The Power of Presence

Networking. Connecting. Communicating. Collaborating. Learning.  Close your eyes and create a image in your head for each of these words.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

If you have anything to do with education in 2016, I’m willing to bet that at least three or more of those mental images contained a glowing screen from a computer or mobile device.  It’s okay.  I’m not trying to make you feel guilty or anything.  I love technology.  I depend on it to help me stay connected with amazing educators across the globe.  I regularly check Facebook, Twitter, WeChat, Google Plus, and several others to see what amazing things my teacher friends are doing and what they are learning.  I use these tools to ask and answer questions, share what I’ve learned, and offer encouragement and support.  Most importantly, I use them to maintain relationships.

In my office, I am fortunate to work beside Chris Carter.  Chris is an amazing teacher and tech coach.  Together we produce a weekly podcast in which we both have fun exploring various topics regarding teaching, learning, technology, and life in general. (http://21clradio.com/category/edtech-roundtable/)  If you’ve ever listened to it, you know our one recurring theme: “Learning is all about relationships”.  Students – and teachers – don’t care what you know until they know that you care.  Or put another way,  “You’ve got to take care of Maslow, before you can start working on Bloom.”**

Establishing relationships is first and foremost on our agenda at the start of every school year.  Those eyes are watching are watching us.  They are observing us and testing us.  

“Does this person care about me?”

“Are they all talk and no follow through?”

“Is he/she real or fake?”

“Does he/she know my name?”

Making sure students and teachers feel safe and have a sense of acceptance and belonging – this is vital to the work we do.  Whether we are in the classroom teaching students, or supporting teachers as an instructional coach, establishing and maintaining that relationship is key.

Online tools can be useful in supporting these relationships but they can only do so much. A tweet, a direct message, a Google Hangout; these cannot replace a handshake, a high-five, a hug.  I can’t read your body language in an e-mail, or tell if your eyes betray you on a conference call.  There’s a level of trust, belonging and acceptance that can only be reached face to face.

When I think about the strongest personal and professional relationships I have, they all have one thing in common.  These are people I have met and spent time with face to face. We have shared the same physical space, shared thoughts and ideas, shared coffee and meals. These face to face interactions do more for establishing and strengthening a relationship than what can be achieved electronically.  I feel much more a part of your life, when I know the real face behind the avatar.  When I read your tweets I can hear your voice.  It strips away the anonymity of online communication.

If you’re taking my online class, it’s very easy to not take it seriously if you’ve never met me in person. There’s just a level of accountability and responsibility that’s not present when I’m not present.  

It’s true in coaching as well. Email exchanges can often get emotionally charged – especially when teachers are struggling with technology.  If at all possible, in those situations I find it works so much better to diffuse the situation if I just stop by the room. Being physically present sends the message that I care and that you are important. (Remember Maslow?)  

Consider your interactions with Facebook friends.  Compare the updates and comments you share with those you have seen recently to those “friends” you haven’t seen for one, two, or more years.  If electronic connection is all you have, my experience has taught me those relationships tend to fade and become more distant.

In June I finished my first year as a technology coach in China.  This summer it was important to give my personal and professional learning network connections an energy boost by purposefully making time for face to face connections.  I travelled to the ISTE conference in Denver with just this agenda in mind.  For me, attending ISTE was not about the conference sessions as much as it was about re-connecting personally with colleagues, mentors, and friends.

Seeing those friends in person – even for just a few minutes – strengthened those relationships and added life and energy to our online communication. That energy boost will sustain those relationships for the coming year now that I’m back in China.  

Online presence is important, but for building and establishing relationships, face to face…

  • networking
  • connecting
  • communicating
  • collaborating 
  • and learning

…have a power that cannot be matched – at least until we invent a working holodeck.

 

**By the way, if you happen to know who originally penned the Maslow before Bloom phrase please let me know.  I’d love to give credit where credit is due.

17 thoughts on “The Power of Presence”

  1. 100% agree. I have spent the last three days reconnecting with peers at my school in person. While my room still needs to be organized, it will never truly be “ready”, so the couple of hours each day I spend with people is way more valuable to me than a couple of hours with my bulletin boards! Roll on 2016-17 (bulletin boards or not).

  2. I work at an alternative education/independent study school that is part of the public school system. About 8 years ago, one of the teachers introduced Blackboard (online learning platform) to the school. Since them, our own teachers have created online courses that are tailored to district learning targets and common assessments. However, in transitioning to online learning we became all too aware of the importance of the very thing you discussed in your blog: real-life, personal connections. As we discovered the hard way, students who were only held “accountable” to the computer were more likely to not complete assignments than students who would have to “disappoint” a real life teacher. Indeed, there is a significant correlation between the relationship created between teacher and student and the success of a student in achieving – even online.

    The same teacher who introduced Blackboard eight years ago is now our principal. While she is passionate about the benefits of technology tools and the individualized pace of online learning, she is also adamant that we utilize a Blended Learning approach to education; for without the personal connections made with the teacher, student “buy-in” is clearly diminished.

    Despite the advantages that technology affords education, there is nothing that can replace a good “life coach”!

  3. I completely agree. As a third grade teacher, I know first hand the importance and power of establishing relationships with students. Everyday I get hugs, high-fives, and smiles that show how thirsty kids are for a relationship with their teacher. They need to know that I will listen to them, that I care about their needs, that they are safe, and that I will be honest with them. When I take the time to build a relationship with my students, it makes “tough talks” and discipline issues easier to navigate. I love how there are so many ways to build trusting relationships with 3rd graders. They are so open and just want to be accepted and loved. I send home “Sunshine Notes” that thank them for making my day bright. I praise students for their effort, give them hugs, and cheer them on when work is hard. It can even be as simple as a wink and a smile. I make eye contact with every student daily. Connecting with them early on is like making an investment that will carry us through to the end of the school year. When I take the time to connect with each of my students, they are motivated to learn! I can feel the difference in the classroom.

  4. This blog post definitely resonated with me very strongly. School started about a week ago for me. I am a teacher from the United States spending some time teaching at an English school in Poland. Most teachers at my school are from abroad which makes bonding with each other vital. For many, English isn’t their native language so we all rely on each other for various things. I remember the week before school started, we were all in our classrooms preparing as best we could even though it felt like there was constantly so much still left to be done. There was a point in the day where we all happened to meet in the kitchen around dinner time and we were saying how exhausted we were and then we all decided to go out to dinner together. That dinner with my colleagues is the most significant interaction I have had with them. We had been emailing back and forth ideas but when we came together, the energy was so real.

    We also need to ensure our interactions with our students have the same enriching value. All the students at the school are not native English speakers so their comfort is not as easily reached, in my opinion. A teacher’s physical interaction and effort makes all the difference.

    Thank you for your post. It helped me remember back to not too long ago. It is only two weeks in to school and I think it is important all the teachers get together again and remind each other we are in this together and have a support system.

  5. I could not agree more with “The Power of Presence.” I feel that our students as well as our colleagues need to connect with us in order to really make a personal connection. They need to know that we care about them. One of my favorite quotes is by Jim Henson which says “Kids don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” I teach high school and every year students come back to visit, because they made that personal connection with me, not because of what I taught them. It is rewarding though when a student goes into the field of Biology or Medicine because they enjoyed my class. I do use technology in my class, however, as a science teacher I am not sold on the virtual labs that have become so popular with some teachers. I have had students come into my class from an online class because they did not like doing everything online. As for myself, I am currently enrolled in a Master’s program that is online. Because I teach fulltime, this is certainly beneficial to me as far as continuing my education. However, there is a lot that I miss about that face-to-face instruction, particularly the immediate feedback that you get. There is comfort in getting your questions answered right away but I certainly feel fortunate to have this option. I am looking forward to graduation though when I will have the opportunity to meet my cohorts and my professors face to face.
    Thank you for sharing this wonderful insightful blog.

  6. I read your post and I have wondered how these online schools foster the connection that is needed by most students. I cannot make a connection with every student in my class and I see them five days a week. I have found that you can learn with technology but you still need a presence. I have taken several online courses in some of these I have felt a connection with the professor and others I have not. The connection can be made in online courses (technology) it is just harder to do. The first time that the professor didn’t seem to make a connection it made the course seem longer, harder and lonelier. I couldn’t explain at first way I didn’t get the feel of a connection. I was wondering if it was my issue maybe I was expecting more than I should have. I had to think about this many hours over several weeks. I still do not know if I have it quite figured it out. I think it has to do with how the professor projects personality through the use of technology. If that process is done correctly then you get a connection. The professors who I felt a better connection with projected a “genuine shared experience”. These professors used video and online collaboration to express their caring and helpfulness.

  7. You mentioned that the professors who made a connection used video and online collaboration. If a face to face connection cannot be made, this is the next best thing. It lets you see the professor as a real person and not just a name on an e-mail or discussion post reply. I know Concordia encourages professors to do this. I tried to do the same thing when I was teaching the course you are taking right now. This includes live office hours, Google hangouts, etc. The live component helps. It still does not replace being there in person, but it definitely helps.
    How is your professor doing with the connection for this course? (They are obviously still using the links and blogs I added when I taught the course.)
    Of course you can also be in a class with a real live professor and still not have a connection. We’ve all been there. (Bueller? Bueller? Anyone?) It’s a crime. Hopefully that is the exception to the rule.

  8. Alexandra – Glad to see you the ideas in this post resonated with you. Keep building those relationships and working together. Collaboration is so much better than competition.

  9. Love the “Sunshine notes” idea. There’s probably a way to do something similar with older students in a “digital” way too. Remember students are great at detecting when your actions do not match your words. They also will notice and remember things you may not even realize you are doing. Check out this story from a friend and fellow teacher. “The Water Bottle Story” https://youtu.be/KTwc-9lxDQE

  10. Wow, what a great video. Thanks for sharing “The Water Bottle Story.” It’s so true! I think about that every day in the classroom. Talk about the “unplanned curriculum.”

  11. I absolutely agree that “The Power of Presence” is a very powerful and necessary tool for teachers to build that connection with students and create a classroom environment that is safe and conducive to learning. I work at a middle school teaching eighth graders whose emotions can vary day to day and their emotional development is at a challenging age. That is why I stand at the door and greet all my students everyday giving them fist pumps or high fives with the occasional personalize handshakes. But I do identify those frowns and tired eyes and stop to ask how they are doing. I think it goes a long way to build trust and presence with the students especially those that needs to see a welcoming face each day because of their situations at out of school or at home.

    I think the power of presence always goes the other way with students. Recognizing when they are not present. I make sure to jot down names of students who are absent each day and recognize them the next. Many of them are glad that I remember and tell me that many other teachers never ask why they were absent or if everything is okay. I think recognizing students’ presence is just as important.

  12. I would like to echo the importance of building a relationship with colleagues. Having built a personal relationship with my colleagues has solidified my role in the department, made me feel more supported, and helped me to enjoy my job more. When I started teaching, I expected to be friendly and collaborate with others in my department, but I didn’t expect to gain life-long friends, which has been a great benefit. I have spoken to a few personal friends that are teachers in other districts, and they have told me that they have worked at a few schools where teachers didn’t really talk to each other or become friends, and it was harder for them to work or stay at those schools.

    Additionally, you mentioned the role of an academic coach. I have become friends with the academic coach for my department and it has changed our dynamic in a positive way. At the high school where I teach, the coaches are required to observe teachers on a daily basis. Many teachers (including me) have felt like they were being judged in the past, but our new coach has created a non-threatening atmosphere. Because of this, when she comes in for observations I feel at ease and comfortable that she is there just to help me better my teaching. This is why relationship building is so important.

  13. After reading this post I feel energized to know that as a much as technology is something we all have to attempt to embrace in the world of education, nothing beats face to face interaction. It really got me thinking how as a teacher I would struggle if I could not directly communicate with my students. We are not robots and need to be nurtured when we are unsure or hesitant to a challenge. I look forward every year to building relationships with students that show I care beyond the grade or attendance they have on record. Every class I teach is directly linked to technology as each of my students has an iMac computer to learn how to use design software, but sometimes I break from the norm and turn off the computers to gain knowledge and understanding through face to face interactions.
    I too am teaching an online class but am in my first year so am still getting used to the concept as teacher rather than student. As the teacher I find such a disconnect not on my end but from my high school students as they are so introvert as it is. The only saving graces are that I get to meet them at the very beginning of the year face to face and I have numerous students at my school site that come and see me in my classroom to clarify they are moving in the right direction.
    Then there is the side of my job as teacher where I get to collaborate with other teachers with similar subject matter. We could all just communicate through email, share lesson plans and continue to stay buried on our own classrooms but but I feel as I do not surround myself that way with like minded teachers that can provide support and assistance. I just met yesterday at my districts Spring in-service with everyone in our district. I presented to all the teachers the use of EdTech Tools to engage students and got to catch up with teachers I hadn’t seen since the beginning of the year. I met with new teachers that had just joined our district and was able to offer small tips, suggestions etc. that otherwise would never have the chance to do over email or through technology. I sometimes feel as though in many ways this is how we are technology coaches to each other without even knowing. Thanks for helping me reflect on the importance of close professional relationships and how we can be strong in numbers.

  14. This post resonate with me in so many ways that I couldn’t have said it better. In connection with Maslow’s need, learning is more effective when students feel safe and welcome in the classroom. They know that the teacher genuinely care and is not always on the offense to quickly discipline them. When they are able to connect and build a healthy relationship with their teachers, they are more willing to complete an assignment. I always attempt to engage in casual conversations that are unrelated to my subject to build human relationship. Often times, students are afraid that they will be punish and become embarrass if they give out the wrong answer in front of the whole classroom. However, I created a classroom climate where we embrace mistakes and that wrong answers often lead to the right answers. Thank you for sharing!

  15. I would agree with you on the power of building relationships. It is my primary focus at the start of the school year, and something I am always working on throughout the rest of the year. In my area, students can be very distrustful of anyone who is an “outsider.” Your statement of “There’s a level of trust, belonging and acceptance that can only be reached face to face.” really resonated with me, especially when the majority of my students’ work is now digital. By doing things like greeting my students at the door every period, making sure they get audible praise straight from me (instead of my impersonal feedback on a Google Document), and by being available to all students any time of the day, just to talk about what’s going on in their lives, I build a bond of trust and respect that you can’t make online. I liked the observations about Facebook posts. I think a lot of my students have gotten used to just hitting “Like,” or leaving an abbreviated message on their friends’ profiles, and it shows in how they relate to people. They are losing the art of conversation, and I try to slow this deterioration by engaging them in topics that are meaningful to them in their everyday lives. That sense of “belonging” that you mentioned is something that we struggle with everyday in classes, but if you are willing to put in the time to build relationships with students early on, discipline issues will decrease, and their willingness to “risk” a wrong answer or volunteer information will go up exponentially, because they feel secure in the environment you have built. Great post, lots of things we take for granted as teachers, and as human beings.

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