Gravitate towards Gravitas
Most new teachers know the horrible sinking feeling that comes with being ignored by students. And while there could be a number of causes, I found that the source of my problem lay in my lack of what the Ancients called ‘gravitas’, meaning a speaker’s perceived weight or seriousness (think of David Attenborough in any of his nature documentaries – knowledgeable, passionate and calm).
We’ve all met memorable and interesting people who have gravitas and while they appear to have accrued this charm naturally, the good news is that gravitas is a learnable trait, some parts of which you might already excel at.
Caroline Goyder in her book Gravitas: Communicate with Confidence, Influence and Authority sums it up with The Gravitas Equation:
(Knowledge + Purpose + Passion) – Anxiety = Gravitas
Knowing your stuff
I can recall teaching too many lessons where I simply did not know the topic well enough. I was clearly not the expert in the room so why on earth did I expect the students to listen? These days, whenever I demonstrate that I know something the students don’t and am then able to explain it clearly to them, they listen. Invest your time in knowing inside out what you intend to teach and how to deliver it in a clear and compelling manner. A teacher who knows their subject well:
- stands still with both feet pressed into the ground
- expresses clear thoughts in a logical and well-paced manner
- uses vocabulary that is their own (they know what it means and how to pronounce it correctly)
What matters to you? Whether it’s a love for the subject, the quality of your students’ work or simply a respect for the school’s ethos, show that these are important in your tone of voice and in your eyes. You could:
- make eye contact with individual students as you give instructions or explain concepts, rather than broadcasting to the class as a homogenous mass.
- speak in a positive, playful voice most of the time. Keep it light and encouraging. Relax and smile to impart a positive tone.
- show students’ kindness, compassion and empathy to form a trusting bond that is more likely to move them to action as opposed to simple ‘do as I say’ authority.
Being your passionate self
Your students will figure out if you’re trying to be someone you’re not, so don’t put on a flashy performance or speak in an obviously scripted way as it will give the impression you don’t appear to care about what you’re teaching.
If you truly care you will engage them when you talk about your subject. But if you don’t care, it will scream a lack of confidence and you’ll lack authority. Besides, putting on a façade will make you tense and nervous. Not only is this unpleasant for yourself, the students will feel this tension too. Remember: what you feel, they feel. If you’re tense and holding your breath, so will they.
In order to engage hearts as well as minds you’ll need to be yourself and not someone dryly reading from a Powerpoint slide. Your lesson materials are not the lesson itself. They are there to enhance what you’re teaching, but the students leaving the lesson should think ‘great lesson’. They should not be thinking ‘great resources’.
The students have turned up to see you so don’t pretend. You are enough, flaws and all. Besides, perfection is dull so stop trying to appear so. And when you’re not worrying so much about yourself, you’ll have a greater capacity to help them. And isn’t that why we’re there in the first place?
Letting go of anxiety
Nerves and feelings of self-consciousness stem from a fear of not measuring-up or fitting-in. As a new teacher, we obsess about what we’re not, rather than what we are.
Concentrate on how you are already valuable, not on how you can strive to become so. You need to be able to manage yourself before you can manage a classroom.
Being able to stay calm and confident under pressure will give you gravitas as you won’t feel tempted to get drawn into arguments. You’ll be calm and aware of yourself and others and able to bring yourself back to calm quickly in anxious moments, treating students as your equals and showing interest in them. You’ll be able to accept their perspectives even if you don’t agree with them.
While you may not develop David Attenborough’s charm overnight, with the Gravitas equation you can at least get a few more kids looking at you when you speak.
 Goyder, Caroline, Gravitas: Communicate with Confidence, Influence and Authority, Vermilion (6 Mar. 2014)