Teacher presence: why and how to be visible in remote and blended learning

Every teacher knows that teaching is a social process and the relationship between a learner and their teacher supports their learning. The connection we make with our students is vital but how do we develop and nurture that connection when teaching online?

Teacher presence – making ourselves ‘visible’ and present in children’s learning – can be harder online but it’s no less important when mediated by a screen. Primary-aged children love seeing their teacher and other adults in their school but students of all ages need to know that they can have a conversation with you, that there is someone ‘there’. As a teacher you need a sense of your learners’ presence, too – teacher  Sarah Ledger writes powerfully of the feeling of ‘teaching into the abyss’ during a remote lesson in which cameras and mics are turned off. 

Anecdotal evidence of the power of teacher presence is backed up with research. Canadian academics Garrison and Anderson, in particular, have explored this concept and suggested ways that teachers can help learners become aware of their presence when teaching remotely. The recent EDT report, What does the research suggest is best practice in pedagogy for remote teaching? points to their work and some of the ways in which teachers can use dialogue to help:

“Aspects of social interaction which can be taken for granted in face-to-face teaching situations need to be explicitly built into the design of remote teaching approaches in a highly intentional way for them to be effective...They have promoted the concept of ‘teaching presence’: the level of engagement and visibility of the teacher in the academic life of the remote student. The concept of teaching presence proved highly influential in higher education discourse about remote teaching. Advocates of the importance of teaching presence believe that the remote teacher starts at a disadvantage in terms of social interaction and must therefore strive deliberately to remedy this, making students aware of their teaching presence in many different forms of dialogue with remote students: instructing, guiding, questioning, listening, assessing, advising, admonishing, and reassuring as appropriate. To succeed, students must have a strong sense of the teacher’s virtual presence. A well-designed sequence of remote learning will involve frequent, diverse opportunities for the teacher to demonstrate that presence to students.”

Live lessons and teacher presence

But how does this play out in practice online? Do lessons have to be live and synchronous for teacher presence to be felt? We would argue an emphatic no. 

Since we first moved to remote learning at the beginning of the pandemic much has been said about the value of live synchronous teaching versus asynchronous pre-recorded, video or audio/text/commenting. Most notably, the education secretary’s comment that live lessons are the ‘best’ form of teaching in the current lockdown was swiftly contradicted by Ofsted’s research head, Professor Daniel Muijs, who said it was an “unhelpful myth” and offered seven key guidelines in response.

Live teaching may seem like it lends itself best to establishing teacher presence and having live conversations but we can encourage teacher presence when we are teaching asynchronously and setting assignments in other ways.Popular teacher blogger and head of geography Mark Enser had this to say, arguing that  “live lessons aren’t always best”:

“Personally, I have found that I think much more about live interactions, used to keep in touch with pupils, motivate them and give them feedback on how they are doing, and pre-recorded lessons, in which they are introduced to new material and complete tasks. I know other people though have had a great deal of success hosting their lessons live and have had far more interaction from pupils in their classes. As is so often the case, it seems to come down to having a clear purpose. What are we trying to achieve here and what is the best way to do this? The form should follow the function. If a live session allows you to do something more effectively and/or efficiently, then that is great, likewise for a pre-recorded one. They may both have their place but it is too context dependent for sweeping statements about the superiority of one approach. Leave it to the experts. And as far as anyone is an expert in doing this, that’s us.

We’ve all learnt a lot since last spring and early summer, confidence has risen and teachers’ remote teaching has become more sophisticated and nuanced, as Ofsted’s recent research report into remote education since March 2020 attests. Live teaching is now finding its place in primary schools with teachers valuing it for check ins, virtual circle time, story time and explanations, but it all needs to be balanced against questions of access to the devices and connectivity needed for live teaching and the family life contexts in pupils homes.

Added to which, Zoom fatigue is real.  Last May we published a blog post in which former CLC colleague Tim Goundry described how his school in Thailand reduced live teaching and added more variety after initial wall to wall live classes. He noted,

“As a result of screen fatigue and the results of our weekly wellbeing survey, which showed that students disliked all the screen time and were feeling increasingly anxious, we responded by changing the model... I generally use a blended ‘semi-synchronous’ model whereby I check in via Zoom for 10-15 min at the start and end of each 80-minute lesson, while the rest of the time the students will be off Zoom, completing a task of some kind. I stay on Zoom if any of the students have a question, but I don’t have to stay glued to the screen (the chime function is handy here). This approach is a relief for teachers, too, because a three or four period day stuck to the screen is incredibly tiring.”

Tips

So, how can teachers find a balance between being visible without necessarily being constantly and synchronously live online?  

A key element is student-teacher dialogue and Mark Martin’s got some great tips in this week’s video:

As we set out in last week’s video and blog post on dialogue, there are many different communication pathways and they don’t have to involve video. Emojis can work and sound-only is also an option. Telephone calls are being used effectively by many schools to check in with students and families

Even as early as March last year we were seeing examples of teachers and school leaders using really creative ways to stay connected and visible with pupils and parents. 

We’ve seen an example of a year 6 teacher producing how to guides embedded on a class website (to accompany their Google Classroom) with screenshots that include very specific details, such as the teacher’s name, and all files accompanied by video explanation in familiar teacher style. When setting tasks, instructions incorporate warm references to the class-specific context, such as displays done previously. This is alongside providing materials that can be reviewed many times if need be and offering reassuring reminders that pupils can email within the school G-suite setup, and useful information for parents.

Reay Primary uses Twitter for communication between children/parents and teachers while other schools use YouTube to explain daily tasks and provide feedback on tasks completed. We’ve also seen an example of a teacher using Loom video (which is easy to email to families) to teach phonics. 

Crown Lane reception teachers are using Padlet walls to share prompt questions which children can answer either on paper or as a comment, perhaps with the assistance of a parent. A teacher explains why it makes a difference to children when they can see your face – connections are enhanced when they can hear your voice and see your expressions, and describes how she uses video or gives screencasts with Loom or Flipgrid. 

Pre-recorded videos

Another great idea from Reay’s Lucy Coates demonstrates how teachers can use video to communicate aspects of learning that are harder to achieve without a teacher’s direct instruction. Lucy has been using a teddy bear puppet called Chocolate Chocolate Button to keep the children up to date with their phonics activities. Providing this kind of regular, personal input is a lovely way to help children feel connected with their teacher as well as helping to maintain a sense of routine in these unusual circumstances. The Ofsted research report also notes that “phonics in particular seemed to translate well to a digital medium”.

Interestingly, the curriculum manager at Oak National Academy told us that primary-aged children interact and show the teacher what they are doing even if it’s not live. She also noted that Oak teachers are encouraged to be ‘super Blue Peter’, enthusiastic and energetic, especially in the first five minutes of the lesson.


There’s an interesting perspective from US teacher of Latin Alex Pearson on the Edutopia blog. He says, “Your students want to see your eyes, hear your voice, watch what your hands are doing, and know your heart” and he shows how he’s used scrap wood to create a DIY stand for his phone so students can track his hand writing.

Other teachers have described how they’ve used visualisers for live and pre recorded lessons. We find that iPevo works very well for this.

Safeguarding

Of course, safeguarding considerations must be paramount. SWGfL has a very useful blog post, written by one of its online safety helpline practitioners, laying out some of the key points that must be considered, including ‘cameras on/off’ and ‘record – or not’. In addition, safeguarding expert Andrew Hall has a risk assessment on live streaming and a great collection of notes covering a wide range of safeguarding considerations.

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