How to increase student engagement remotely

Laura Morgan

Laura Morgan is an Assistant Head and English Teacher overseeing teaching and learning at an outstanding secondary school in East London. Her interests are in Educational Psychology, evidence-based practice in schools and leadership training and development.

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Google ‘teacher presence’ and you are welcomed by a sea of abstract and nebulous terms: ‘that special something,’ ‘the wow factor,’ ‘a certain vibe,’ ‘a personality that exudes confidence,’ ‘that special je ne sais quoi,’....

Really helpful if you are an NQT looking to improve your teacher presence or a senior leader about to deliver training on this. How can we seek to improve when the very definition is driven by innate personality traits? We know it matters. We know that having a strong teacher presence leads to better student engagement and behaviour, so what actually is it and what tangible things can we do to improve? Yes, I admit that you find some teachers have more ‘naturally innate’ strong teacher presence. However as both a Psychology graduate and an Assistant Head who has mentored dozens of teachers on this, I believe it is definitely an area of teaching we can all improve on. I like to view it as the following:

Effective communication strategies (verbal and non-verbal) + relationships= strong teacher presence. 

When you think back to a memorable lesson or time in your life, what stands out? Is it the words that were said to you or the way they were said?  As Maya Angelou famously said ‘people will forget what you said but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ It is the HOW that will capture not just the minds but souls of a class of young students, keeping them gripped to your every word. This is strong teacher presence. 

Research states that non-verbal communication (tone, facial expressions, gestures, movement, eye contact, proximity) carries a lot more weight to the overall message and how that message is perceived. People are more likely to listen, find your message credible and remember it by how it is delivered rather than the WHAT-  the words used. The bad news? We as teachers probably do not deliberately practice this enough. The good news? We can all improve our non-verbal communication and therefore improve our teacher presence.

Top 4 non-verbal communication tips:

    1. Tone - explain with passion and students will be immediately hooked.
    2. Eye contact and facial expressions - exercise your authority with the ‘teacher stare’ to stop off task behaviour and give a subtle smile/nod to those doing it right.
    3. Hand gestures and body movement - when modelling show them how by using your physicality. Need to explain the impacts of adverbs? Show them by walking around the room ‘slowly’ vs ‘rapidly’ vs ‘cautiously.’ 
    4. Proximity and movement - a powerful teacher stance is key for exerting authority and expertise but don’t just stick to the front. Own your space and continue to manage behaviour for learning via non-verbal cues as you circulate the room. 

Effective communication strategies (verbal and non-verbal) + relationships = strong teacher presence.

Building positive relationships with your students: being genuinely interested in their lives outside of school and being interested in them as human beings is key to teacher presence. If they not only see the value in what they are learning but feel valued, then they are more likely to be engaged. 

 

Research from evidence based teaching identifies that teachers who forge high-performance relationships, showing care for their students while simultaneously pressing them to excel, secure better results. These teachers provide their students with strong guidance (both academically and behaviourally), whilst also nurturing personal responsibility and self-regulation. People are influenced by the expectations built upon them so your belief and actions will have a direct impact on students engagement, learning experience and outcomes. 

Knowing the importance of non-verbal communication (and communication in general) has made me reflect on the consequences that the lack of human interaction has in this current climate we face. How do we maintain teacher presence and relationships without our classrooms?

I have been in awe of the resilience, adaptability, kindness, innovation, creativity - the list goes on-  of teachers in my school since we started our online teaching journey. They have proven to me that amongst chaos there is opportunity. Opportunity to adapt, learn, create and grow. I am learning something new every day as we navigate this new ‘normal’ of teaching online. Here is what I have learnt about maintaining teacher presence online for student engagement:

 

  • Your voice is as powerful as ever- you can still ignite passion for your subject in your explanations with your tone and stories you tell, your encouraging messages and kind words still inspire online and your words still have the power to help students learn and grow. 
  • Smiles and praise matter more than ever- an acknowledgment of a good response in a live lesson, a welcoming video message with humour, class shout outs to students who have been engaging online with their learning/submitting work. The physical act of smiling increases dopamine and makes people feel happier. Smiling is a super power. 
  • Plan activities/projects that involve collaboration- during live online lessons plan for activities that involve students working together to solve a problem/annotate and read a text together/brainstorm ideas together to keep connection alive without the physical presence. Collaboration creates that classroom ‘buzz’ online. 
  • Visuals online - you can create your own virtual classrooms with your choice of images / GIFs/ bitmoji’s that showcase your personality and the vital relationships you have built. 

 

In fact, you can literally create your own virtual bitmoji classrooms. See here: https://www.weareteachers.com/virtual-bitmoji-classroom/

Amy Cuddy, social psychologist, says in her book ‘Presence’ that, by tweaking our body language we change our behaviour which causes chemical changes to our mindset and subsequent behaviour. So instead of ‘faking it until we make it’, in the online teaching world we can ‘fake it until we become it.’ 

So, next time you teach online, sit up tall, look directly into the camera, project your voice passionately and confidently and smile knowing that from behind your computer screen your presence is still strong; you are still teaching; you are still changing lives. 

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