takes lots of practice — and then the even deeper skill of not being easily angered or annoyed takes loads more.
- Speak slowly and with pauses. Don't fall into the common nervousness trap of speaking faster than you need to.
How to establish authoritative teacher presence with your word choice
- Keep it formal. There are times for lowering our formality with students within professional bounds (e.g., when greeting them in the hall), but moments of instruction are not those times. Also, note that formality isn't the same thing as coldness or lifelessness. I would describe Fred Rogers as pretty formal in his show, but he's certainly not cold or aloof.
- Keep it concise. When giving directions, don't use five sentences if only one would work.
The most important thing with all of these: practice!
Lynsay recommends first practicing authoritative presence with something you know by heart — e.g., the pledge of allegiance or a memorized poem. This lets you focus on the many components of the skill, not the words that you're saying. Do this practice in front of a mirror, a trusted colleague, or a video camera.
Then, practice authoritative presence with some instructions you plan to give tomorrow.
And remember: when you're doing this, you're making a great investment of your energy. Knowing how to convey an authoritative presence helps in all kinds of life domains, not just the classroom. And, once you develop the habit, it tends to be something you need to think very little about.
Best to you, colleague,
*Lynsay is the rockstar lead author of the Classroom Management Course.**
**Dave sometimes travels to schools to help kick off year-long studies of the Classroom Management Course. You can inquire about this service here.
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