Sunday, August 22, 2021

Presence – the sign of a teacher


[Man with serious look*]

As part of the tenured staff of the English department at the Braude College of Engineering in Karmiel, Israel for almost 30 years, I have observed scores of lessons given by prospective teachers as part of the selection process of new teachers. The nature and quality of the lessons have varied as has the background of the candidates. I can say that my main criteria for recommendation are pedagogical order and, much more importantly, teacher presence.

Clearly, experienced teachers are expected to know how to organize a lesson in accordance with the goals of the lesson and levels of the students. Most prospective teachers focus on a text or specific words from it and demonstrate how they would teach them. In many cases, their teaching technique hits all the bases and demonstrates great creativity. If they can do this, they have shown that they are pedagogically knowledgeable.

However, I personally do not find this skill decisive in its own right. First, as physicists know, the presence of an observer distorts the results. The vast majority of teachers, knowing in advance that they will be observed, can prepare an organized lesson to one degree or another. As a result, the demonstration lesson is less than a perfect representation of the teacher’s ability. Secondly, in our case, the material presented is more often than not irrelevant to our needs. Specifically, while most English departments in Israel primarily still teach reading comprehension and vocabulary to a heterogenous population of students, whether at the high school or college level, our college applies the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference, don’t ask) guidelines for English skills involving four skills (reading, writing, speaking and listening), which is famous for nomenclature for English proficiency level from A1 (absolute beginner) to C2 (almost native). In other words, we actually do not spend much time on reading texts and teaching vocabulary because our students generally do not require much reinforcement in those areas as compared to the other skills. Moreover, our students are all engineering students, which means that that they are successful, intelligent students, albeit often with substandard language skills, i.e., not a heterogenous population. Finally, the theory and reality of pedagogy clash in the real (or zoom) classroom. Specifically, we have 13 weeks, 52 hours, to get the students to a B1 or B2 level in all four skills from an A2 level at most. It strictly limits the time spent on any single activity and, consequently, the time available for any specific teaching sequence. Therefore, however technically proficient a teacher may be, it may be not enough.

The factor that determines my assessment is the elusive “teacher presence”. I would define it as the feeling created that the teacher is in control of the material, the lesson and the learning situation. In other words, there is no vacuum in the classroom. It does not mean shutting the students up or discouraging creativity but the sense that the teacher has identified and is striving to reach a worthy goal. There is no single style or form to this presence. Effective teachers can be male or female, petite or physically imposing, native or immigrants, frontal lecturers or facilitators, or controlling or free flowing. The key is that the educator creates an environment of clarity and security.

The challenge for assessing is not determining its existence but whether the type of presence is appropriate for the specific student audience. To explain, any student knows which teachers are “serious” and which can be manipulated. The difficulty in evaluating prospective teachers is deciding whether the specific style is appropriate to our student population. For example, highly effective elementary school teachers often cannot teach adults not only because of the difference in age but also in specific knowledge and experience of the students. Furthermore, in Israel, students come from widely varying cultures, from ultra-orthodox and Arab to democratic and home teaching. Consequently, their attitude to authority and self-expression as well as skills and knowledge background may vary significantly. An approach that is successful for one group may not work for another group. Finally, as the students are Israeli adults ranging from the ages of 18 to 30, while teachers may start the course with respect, they must earn it afterwards. Thus, a specific form of teacher presence may seem inappropriate for teaching adult engineering students.

At the end of each teacher interview, the coordinator asks for our opinion. Initially, there is a discussion of the teaching method applied. However, to twist the words from one of Cher’s songs, for me it is all in his (or her) presence.

* Captions are an important tool for Internet access for the blind. Picture credit: Image by <a href=";utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=1283235">Pexels</a> from <a href=";utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=1283235">Pixabay</a>

No comments:

Post a Comment